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 | Arundhati (...)

Mainstream, VOL 62 No 16-17, April 20, April 27, 2024

The Blazing Inequality: heatwaves & their impact on women
 | Arundhati Singh Tiwari

Saturday 20 April 2024


April 16, 2024

The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) has issued a warning regarding a considerably hot summer in 2024 with more heat wave days in this session. As the planet continues to grapple with the escalating climate crisis, one of the most pressing challenges we face is the increasing frequency and intensity of heatwaves. These extreme weather events, characterized by prolonged periods of excessive heat, pose grave risks to human health, livelihoods, and well-being. However, as with many environmental and social challenges, the impact of heatwaves is not distributed equally – women bear a disproportionate burden, a consequence of deeply entrenched gender inequalities and patriarchal structures that have long rendered them vulnerable.

In a 2023 report titled as the “The Scorching Divide” [1] by the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center (Arsht-Rock), it was found that the impacts of rising heat are disproportionately dangerous and costly to women – be it at home or on the job. The research undertook the case studies of India, Nigeria and the United States and estimated that extreme heat could kill 204,000 women annually across the three countries in hot years. The systematic and structural restrictions that women confront are made worse by the current heat wave. Women experience a range of financial and economic disadvantages, including lower incomes and lower labour force participation. They are therefore more susceptible to financial losses if rising temperatures make it physically impossible or very difficult for them to operate.

Heat has a significant effect on unpaid domestic work, which disproportionately affects women. According to the research, despite making up as much as 70% of working hours, domestic work is frequently an "invisible" aspect of worker productivity and is therefore ignored by economic metrics such as GDP. The estimate of the loss women suffer from heat-related illnesses rises by 260 percent when unpaid labour is included in our analysis, compared to 76 percent for males. Domestic labour includes tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and caring for children and elderly relatives which, often involve prolonged exposure to heat sources, such as stoves or lack of air conditioning, exacerbating the effects of heatwaves.

As heat waves grow, production is predicted to decline due to climate change. Women’s income is negatively impacted by decreased productivity since it limits the amount of time they can work for pay and prevents them from advancing economically. Poorer and more marginalized women experience bigger losses than wealthier ones, as is the case with most climate impacts.

The risk is exacerbated by the fact that women are overrepresented in certain occupational sectors that expose them to higher heat risks. For instance, in the agricultural sector, women make up a significant portion of the workforce in many developing countries, toiling in fields and greenhouses under sweltering conditions. Similarly, in the informal economy, women frequently work as street vendors, construction workers, or in other outdoor occupations with limited access to cooling systems or protective gear.

The disparity also arises from several physiological factors. Women generally have a lower sweat rate and higher core body temperature during heat exposure, which can impair their ability to dissipate heat effectively. Having a higher surface area-to-mass ratio results in women retaining more heat in their bodies. Moreover, hormonal fluctuations associated with menstrual cycles and menopause can influence thermoregulation, further exacerbating the impact of heat stress on women.

Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of heatwaves, which can have severe implications for maternal and fetal health. Exposure to extreme heat during pregnancy has been linked to an increased risk of preterm birth, low birth weight, and congenital defects. Additionally, heatwaves can exacerbate existing conditions such as gestational hypertension and preeclampsia, posing life-threatening risks to both the mother and the unborn child. The mental health toll of heatwaves on pregnant women is also significant, as elevated temperatures have been associated with increased stress, anxiety, and depression. These psychological impacts can further compromise the overall well-being of expectant mothers and their babies

While it is true that women face physiological disadvantages in coping with extreme heat, attributing their vulnerability solely to biological factors would be a reductive and incomplete analysis. However, these physiological factors do not exist in a vacuum. Gender norms and expectations shape how women dress, engage in physical activities, and access resources – all of which can amplify or mitigate the effects of heat stress. For instance, in many cultures, women are expected to adhere to dress codes that restrict their ability to adapt to hot weather, such as wearing layers of clothing or covering their heads and bodies. Similarly, societal expectations and gender roles often limit women’s participation in sports and outdoor activities, depriving them of opportunities to acclimatize their bodies to heat stress.

The effects of heatwaves on women are further compounded by intersecting factors such as poverty, marginalization, and limited access to resources. In urban slums and informal settlements, where many women live, inadequate housing, lack of access to clean water and sanitation, and limited access to healthcare exacerbate the consequences of heat stress. Moreover, women in these communities often bear the primary responsibility for securing water and other essential resources, which can involve long journeys under scorching conditions. This physical exertion, combined with dehydration and heat exposure, can severely compromise their health and well-being during heatwaves.

It is crucial to recognize that the impact of heatwaves on women is not a monolithic experience. Rather, it is shaped by the intersections of gender with other identities and social locations, such as race, class, age, disability, and geographic location. Women who face multiple and intersecting forms of oppression and marginalization are often at the forefront of vulnerability during heatwaves. For instance, Indigenous women and women from marginalized communities have long been disproportionately affected by environmental degradation and resource scarcity, which can exacerbate their exposure to heat stress. Similarly, women with disabilities may face additional barriers in accessing cooling facilities, evacuation centers, or healthcare services during heatwaves, compounding their vulnerability.

Therefore, the lopsided effect of heatwaves on women is not merely a public health concern but also a critical issue of gender equality and social justice. As climate change continues to exacerbate the frequency and intensity of heatwaves, women’s vulnerability will likely increase, perpetuating existing gender disparities and undermining progress towards achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Addressing this challenge requires a multifaceted approach that addresses both the immediate risks and the underlying structural inequalities that amplify women’s exposure to heatwaves. This includes investing in climate-resilient infrastructure, promoting access to affordable and sustainable cooling solutions, and empowering women through education, economic opportunities, and decision-making roles.

At the heart of this agenda must be a recognition of women’s agency, voices, and experiences as central to developing effective and inclusive climate policies and adaptation strategies. This includes ensuring meaningful participation and leadership of women in climate governance at all levels, from local communities to international forums. There is also an urgent need of gender-responsive climate policies and adaptation strategies are crucial to ensure that the unique needs and vulnerabilities of women are addressed. This includes incorporating gender-specific considerations into early warning systems, disaster preparedness plans, and heat action plans.

As the planet continues to warm, failing to address this gender-specific vulnerability will only exacerbate existing inequalities and undermine efforts to build a more resilient and equitable future. As Kathy McLeod, director of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, which wrote the report said "Overall what it tells us is that extreme heat is pushing women in poverty further into poverty and pulling women that have come out of poverty back into it."

The voices and experiences of women who are at the forefront of climate change impacts, such as Indigenous women, women from marginalized communities, and women living in low-income and vulnerable regions must be brought forward to shape a climate justice agenda. Their knowledge, traditional practices, and lived experiences offer invaluable insights for developing culturally appropriate and context-specific solutions. It is imperative that we recognize the intersectional nature of this challenge and take urgent action to mitigate the effects of heatwaves on women. Only by centering women’s voices, experiences, and leadership can we develop truly inclusive and effective solutions to the climate crisis, ensuring that the burden of heatwaves and other environmental challenges does not fall disproportionately on those who have already shouldered the weight of oppression and marginalization for far too long.

(Author: Arundhati Singh Tiwari, Student, MA in International Relations
South Asian University)

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