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Extreme heatwave: Women workers face double brunt 'due to gender stereotypes'

By Dr Bidisha Chattopadhyay, Dr Sudeshna Roy* 

Climate justice perpetuates at multiple scales, from global to community level. India’s per capita emissions is half the world’s average (IEA, 2024), yet the country is bearing the burden of climate change and its disastrous consequences in the form of increasing heat waves, heat island, sea level rise, urban flooding etc. While the efforts to mitigate climate change are important, it is equally critical to enhance community adaptation and equity.
The perils of rising incidences of extreme climatic events have skewed effect on the socio-economically disadvantageous population especially the informal sector workers in urban India, mostly residing in informal settlements and slums (Agarwal et al., 2022). 
These casual-wage workers (street vendors, paid domestic workers, construction workers, sanitation workers) are susceptible to heightened risks to climate change on account of their occupational settings, nature of work, poor housing and inaccessibility to preventive healthcare and low social security measures. 
Heat stress, water scarcity, vector borne disease outbreaks, extreme rainfall events have invariably affected the labour productivity and dented on the man-days worked and wage-income earned.
Within this cohort, women workers are bearing the double brunt owing to the greater share of unpaid work and gender stereotypical social roles imposed on them, adding to the woes by climate change. Time-use data patterns have shown the relatively higher average time spent by women in India in unpaid domestic labour (299 minutes /day relative to 97 minutes/day by men) and caregiving activities (134 minutes/ day relative to 76 minutes/day by men) relative to men (NSSO, 2020). 
This indicates that women (15-59 years age group) spent 17 percent of their daily time on unpaid labour (cooking, cleaning for household, fetching water and fuelwood, caregiving for children etc) which is 2.5 times greater than men in same age group spending 7 percent of their time (Chandrashekhar & Ghosh, 2020) thereby eating away the time spent on leisure, personal care and rest. In addition, 53 percent of females had access to exclusive use of mobile phone compared to 66 percent for males (NSSO, 2023) further possibly restricting their access to information and warnings.
Indian cities have been distressed under heat waves that have become more frequent than before. Number of heat wave affected states have increased from 9 in 2015 to 23 in 2019, while number of heat waves recorded has also increased from 7.4 (2015) to 32.2 (2019). Between 1992 and 2015, heatwaves caused 24,233 deaths (NDMA, n.d). 
At present, the country is reeling under the third straight year of severe heatwaves (Ghosh, 2024). The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) considers the condition to be a heat wave if maximum temperature of a station reaches at least 40°C or more for plains and at least 30°C for hilly areas. 
In the case of a coastal area, 37℃ is the temperature above which heat wave may be declared. Although, Heat Wave Action Plans at the state, district and city level have been prepared by the Government and heat wave mortality is believed to have come down but the vulnerability to heat waves remains markedly high particularly for outdoor workers. 
Furthermore, the National Action Plan for Climate Change (NAPCC), 2008 especially many state-level sub-national plans overlooked the gendered vulnerabilities and is gender-blind in mitigation and adaptation strategies (Singh et al., 2021).
The effect of this extreme climatic condition is extremely hazardous and multifaceted for the urban female informal workers, be it markets, streets, construction sites, landfills or even the employers’ house. According to a survey by Ahmedabad’s Indian Institute of Public Health Gandhinagar, 60 percent of the construction workers experience heat related symptoms in summers and non-occupational stressors such as lack of access to basic amenities furrher compound work stressors (Dutta et al, 2015). 
A study conducted in Tamil Nadu suggests that the risk of miscarriage was doubled with exposure to extreme heat (Rekha et.al 2024). Limited access to toilets also resulted in women drinking and eating less, leading to malnutrition, gynaecological health problems and increased risk of heat stroke. 
Apart from physiological discomfort and diseases, the mental health issues such stress, anxiety, burnout from overstretched work schedules further compound the risks to women folk. Moreover, the risk of increased prevalence of domestic violence against women also likely increases with rising temperatures, as found by a South Asian study (Zhu et al., 2023).
Heatwaves are not the only concern arising out of climate variability, increasing intensity of rainfall, that often results in urban flooding, along with crumbling storm water drainage infrastructure leave cities crippled year after year. Since many of the slum settlements are situated along rivers, waterbodies and drains, slum dwellers are at an additional disadvantage. 
Since burden of running household is on women, arranging for water also becomes disproportionately her responsibility
Women are more vulnerable than men especially pregnant and elderly women due to unhygienic environment and mobility restriction (Subah et.al, 2024). Gender division of labour whereby women are responsible for the household chores and earning livelihood places extra burden on them while rebuilding post floods (Singh, 2020). The women-headed households are further at severe risk to climate change from being resource-poor to navigate and cope with climate vulnerabilities (Hazra et al, 2021).
Water scarcity is another issue that rears its ugly head every summer. The uncertainty of rainfall, because of climate variability, in the catchment of the reservoirs that feed the water guzzling cities further exacerbates the socio-economic inequality. 
In India, only 45 percent of the lowest income urban households have access to piped water within the premises with sufficient supply throughout the year compared to nearly 70 percent for the highest income households (NSSO, 2023). This also implies that more than half of the urban households in the lowest income bracket depend on informal sources of supply, the quality of which may be dubious and availability irregular. 
While the middle class and the rich have the financial capacity to fend for water, the poor are left in a lurch or are compelled to buy water straining their already meagre resources The water crisis in Bengaluru city this year cannot be more emphasized (The Times of India, 2024). 
Since the burden of running the household is on women, arranging for water also becomes disproportionately her responsibility irrespective of her working status. Further, lack of access to clean water has deep implications for health and hygiene, particularly for women particularly during menstruation.
Women must be given equitable access to resources and opportunity to exercise their agency for successful adaptation to climate change. The best practice of women in Ahmedabad slums can be cited who have with the help of an NGO, Mahila Housing Sewa Trust, taken steps towards climate adaptation. 
Installation of cooling roofs or application of sun reflective paint, water quality testing, early warning system for heat waves and floods have all been women led initiatives. Few women designated as ‘climate saathis’ have been educated about climate change and its impact and possible adaptation techniques (SEforALL, 2023). 
These women have further gone on to influence others. Similar stories resonate from Ambojwadi; an informal settlement surrounded by wetlands in north-west Mumbai, where women-led groups have been trained as a first-response team for climate resilience by a CBO named YUVA (CEEW, 2022).
Intensive use of information, education, and communication (IEC) to create public awareness and disseminate educative information on climate change causes, casualty and mitigation measures encouraging responsible citizenship, public behaviour changes and community engagement is desirable. There is need for gender-disaggregated data documentation and promoting cum skill training of women-led grassroots organisations in climate change resilience. 
Reforms in legislative policies for empowering the informal sector workers especially for women such as expanding the social security, decent working conditions norms, and occupational safety and health standards keeping in mind climate justice must be made. The need for a comprehensive legislative canopy of constitutional rights to protect from climate change cannot be ignored either. 
The intersectional and unequal nature of impact outcome of climate change on women from socio-economically marginalized section warrants gender-sensitive and pro-poor approach in climate change combat action plans on war-footing.
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*Dr Bidisha Chattopadhyay is a faculty with School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi with interests in environmental justice and urban water; Dr Sudeshna Roy is an independent consultant with interests in gender studies, livelihoods, public health and urban sociology

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