World Health Day: Understanding the impact of our environment on women’s health

Representational image. Moneycontrol

“Submerged townsDried up lakesHouses reduced to dustPoverty stricken states

Immoderate burning of fuelUnbreathable airA premature infant strugglesUnder a malnourished mother’s care”

One of the biggest global health threats of the 21st century is climate change. Climate and health are intricately intertwined, and as the climate crisis worsens, the health of a population deteriorates not just through individual lifespans, but across multiple generations. Deforestation, agriculture, urbanisation, emissions from cars and factories, fossil fuel burning, food/water/livelihood security issues, migration and forced displacement, loss of cultural identity – there are so many factors that contribute to the effect of climate change on health.

Several studies have established that women are far more impacted by climate change than men due to differences in the rate of maintaining body temperature, nutritional needs, hormonal balance and physical activities. For example, being a major part of the agricultural workforce, women are at a high risk of skin infections concomitant to pesticide use, as well as water borne diseases. This risk increases even further in a post-calamity scenario. Climate change also results in altered menstrual cycles and fertility in women of reproductive age. There are increased chances of polycystic ovarian syndrome, genital infections due to altered vaginal pH or breast/ovarian/endometrial cancers under hormonal influence or because of exogenously acquired carcinogens.

Moreover, pregnancy involves the body to go through a series of stressors that require additional nutrition and stable environmental conditions. Women residing and working in areas prone to heat waves and droughts bear a substantial risk of pregnancy related complications like maternal malnutrition, anaemia, intrauterine growth retardation of the foetus, preterm deliveries and preeclampsia. Prematurity and infections are two of the leading causes of infant mortality and under-five mortality in india.

According to the World Health Organisation, in nearly three out of every five households, women and girls are exposed to smoke from fuels, while performing their gender-assigned role of cooking. Toxic fumes and overall poor air quality lead to severe respiratory illnesses in them and also cause congenital anomalies in the babies they bear.

As per WHO – South East Asia data, despite being more susceptible to the detrimental effects of the climate crisis, women do not have equal or adequate access to healthcare facilities. For instance, compared to men, a larger proportion of women with high blood sugar go undiagnosed and a very low proportion of them receive treatment. This diagnosis and treatment gap is also seen in the case of hypertension and a number of other diseases, both communicable and non communicable.

According to the Global Gender Gap Index, India ranked 135 among a total of 146 countries in 2022. It benchmarks gender parity across four key dimensions or sub-indices — economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.

Undoubtedly, there is a lot of work that has to be done. As the first step, it is imperative that we acknowledge that women bear a bigger burden of vulnerability to the consequences of climate change, and work towards building gender-inclusive climate policies. There should be an increased investment in research to understand the deeper and delicate connections between climate change and women’s health. Also, women have to be empowered through education and be included in the climate conversation at every level to create a sustainable strategy for mitigating climate change.

The author is a Mumbai-based doctor and environmentalist, who is currently part of the Women Climate Collective, a community seeking to increase the representation of women’s voices and perspectives in the climate conversation. Views are personal.

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