Climate Change and Women's Health: What's the Connection?
The climate crisis impacts every country and every person on Earth - especially those in post-colonial countries and those where poverty is widespread.
Women are thought to make up around 80% of people displaced by climate change, with research generally indicating that they are more likely to experience health issues as a direct consequence of climate change than men. This is due to women’s lower status within patriarchal societies. In other words, women are more likely to live in poverty and have limited access to financial resources, which means that they have more limited protection against natural disasters sparked by climate change. Climate change is therefore a “threat multiplier” that exacerbates existing issues.
Although there is limited research on the gendered impact of climate change, it is more likely to affect those who face systemic discrimination, such as “indigenous and Afro-descendent women and girls, older women, LGBTIQ+ people, women and girls with disabilities, migrant women, and those living in rural, remote, conflict and disaster-prone areas.”
So, how does climate change impact women and their health on a daily basis?
Lack of access to clean water
Due to rising sea levels, humans are now coming into contact with salty water more often. Over time, this can cause health issues such as reproductive tract infections which have been found in poor women catching prawns in the Sundarbans region in India. There is also a larger proportion of middle-aged women with eye diseases and uterine cancer in the region than in surrounding areas. For pregnant women, this can also result in high blood pressure. Women may not have access to clean drinking water and they risk infection from washing menstrual pads in salty water.
Rise of gender-based violence
As people compete to retain limited resources, this can cause violence, which disproportionately impacts women. For example, Boko Haram has targeted women fleeing drought for human and sex trafficking.
In other parts of the world, women may have to undertake sex work because limited fish supplies impact their ability to earn money. Instances of domestic violence (which women are statistically more likely to experience) increased after bushfires in Australia.
In wartime, rape can become a weapon used mostly against the female population, which causes severe physical and psychological trauma.
Risks surrounding pregnancy
Up to 507 women and girls die every day from pregnancy and childbirth complications in areas impacted by conflict, displacement and natural disasters. Rising temperatures also make it more common for women to experience a stillbirth, and pregnant women displaced by climate disasters often have more limited access to healthcare, which disrupts pre-and postnatal care.
The climate crisis impacts access to nutritious food and safe drinking water, and increases the risk of heatstroke. Rising temperatures also facilitate the spread of vector-borne illnesses like malaria, which can cause miscarriage.
Death and injury
Women have more limited access to assistance, are less likely to evacuate and lack access to life-saving information and decision-making roles. This increases their risk of death and injury in the aftermath of a climate disaster.
For example, there is a ‘cultural expectation’ for women to wear saris in Bangladesh, which can impede women’s movement. In some countries, it is believed that women should not leave their homes without a male chaperone. During a flood in Bangladesh in 1998, it was found that, due to this societal expectation, women were less likely than men to leave their homes to seek medical help. Data also shows higher rates of PTSD among women after cyclones in the US, Australia and Myanmar and floods in the UK and China.
In summary, the gendered impacts of climate change are becoming more prevalent as more parts of the world experience extreme heat, flooding and weather changes. This undeniably affects everyone, but women experience this differently to men, as they are more likely to experience other threats such as poverty and gender-based violence. On the whole, there is a wide variety of ways in which climate change impacts women’s health.
For more resources on this topic, head to our dedicated Gender Issues & Feminism section.
Edited by Olena Strzelbicka