Manju Devi, a 56-year-old widow, endured months of excruciating pain while working on a farm near Delhi. Her responsibilities included standing in waist-deep water, lifting heavy loads, and using pesticides under intense heat. When she finally sought medical help, doctors diagnosed her with a prolapsed uterus, necessitating a hysterectomy. The taboo surrounding “women’s illnesses” had kept her from discussing her discomfort openly. With two grown children and three grandchildren depending on her for food, Devi relied on painkillers to continue working in the fields.
Devi’s story is not unique. In Syaraul, a village in Uttar Pradesh, several middle-aged and older women shared similar experiences that led to hysterectomies. While the link between uterine prolapse and climate change is indirect, it is significant. Women in rural, climate-affected communities often engage in physically demanding agricultural labor that becomes more strenuous due to climate change-related challenges like erratic weather and increased labor demands.
Savita Singh, a 62-year-old farm worker from Nanu village, attributes a chemical infection and the loss of a finger in August 2022 to climate change. As rice and wheat yields declined due to shifting climate patterns and increased pest attacks, Singh’s husband decided to increase pesticide and insecticide use. Singh, who opposed the increases, ended up applying the chemicals without proper safety gear, resulting in her injury.
In Pilakhana village, 22-year-old wage laborer Babita Kumari suffered stillbirths in 2021 and 2022, which she links to heavy lifting in a brick kiln under extreme heat. Climate change has increased the likelihood of heat waves in the region, making Kumari’s work even more challenging and dangerous.
Women in India often assume primary roles in agriculture, while men migrate to urban areas, making women vulnerable to the direct effects of climate change. Despite women’s significant involvement in agriculture, they own only about 14% of agricultural land, according to a government agriculture census. This situation leaves many women sacrificing their health by working long hours in intense heat, exposed to harmful chemicals and pesticides, and with uncertain access to clean water. Under patriarchal structures, they are often undernourished, as they tend to eat last and least.
Activists and experts are urging concrete action at COP28, the U.N.-led climate summit, to address the unique challenges women face due to climate change. Recommendations include securing land rights for women, promoting women’s cooperatives, and allocating more resources in national budgets to ensure gender equity in climate policies. It’s crucial to prioritize awareness programs that highlight the specific health challenges women encounter as a result of climate change. International pressure and funding will be essential to overcome opposition to gender-sensitive climate policies in some countries.
Shweta Narayan, an environmental justice activist, sees reason for optimism at COP28, as there is a dedicated Health Day at the conference, signaling a growing recognition of the health impact of climate change and the need for more serious consideration of these issues.