The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 22, 2017

In South Asian slums, women face the consequences of climate change

August 22, 2017

The environmental side effects of climate change, which include floods, droughts, and diseases, increasingly affect people and communities across the world. In developing parts of South Asia, these environmental crises are particularly felt by women.

A new study by the Urban Institute demonstrates that stressors brought by climate change may lead to increased domestic abuse and sleep deprivation among impoverished women.

Women in developing countries are already vulnerable

Impoverished women in developing countries face enormous challenges. Women shoulder almost all domestic responsibilities, including child care, cooking, and caring for the elderly. Impoverished women who take on jobs to support their families are often only able to get informal work in a few sectors, and they must continue to meet their domestic responsibilities.

Rape, domestic abuse, and harassment against women are also more likely to occur in impoverished areas. Our research suggests that the impacts of climate change, including torrential rains, floods, and heat waves, may exacerbate these challenges for women, especially those living in slums.

How does climate change affect women in developing areas?

To better understand how climate change affects women in South Asia’s slums, Urban’s partner, LEAD Pakistan, conducted a survey with 1,200 respondents in 12 slums in Delhi, Dhaka, Islamabad, and Lahore. The survey generated rich data covering economic, environmental, and gender issues through both qualitative interviews and quantitative questionnaires.

In our interviews, women in Delhi and Dhaka reported that frequent torrential rain and poor drainage led to large increases in diseases, such as dengue and chikungunya. Further, the women complained of additional stress created by caring for sick children on top of work and other domestic responsibilities.

The Delhi women indicated that floods and heat waves made it impossible for them to work for months at a time, leaving their families financially insecure. Many husbands, left temporarily unemployed by floods, turned to alcoholism and domestic abuse.

Climate change affects every aspect of their lives: their financial security, their marriage, and their physical well-being. Anshula Bibi, a young woman from the Ghazipur slum in Delhi, bemoaned, “The heat is scorching during summers. The overhead sun is unbearable in the afternoon, and it is hard to work, as most of my work is outside sorting through the garbage. I even have to skip work on some days.”

The effects of climate change are difficult to pinpoint

At first glance, it was difficult to use our survey data to analyze the link between climate change and the issues reported by women in our interviews. Awareness of climate change varies across communities, especially among the impoverished. Asking women directly about climate change is often misleading.

In Dhaka, 95 percent of respondents reported experiencing climate change impacts, while in Islamabad, only 7 percent did. This contrast is shocking considering that experts place both Bangladesh and Pakistan in the top 10 countries most affected by climate change.

But asking women targeted questions about the specific results of climate change yielded more accurate results. For example, reports of bad air quality, sicknesses related to environmental factors, and floods did not suffer as much from an “awareness bias.”

Using these specific variables, we found significant associations between climate change and women’s burdens. Women in Delhi and Islamabad spent an average of one more hour caring for family members per day if they reported that a family member had gotten sick from bad environmental conditions.

Women who reported climate-related illness in the family were more than two times as likely to be sleep deprived. Further, in Pakistan, many more women than men reported bad air quality in their homes, a condition that disproportionately affects women because of their increased hours in the home.

environmentally related sickness leads to sleep deprivation among women

We theorized that this combination of small but meaningful impacts of climate change could increase the stress faced by women and their husbands, potentially leading to domestic conflict.

After controlling for confounding variables, such as women’s opinions about gender issues, we found striking relationships between environmental factors and reports of domestic violence. In Delhi and Islamabad, women were twice as likely to report domestic violence for every two days’ worth of income their family spent treating environmentally related illnesses.

likelihood of reporting spousal abuse increases as spending on environmentally related sicknesses increases

In Delhi, women without paid leave were four times more likely to report abuse. In Islamabad, women with bad air quality in their homes were six times more likely to report physical abuse. These findings confirm the admission of one married man from Islamabad’s Akram Gill Colony:

I don’t condone wifebeating…but yes, once in a while on a very hot day, or when our incomes are strained…we do end up [in such a situation].

We need more research on how climate change affects women in poverty

Using data to understand the relationship between climate change and the well-being of women in the developing world is difficult but important. All surveys suffer from “awareness bias.” But focusing on specific variables allowed us to show that the admission of the man above—that climate change impacts can lead to domestic abuse—is part of a wider issue faced by women in these 12 slums.

As the world continues to focus on reducing climate change and understanding its effects, it’s important for researchers to delve deeply into people’s lives to generate a fuller picture of the nonobvious and gender-specific impacts of climate change.

A version of this post was originally published by LEAD Pakistan. 

A girl holds a toddler as she stands in a slum in Islamabad on December 1, 2009. Photo by Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images.

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