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OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND
Have you ever had to choose between flushing out one of your organs or keeping it just to struggle for mere existence? And have you ever decided to go for the former option instead? That's exactly what a few women from a drought-stricken area of Maharashtra did. To cope with the intensive workload on sugarcane fields, these labourers got their wombs surgically removed to not let cramps, infections and unusual health complications hinder their meagre pay of 300 Rs/day. Such a gutwrenching decision to be made by anyone should be enough to highlight the urgency of calamity mitigation measures and policies to include a gender perspective in their formulation.
Instances of droughts, natural disasters and other environmental challenges aren't just purely 'scientific' or 'economic' challenges that affect everyone equally and can be solved by a single move. Gender, like other social factors, is embedded in their structure. According to UNFPA (ILOSTAT DATA, 2019) data, 85% of disaster victims are women and 70-80% of casualties in the 2004 tsunami were women. Thus, it’s imminent to address how climate change and disasters affect women disproportionately and how we have historically neglected them in our discussions and actions.
Gender inequality is rooted in our cultural attitudes, laws and institutions that govern activities causing environmental harm and mitigation. This inequity gets manifested in three spheres: Representational and Financial Inequality, Research and Data Inequality and Education and Awareness Inequality.
Women are involved in and are responsible for various climate-sensitive tasks. Their representation is more than 50 per cent in professions most impacted by climate change, agriculture is one of them. With the feminization of agriculture worldwide, specifically in India, we have 55 per cent of women employed in agriculture, yet only 6 per cent of women have ownership rights over agricultural land compared to 63 per cent of men.
The struggle for women doesn't end here as they are additionally expected to shoulder the unpaid household work along with extra hours put in to fight the sweltering heat and dwindling water storage. Though the Indian Government's MGNREGA scheme has financially empowered women impacted by natural calamities and COVID-19, the scheme’s active implementation is ensured only post events like cyclones and floods. Slow-onset events like droughts get ignored, affecting the rural women left behind to take care of the family farm.
In rural India, women are the ones who feed the household so they are often the first ones to notice when a variety of food is no longer growing. Them being at the helm of climate change demands meticulous and extensive data-oriented research on how climate change has affected their lifestyle and health. The importance of such a measure was highlighted in a study published in Nature magazine that talked about the link between air pollution and anaemia levels in women. Drawing from the NFHS survey and satellite data, the study showed that for every 10 microgram/meter cube increase in PM 2.5 exposure, the average anaemia prevalence in women increased by 7.3 per cent. The reason was attributed to indoor air pollution exacerbated by the environment of their poorly ventilated homes.
But unfortunately, the Indian Government has come out saying that it has no conclusive data to establish this correlation. Such gaps in data collection and research are what are holding back women-specific interventions.
The Nobel fame physicist, Werner Heisenberg c o m m e n t s, “An expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject and how to avoid them.” Though these women are aware of their mistakes, the knowledge of how to avoid them is what they lack. And that's where our third sphere of inequality reveals itself, i.e., ‘Education and Awareness Inequality’. We must ensure that women have a seat at the table, not just at the global conferences but in the classrooms and panchayats too. This requires not just imparting education but also translating it, making the science easier to understand for the largely uneducated pool of rural and underprivileged women. The story of ‘Bageshwari Mahila Mandal’ of Sudhera village in Himachal Pradesh highlights exactly this. When a local NGO made the village women aware of the rules of solid waste management, they formed an advocacy group to protest against the illegal dumping of solid waste which polluted their streams and groundwater. It led to the point where half the women were suffering from skin diseases. Alarmed by this, the group wrote a letter to NGT alleging how the 2016 Solid Waste Management Rules were violated by the dumping site. This prompted NGT to issue directions to the Municipal Corporation and the state’s Pollution Control Board to take action. Even the Madhav Gadgil report on the ecology of Western Ghats recommends the need to make policy frameworks more inclusive of indigenous narratives for easy understandability.
All of this requires the government's unfaded ‘Intention’ to translate our efforts into gender-inclusive policies planning the path of “NEEYAT (intention) se NEETI (policy) tak”. Women have been in a symbiotic relationship with the climate, carrying the inherent attitude of a caregiver, making them benevolent towards the environment. We can’t let 3.4 billion women of the world be termed as mere victims and leave them behind when they too can be the agents of change. Because once they are out of sight, they will be out of mind too. If nature's wrath doesn't differentiate then why should we?