Rapid climate change is one of the most pressing problems that we face today. It is a ticking time bomb, and we desperately need to diffuse it. To take action before the damage is irreparable, we first need insight into the people that climate change affects the most. According to multiple reports by the UN, the most vulnerable people experience the greatest impact. In India, this is the extremely low-income, usually rural population - especially women in this category.

Why does climate change disproportionately affect women?

Over 60% of the work that goes into agriculture is done by rural women.

Two out of three rural women have no water supply at home and have to walk many kilometres to collect it. This water is used in the household and for farming. With rising temperatures, water is even more scarce and difficult to collect - making these walks longer and more tiring. Because water is a basic necessity of the household, the task of collecting it is the woman’s, by default. In the same way, women are responsible for the procurement of fuel, because energy access is crucial - a matter of survival. Cow dung cakes, crop residue, and wood are fuel for more than 65% of Indian households. Women bear the burden of arranging this fuel, often having to get firewood from forests that are rapidly disappearing.

And even after doing most of the heavy lifting in agriculture, women are not recognised as farmers. They do all of this in the guise of unpaid family farm labour, or underpaid wage labour.

Climate-related health risks, financial crises, crop failures, environmental degradation, infrastructure breakdowns, and natural disasters are a part of a woman’s daily work. These adversities faced by women go almost unnoticed and they become invisible ‘shock absorbers’. Women are also economically abused because men tend to sell the crops their wives have grown, without involving them in the decision. All of this so that they can (barely) make a living for their families and themselves. Even under flagship government schemes for rural employment opportunities, rural women’s work continues to remain voluntary, underpaid, and incentive-based.

Global temperatures have risen by 1°C, and India has already experienced extreme weather events such as floods, wildfires, and heatwaves, as a consequence. Women, especially those involved in agriculture and fishery, are particularly vulnerable. Women are more likely than men to notice and experience the impacts of climate change on agricultural productivity, water availability, and general well-being. Decreased agricultural productivity, crop failures, and the resultant decrease in household income is likely to increase marital and familial stress and can result in spouse violence against women. Even so, they are less likely to receive key information about the climate and agriculture, disabling them to plan better for climate concerns.

In non-agricultural set-ups, women are still the default decision-makers for everything related to the household. The burden of running the house and ensuring the health and safety of families falls on women. This also makes them the primary decision-makers for what to buy, how to use, and how to dispose of the things they consume. They also tend to play a crucial role in waste management and as waste-workers in most places.

Not only are they in charge of managing the household - but the pressure of making environmentally-friendly buying decisions and waste management is also their burden to bear. Therefore, pollution, improper disposal of waste, and lack of information about environmental damage also put women in an extremely vulnerable position.

How will gender equality help mitigate climate change?

Successful climate action depends on the involvement and engagement of women.

Even though women are the most vulnerable to climate change, they have been systematically excluded from decision-making mechanisms and denied agency in deciding how to overcome the vulnerabilities they face. This seriously hinders the potential and compromises the effectiveness of efforts to address climate change. Without involving people that face these problems on a daily basis, successful climate action is impossible. 

Women have local knowledge and experience in sustainable resource management at the household and community level. They are contributing to adaptation and mitigation efforts by creating innovative and localised solutions. The voices of these women need to be amplified and they must be given the agency of decision-making, in order to see real change. Women’s representation as stakeholders, planners, and decision-makers is not an option - but a necessity.