COMMENT: The gendered face of calamity

Climate change and natural disasters are not gender neutral

The root cause of almost all grassroots level issues in Pakistan is poverty, which has a woman’s face. In times of adversity, gender issues are accentuated. Although extreme weather events cause suffering all around the affected area, the effects are not evenly inflicted on all social groups. The recent drought of Thar region is a glaring example of how climate change and natural disasters are not gender neutral.

Like other arid areas of the world, Thar is extremely prone to drought situations cyclically whenever the average annual rainfall level goes below 250mm. Stretching to an area of 48,000 square kilometres, it is largely classified as a desert area while certain districts have somewhat productive land quality. The impact of changing climate scenarios manifested itself in the region this year through diminished rainfall in the form of a light drizzle, affecting water availability, food and fodder productivity and health. The resulting suffering was most intensely inflicted on women and children.

Migration

As a result of little economic opportunities in the region and declining livelihood options, most men in this area have migrated out of the region, leaving women behind to take care of the children and carry out daily household, as well as external, chores. Left to fend for themselves in their routine activities, the women of Thar are burdened with the responsibility of taking care of their children, collecting fuel, wood and food, along with carrying out subsistence farming activities and managing the livestock. When a situation of drought directly hits the activities under their responsibility, it is they who face the maximum brunt. For instance, in the current situation of drought, women have to wake up in the dark hours of the morning and trek long distances to fetch a few drops of water.

The underlying reason of the problem is poverty. Poverty is widespread in the region, which is more pronounced for the case of women. In the most impoverished households, women undergo the maximum intensity of income as well as multidimensional poverty.

In such emergency situations, the health of women suffers the most. In cases of food shortages as a result of falls in food availability and access and the utilisation of food, women are the first to skip meals. With the resulting malnutrition, their hemoglobin, vitamins, calcium and iron levels drop, exposing them to a number of serious health vulnerabilities. A large number of women with vitamin A deficiencies fall prey to anemia, a disease that retards the physical and mental capabilities of the patient. The situation is worse for pregnant and lactating mothers. On top of these issues, the dearth of proper healthcare systems and a lack of birth-attendants and doctors make matters worse for the sufferers. In an area host to 1.5 million people, there is a single hospital with merely 74 beds, putting aside the quality of healthcare provided, which falls far short on so many scales. With healthcare so far from the access of villagers, most babies and mothers are lost on their way to the facility, travelling on camel-back, which is the only source of transport for many.

Schoolgirls

Prioritising women’s healthcare

Investing in women’s health is not a priority when it comes to poverty-ridden, illiterate and ill-informed populations. Moreover, a lack of female doctors in the area is another excuse for not allowing women in the household to be checked by male doctors, since doing so is against the prevailing social and cultural values.

The underlying reason of the problem is poverty. Poverty is widespread in the region, which is more pronounced in the case of women. In the most impoverished households, women undergo the maximum intensity of income as well as multidimensional poverty – i.e. deprivations in health, education and standards of living. External factors like natural catastrophes reinforce these deprivations, pushing individuals, especially women, deeper into the pits of poverty.

As incomes dwindle and hunger strikes, domestic violence against women becomes a common practice in most households in the area. Use of brackish and saline water has lead to a health condition in which bodies start looking old and wrinkled after the age of 15 years. The result is early child marriages of girls and higher mortality rates in cases of early pregnancies. In the current wave of drought in Tharparkar, I have also heard incidents of children being sold, especially daughters, for a few hundred rupees [$5-7] so that other members of the family could be fed with at least a day’s meal.

Suicide cases in Tharparkar are considered the only way out for some poverty-ridden households in events of drought and famine. The number of reported suicides for women is far greater than that of men. The cases of suicide seem to be increasing with every cycle of drought. According to a study by Non Governmental Organisation Association for Water Applied Renewable Energy (AWARE)1, 2011 bore witness to 24 suicide cases, and 2012 witnessed 35 cases. At time of writing, the severity is worse with 40 suicides till October and still counting. The exact figure, however, has been veiled due to political reasons. Two cases of mothers ending their lives along with their children’s were also reported. These alone depict the desperation and the gravity of the situation.

No single policy measure can improve this. We can talk for hours and fill pages with what should have been done and what ought to be done, but the truth of the matter is that unless the change of perception comes from within these societies, external help will not change the situation.

Apart from that, doctors report that cases of depression and mental illnesses are also more for women than for men. As reported by Dr Lakesh Kumar Khatri, a doctor working in the area, 75 percent of the mental illness cases in the area, as a result of drought and famine, are that of women2.

When food is short and arranging a meal is an ordeal, eating healthy is out of question and even laughed at when suggested by doctors in the area. On being recommended to include fruit in meals, a woman laughed at Dr Khatri and replied: ‘how can they afford a lavish diet like that when their average meal constitutes of sun-dried chillies with roti? [bread]?’

This is not the first time that Thar has been subjected to drought, nor will this be the last, keeping the changing climate scenario in mind. Women were, and will continue to be, the hardest-hit in the area because of the socially structured norms in the area and norms do not change with policy. They change with enlightenment. They change with education, literacy and awareness.

Cattle Arid Lands

In times of adversity, education is not particularly the main focus of attention; disaster management and relief provision is. Relief is, however, as its name suggests, short term, that has no value addition for the longer term. Bags of wheat provided by the government cannot lessen inequalities and gender issues, neither can donations that seem to be directed only at the people of Mithi – the largest town of the area. As the villages become smaller and distant, the suffering of the weak and discriminated women becomes harder to be heard.

When people die of hunger and diseases due to lack of resources, education is a secondary issue. The real challenge to curb the vicious cycle is poverty reduction. Without resources and knowledge, the women of Thar and other similar deprived and calamity-ridden areas will continue to be sacrificed to the wrath of nature.

 

By Ayesha Qaisrani, PRISE Researcher

Article was first published on pakistantoday.com

Photos: Rajeshree Sisodia, PRISE


 

  1. Zahidi, F. (2014), ‘Forsaken? In Thar, Depression Claims What Drought Spares’
  2. Ibid

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