FACTOR GENDER INTO CLIMATE CHANGE
It is that time of the year when one routinely encounters people hacking and coughing in the metros, thanks to the toxic pea soup atmosphere. With this come expert opinions on why this is so and how the air can be cleared. By and large, the consensus is that the poisonous air is part of climate change in progress, whether man-made or natural.
It is also the time of the year when many people are forced to stay away from work thanks to the debilitating effects of pollution or other climate-related issues. And here is where the gender factor comes into play, especially in a low-income country like India. Women face a much higher risk of the ill-effects of climate change. For a start, a majority start life with nutritional deficiencies as a result of prejudices against the girl child. Climate affects health in many ways — from extreme heat or cold, poor air quality, poor water quality and lack of food security.
All these factors are common to both genders but where women are at a disadvantage is in their lack of or limited access to healthcare. Despite commendable strides in making healthcare accessible to all, facilities in rural areas, even in many urban ones , are not geared to cater to climate-related health problems. Women do not go to clinics or hospitals due to lack of transportation, fears related to their safety, and the simple fact that their health is a low priority for the family.. Unlike educated and empowered women, rural or uneducated women who suffer pollution-related illnesses don’t even realise this. There is little public communication and awareness of this.
Cooking indoors using wood or coal is another reason why women suffer from pollution-related ailments. In rural areas, women spend much longer inside their homes cooking with fuels which give off carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and particulate matter all of which are detrimental to their health. Many of these pollutants affect not just the women but their unborn children as well.
The big problem in countries such as India is the near total exclusion of women from the decision-making process on mitigating climate change. Women are powerful vehicles of social change in many areas. Rather than a faceless bureaucrat or expert in a distant place speaking about the benefits of decreasing the impact of climate change, women who are at the greatest risk should. They should be among the key stakeholders in marrying traditional knowledge with scientific and technological inputs.
Now that it is election season and pollution and other climate change aspects are talking points, all parties have a chance to take this up as a serious development issue. Maybe this is too much to hope for, but what a mighty leap it would be for India both economically and socially to invest in capacity and skill-building for women to combat climate change. The first thing to be done should be institute mechanisms to gather data on areaspecific environmental problems. Many of us think a pastoral life is conducive to clean living. It is not. The threats are different but they are there.
It is not as simple as distributing smokeless chullas, which many NGOS believe to be a panacea. The answer has to come with local inputs and local knowledge. The number of work days lost and the health costs of pollution in Delhi alone, if computed, should give an idea of how short-sighted it is to let things slide once the visible signs of danger are over. The problems are clear and present all year around to millions who do not have air purifiers, masks, clean water or fuel. When it comes to cleaning up the air (and the environment), women can lead the way. They just need to be given a chance to do so.