Women’s Health Is Particularly Hit Hard by Climate Change. Activists Urge Leaders to Discuss It at COP28

Activists are pressing governments to address the disproportionate effects of climate change on women and girls as the annual United Nations-led climate meeting, known as COP, prepares to take place in Dubai later this month.

NEW DELHI (AP) — Manju Devi endured agony for two months last year while working on a farm outside of Delhi. She was unable to take time off from her responsibilities, which occasionally required her to stand for hours in waist-deep water in a rice field, lift large loads in sweltering heat, and apply pesticides and insecticides. She was taken to a hospital immediately once the agony grew intolerable.

“I suffered from terrible agony for several months and was afraid to talk about it in public. Surrounded by women who had their own experiences of going through a similar agony, she remarked, “It shouldn’t take a surgical procedure to make us realize the cost of increasing heat.”

Actors are calling on lawmakers to address the disproportionate effects of climate change on women and girls, particularly in areas where poverty increases their vulnerability, as the COP, the annual climate conference organized by the United Nations, prepares to take place in Dubai later this month.

They advocate for women’s cooperatives, the protection of women’s land rights, and the empowerment of women to take the lead in formulating climate policy. Additionally, they recommend that nations, particularly developing nations like India, allocate more funds in their budgets to guarantee gender parity in climate policy.

The issue was acknowledged by a group of 20 leaders who gathered in New Delhi in September. They called for stepping up climate action with a focus on gender equality and enhancing the involvement and leadership of women in mitigation and adaptation.

Devi works as a farm laborer in Syaraul, a 7,000-person town located two hours southeast of Delhi in Uttar Pradesh, the largest and most populated state in India. Many of the village’s elderly and middle-aged women spoke of similar traumas that required hysterectomies.

Climate change and conditions such as uterine prolapse have an indirect but important relationship, according to Seema Bhaskaran, a gender problem researcher at the charity Transform Rural India Foundation.

Climate change-related challenges like erratic weather and increased labor needs make physically demanding agricultural work even more taxing for women in rural, climate-affected communities, according to Bhaskaran. “While climate change does not directly cause uterine prolapse, it magnifies the underlying health challenges and conditions that make women more susceptible to such health issues,” Bhaskaran said.

Savita Singh, a 62-year-old agricultural worker in Nanu village, around 150 kilometers (93 miles) distant, attributes her finger loss in August 2022 to a chemical illness she contracted due to climate change.

She was left to take care of the couple’s fields by herself after her husband relocated to Delhi to work as a plumber. With climatic patterns changing and pest infestations increasing, Singh’s husband, who still had decision-making authority, decided to apply more insecticides and pesticides as rice and wheat harvests declined. Singh, who had objected to the raises, was the one who had to administer the drugs.

“We have started using more than three times as much fertilizer and pesticides in our farms due to the increase in pest attacks, and without any safety gear, my hand got burned by the chemicals and one of my fingers had to be amputated,” the woman stated.

Babita Kumari, a 22-year-old wage worker in Pilakhana, another hamlet in Uttar Pradesh, experienced stillbirths in 2021 and this year, which she credits to the hard lifting she had to perform every day while working long hours in a brick kiln in extreme heat. According to a research by Climate Central, an independent U.S.-based organization of scientists that created a technique to measure climate change’s role to altering daily temperatures, the likelihood of the heat wave that hit the state this year was at least doubled.

“Even though my mother and her mother had worked in brick kilns for more than eight hours a day, their mothers had never experienced heat like this. However, for the past six and a half years, the situation has become worse and the heat is intolerable, but there is nothing we can do except put up with it,” said Kumari, who lives with her spouse in a temporary camp.

According to Bhaskaran, women in India are particularly sensitive to the immediate consequences of climate change since they frequently take on key tasks in agriculture while males relocate to urban regions. According to a federal labor force study conducted in 2021–2022, women make up 75% of those employed in agriculture. However, about 14% of agricultural land is owned by women, according to a government agriculture census.

Bhaskaran interprets this as a picture of women putting their health at risk via extended workdays in sweltering heat, pesticide and insecticide exposure, and unpredictable access to clean water. Furthermore, she said that many people suffer from undernourishment as a result of “often eating last and least within patriarchal structures.”

Women’s rights activist Poonam Muttreja, who also serves as the director of the Population Foundation of India, a non-governmental organization that addresses reproductive health, gender equality, family planning, and population, stated that meaningful action to support women must be taken at COP28, the meeting in Dubai.

She stated that in addition to offering financial support, COP28 ought to actively encourage and assist the inclusion of gender concerns in all programs, policies, and activities pertaining to climate change.

In order to raise public awareness, it is imperative that awareness campaigns highlight the unique health risks that women suffer as a result of climate change. These initiatives will also function as a wake-up call for communities, institutions, and governments to put women’s health and wellbeing at the forefront of their climate initiatives, she continued.

Anjal Prakash, a professor and the head of research at the Indian School of Business’s Bharat Institute of Public Policy, led a working group that looked at gender issues in preparation for a recent report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He claimed that because of political obstacles and conservative beliefs, some nations may silently resist gender-sensitive climate measures. This would require worldwide pressure to change.

It will also be quite difficult to find money, he said.

According to Shweta Narayan, an environmental justice activist and researcher at Health Care Without Harm, the elderly, young people, and women are the groups most susceptible to catastrophic climatic disasters. Because COP28 had a dedicated Health Day, she saw reasons for optimism.

There is “no doubt a very clear recognition that climate has an impact on health and that health needs to be taken more seriously,” the speaker stated.

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