NEW DELHI (AP) — Manju Devi suffered in pain for two months last year as she worked on a farm near Delhi, unable to break away from duties that sometimes had her standing for hours in the waist-deep water of a rice paddy, lifting heavy loads in intense heat and spraying pesticides and insecticides. When that pain finally became too much to bear, she was rushed to a hospital.
The conclusion from the doctors was that Devi had a prolapsed uterus and would require a hysterectomy. Due to cultural stigma surrounding “women’s illnesses,” she had not mentioned her discomfort to her family. As a 56-year-old widow with two adult children and three grandchildren, her family relied on her to provide for them, so Devi had been taking pain medication to continue working in the fields.
She shared that she suffered from intense pain for several months but was afraid to talk about it openly. It shouldn’t require surgery for us to understand the consequences of rising temperatures,” she stated, while surrounded by women who shared similar experiences.
Activists are calling on policymakers to address the unequal effects of climate change on women and girls, particularly in impoverished communities, as the yearly U.N.-led climate conference, also known as COP, is scheduled to take place in Dubai this month.
Please note: This article is one in a series created through the India Climate Journalism Program, a partnership between The Associated Press, the Stanley Center for Peace and Security, and the Press Trust of India.
Their suggestions involve ensuring land ownership for women, supporting women’s cooperatives, and empowering women to take the lead in creating climate policies. They also propose that countries, particularly developing nations like India, allocate more funding in their budgets to promote gender equality in climate policies.
The leaders of the Group of 20, who gathered in New Delhi in September, acknowledged the issue and urged for an increase in women’s involvement and leadership in climate action, with a focus on gender equality.
Devi, a farm laborer from the village of Syaraul in Uttar Pradesh, India, which has a population of around 7,000, has suffered an injury that has forced her to undergo a hysterectomy. Other women in the same village, who are middle-aged or older, have also experienced similar injuries that have resulted in the need for hysterectomies.
Seema Bhaskaran, who monitors gender concerns for the non-profit organization Transform Rural India Foundation, explained that while not direct, the connection between occurrences such as uterine prolapse and climate change is noteworthy.
According to Bhaskaran, women living in rural areas that are impacted by climate change often face the heaviest burden of physically demanding farming tasks. These tasks become even more challenging due to the effects of climate change, such as unpredictable weather patterns and the need for increased labor. While climate change itself does not directly cause uterine prolapse, it exacerbates the health problems and circumstances that make women more vulnerable to this issue.
Savita Singh, a 62-year-old farmer from Nanu village, located 150 kilometers (93 miles) away, lost one of her fingers in August 2022 due to a chemical infection she believes was caused by climate change.
After her husband relocated to Delhi for his plumbing job, she was responsible for managing their fields alone. However, due to changing weather patterns and a rise in pest infestations, the yields of rice and wheat decreased. Despite Singh’s objections, her husband, who had the final say, chose to use more pesticides and insecticides. It was then Singh’s task to apply these chemicals.
She stated that due to the increase in pest infestations on farms, we have been using three times the usual amount of pesticides and fertilizers. Unfortunately, I sustained burns on my hand from handling the chemicals without proper protective equipment. As a result, one of my fingers had to be surgically removed.
In the village of Pilakhana in Uttar Pradesh, 22-year-old Babita Kumari, a wage laborer, experienced two stillbirths in 2021 and this year. She believes that this was due to the strenuous work she did at a brick kiln, where she had to lift heavy loads for long hours in extreme heat. According to Climate Central, an independent group of scientists from the United States, the chances of a heat wave hitting the state this year were at least doubled due to climate change. They conducted an analysis using a tool to measure the impact of climate change on daily temperatures.
Kumari, who resides in a temporary camp with her husband, stated that both her mother and grandmother have spent their entire lives working in brick kilns. Despite working for over eight hours a day like her, they did not experience extreme heat as it is now. However, in the last six to seven years, the conditions have deteriorated and the heat has become unbearable. Nevertheless, they have no choice but to endure it.
According to Bhaskaran, in India, women are frequently responsible for agricultural work while men move to cities, leaving women particularly susceptible to the direct impacts of climate change. A recent government survey on labor force for 2021-22 revealed that 75% of those employed in agriculture are women. However, the government’s agriculture census shows that only 14% of agricultural land is owned by women.
Bhaskaran’s viewpoint portrays women as sacrificing their well-being by toiling in the scorching heat for extended periods, while being exposed to harmful chemicals and lacking reliable access to clean water. Additionally, they often suffer from malnutrition due to their subordinate position within patriarchal systems, as noted by Bhaskaran.
Poonam Muttreja, an advocate for women’s rights, is the director of the Population Foundation of India – an NGO dedicated to addressing population, family planning, reproductive health, and gender equality. According to her, it is crucial for COP28, the upcoming conference in Dubai, to implement tangible measures to support women.
According to her, COP28 must do more than just give financial assistance. It should actively encourage and make it easier for gender considerations to be incorporated into all policies, initiatives, and actions related to climate change.
“It is necessary to prioritize awareness campaigns that highlight the unique health challenges that women face due to the effects of climate change. This is a crucial step in increasing public understanding. These initiatives will also serve as a call to action for governments, institutions, and communities to prioritize the health and well-being of women as a key aspect of their climate change efforts,” she stated.
Anjal Prakash, a professor and research director at Bharat Institute of Public Policy at Indian School of Business, led a working group that studied gender for a recent evaluation conducted by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He stated that global efforts will be necessary to overcome countries that may discreetly resist climate policies that consider gender, due to conservative beliefs and political obstacles.
Finding money will also be a formidable challenge, he said.
According to Shweta Narayan, a member of Health Care Without Harm and an advocate for environmental justice, individuals who are most at risk during extreme weather events include women, children, and the elderly. However, she found encouragement in the fact that COP28 included a special Health Day as part of the conference.
“She stated that there is a significant understanding that climate greatly affects health and it should be given more serious consideration.”
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