Time for India to study the impact of climate change on violence against women

By Dr. Amit Anand and Ms. Akanksha Madaan

Women, particularly from poor and marginalised communities are at a greater risk of experiencing the adverse effects of climate change. Women, especially the ones stricken by poverty and subjected to social discrimination based on their race, caste, ethnicity etc. face the risk of varied forms of gender-based violence.

Despite some progress in identifying the interlinks between gender-based violence and climate change, there still remains scarcity of information and limited understanding on how climate change, environmental degradation, and related displacement exacerbates gender-based violence against women.

Climate change and its impact is rarely discussed within the larger framework of violence against women. Despite being an international concern, climate change is yet to be seen as a contributing factor in aggravating gender-based violence, especially in the global south.

Though entire populations around the globe are likely to be affected by climate change, it is feared that women, specifically ones from marginalised sections of developing countries, will be most vulnerable, and bear the most crippling effects of climate change,  mainly because of existing gender inequalities.

It is important to note that climate change escalates domestic and sexual violence among women and girls. This forms an acute issue when families due to climate calamities are displaced and forced to live in camps or any other place that lacks privacy.

Women and girls face high level of sexual violence during sleep, washing, bathing, and dressing in emergency shelters, tents, or camps. These women and girls have fewer resources and lesser access to law, policy, and decision-making processes in the wake of climate change induced disasters, displacements, and conflicts.

Amidst rapid industrialisation, urbanisation, and a growing population, India is already experiencing extreme weather events due to one degree Celsius rise in global temperature. 

Even though evident risks of climate change to women of the poor and marginalised communities exists, most debates around climate change merely revolve around India’s relative obligation in restricting the emission of ozone-depleting gases and financing endeavours to shift to low carbon energy and other green technology systems.

This piece highlights the key issues and challenges faced by women and girls of the marginalised sections in relation to climate change induced gender-based violence, in addition to existing socio cultural inequalities. Later, it also suggests some practical measures to address this critical issue.

Issues and challenges affecting women’s vulnerability and climate change in India

The discussions on climate change so far have failed to recognise the complexities of structured gendered vulnerabilities. It is believed that climate change has differential impacts on gender. Women are found more vulnerable to climate change because of numerous factors that result in socio-economic inequality based on gender, caste, class, ethnicity, age, and disability.

Current research has shown how climate change can aggravate the vulnerability of women to the absolute extremes. For instance, a study on the impact of frequent floods on women in Bihar has revealed an increase in violence against women and girls during floods in the region. 

One of the experience highlighted in this story by Scroll is of ‘Hema Devi (name changed), a teenage victim of gender based violence during floods in the Araria district of Bihar.

When the flood submerged Hema’s village, she and her mother were forced to live in a makeshift tent along the national highway which became an annual occurrence. In February 2018, just a few months after the floods, a man approached Hema’s mother offering to pay INR 5,000 to let him marry her daughter. “My mother thought he was a good man and was based in Araria so they would be close after the marriage”, said Hema while speaking to scroll.  However, he moved with Hema to the city of Chandigarh, where he physically abused her. She endured this abuse for six months before escaping to Araria. 

Hema being exposed to the threat of sexual violence following flooding is not uncommon, nor limited to only Bihar.

Further, extreme weather events such as droughts have also led to increase in the practice of existing social evils such as the practice of dowry and child marriage causing unimaginable physical, sexual and psychological harm to women and girls.  When families struggle to meet basic needs, marrying off young daughters is seen as a means to lighten financial burdens.

The dowry system continues to be practised in India despite being made an offence under the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961. As per the National Crime Records Bureau 2019 report, a woman becomes a victim of dowry death roughly every hour in India. Due to financial risk, combined with the loss of livelihoods and food security during floods and other disasters, families choose to marry young girls to far off places on the condition of waiver of arranging for large dowry.

Similarly, child marriage is not only a violation of children’s rights – it also has ripple effects at every stage of their lives. It prevents them from getting an education, reinforces social isolation, affects their reproductive and mental health, and exposes them to higher risk of exploitation, sexual violence, and domestic abuse – all factors which reduce their well-being and resilience.

Another problem which is often overlooked is the issue of sexual harassment and violence in temporary shelters and camps. Between 2010 to 2019, more than half a million houses were damaged in Bihar due to floods. As a result, residents were moved to shelters or temporary camps that were set up along highways and railway tracks. In these camps, where tents were close to each other, young girls and women (including those belonging to the lower castes) were frequently subjected to harassment and violence.

How to combat gender-based violence against women and girls in the context of climate change? Here are some recommendations:

A. Extensive research needs to be undertaken that draws a direct causal link among multiple factors that exacerbate gender-based violence against women and girls (mostly through existing social evils such as dowry system and child marriage) in relation to climate change.

Research will help shed light on how gender intersects with other forms of marginalisation such as caste. For instance, in India, caste plays an important role in maintaining power relations in society, and there is an urgent need to assess how climate-related disasters are putting women belonging to the lower castes at significant risk.

For this purpose, gender-based violence indicators and data, such as from the Sustainable Development Goals framework can be employed to inform environmental policymaking, programming, and action.

B. Government policies on climate change need to understand the various triggers that result in gender-based violence associated with climate change. For instance, India’s key climate document the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) 2008 mentions the term ‘gender’ only once.

A comprehensive understanding of how women’s vulnerabilities are accelerated due to climate change is foundational to formulating any risk reduction plan. Such assessments will not only provide a more in-depth understanding of the effects of climate change, but also reveal the socio-economic reasons for why women, especially from the poor and marginalised backgrounds, suffer excessively.

C. Focus should be on adoption and implementation of gender-responsive budgeting which is key to achieving commitments towards gender equality within and for the benefit of environmental programming.

For this purpose, non-governmental organisations, academics, civil society members can draw attention to the importance of linking gender and the environment in policies and other institutional mechanisms as part of a rights-based approach.

Consequently, governmental programmes can commit to resource sharing, information sharing, awareness-raising tools and capacity-building strategies to address gender-based violence and environment links.

Amit and Akanksha are Assistant Professors of Law at School of Legal Studies at REVA University, Bengaluru. This article is produced as a part of a research paper published by the authors on the concerned issue.

The Analysis (TA) is a research and communication group working on issues of law and public policy in India. Feel free to share your submissions with us at contact@theanalysis.org.in

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