Amidst the stream of news reports on the severe drought across India, here is one that didn’t make it to primetime.
It’s the story of Yogita Ashok Desai from Maharashtra’s Beed district who died of a heat stroke. The 12-year-old was dehydrated and collapsed after her fifth trip to the village hand-pump to fetch water. Just last month, a 10-year-old girl from Pimpalgaon village, also in Beed district, died after she fell into a well while trying to draw water.Both girls had been pulled out of school to help their families cope with the severe water scarcity.
The reasons for the worsening drought are many; many of them manmade like the indiscriminate digging of borewells and the cultivation of water guzzling crops. Decisions that women had little to do with. excluded as they are from choices relating to irrigation systems or what crops to grow. However, they are facing the worst impact.
A recent World Bank report, Shock Waves – Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty, highlights how ending poverty and addressing climate change is key to achieving sustainable global development. Addressing climate change is critical as it directly impacts availability of food and heightens health risks.
Most vulnerable are the poor and marginalized, and within that group, women and children. There are various studies that show that women, especially in developing countries like India, suffer the impacts of natural disasters and climate change more due to cultural norms.
In rural areas, women rarely work and are economically dependent on their husbands for survival. Faced with a severe drought, men have the resources and the independence to find ways to adapt. Women are denied those options.
Faced with a shortage of food, women place their husbands’ and sons’ needs above theirs or their daughters’, making them vulnerable to diseases.
Faced with income or food crunch, girls’ get hit the hardest. They get pulled out of school and are expected to help with the household chores. Their nutrition and health gets neglected. Climate change also affects availability of water. Women and girls’ are expected to fetch water for the family, often traveling long distances to do so.
As Rachel Yavinsky points out in her 2012 study, their secondary role and lack of decision-making power severely limits women’s ability to adapt to climate change.
“Without participation by women, programs to replace traditional crops with those better suited to the changing environment might focus only on the needs of men’s fields and not address the problems women face with household gardens’, says Yavinsky.
She points to various studies that demonstrate how women can be effective agents of adapting to climate change if equipped with information and power. In Bangladesh, for instance, women farmers switched to raising ducks because they kept losing their chickens to frequent floods.
Empowering women, especially rural women, is necessary to address climate change effectively. Climate change will affect all os us, most of all women, and unless we empower them, building a sustainable future will remain a distant dream.