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From Diet to Disease, the Climate Crisis is Taking a Toll on Women’s Health in Himalayas

Researchers say cases of joint pains have increased in the last 10 years, and infections and diseases not seen before in the mountains are also on the rise.

Angana Chakrabarti | News18.com@AnganaCk

Updated:September 18, 2019, 11:05 AM IST
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From Diet to Disease, the Climate Crisis is Taking a Toll on Women’s Health in Himalayas
Illustration by Mir Suhail (News18)

Covering Climate Now on News18.com Santosh Kumari, 37, has been working to educate people about family planning, polio vaccinations, women’s health care in various villages in Himachal Pradesh for the last four years. In Kangra, during her visits to different villages, she noticed something odd. “There is the increasing problem of anaemia among the women here. 50-70% of the women of my village have anaemia,” she said.

The National Health Family Survey in the decade between 2005-2006 and 2015-2016 also recorded a 12.9 per cent spike in the number of anaemic women in the Himalayan state. A similar trend is seen in Uttarakhand, to the south of Himachal Pradesh. “More and more women are also complaining about joint stiffness and there is a rise in incidences of diabetes and blood sugar levels among the general population,” Santosh said.

While a section of experts singularly blame food deficiencies resulting from changing consumption patterns for the increase in ailments afflicting women in the hills, there has been recent, concerted efforts to understand the combined impact of the local political economy and climate change on women.

The landmark study by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), earlier last year, for instance, pointed out that women in the Himalayas faced more hardships and greater levels of vulnerability in terms of access to food and water because of climate change.

This was particularly true in households dependent on agriculture, where most of the farm work — ploughing, sowing, weeding, irrigating, preparing field channels, harvest and sale of produce — is done by women.

Added to this is the fact that most of the men have migrated out in search of jobs, leading to the labour in the hills becoming increasingly ‘feminised’.

Hence, "degraded environments increase women's drudgery and the time they must spend to find water and fuel and produce food…” researchers Aparna Moitra and Archana Kumar highlighted in their study on how challenges climate change poses risks to “hill women”.

Manshi Asher, a researcher-activist with the Himdhara Environment Research and Action Collective, corroborated the finding. "When any kind of agricultural loss takes place, the burden of recovery and that to take care of her family now solely falls on the women,” she said.

The agricultural labourer and the pastoralist

Naveen Gupta, a programme coordinator at the Jagori Rural Charitable Trust said cases of joint pains have increased in the last 10 years, especially in the upper belt of the mountains.

“Infections, UTIs (urinary tract infections) and diseases are also increasing along with problems of white (vaginal) discharge and uterine prolapse rise. These cases weren’t there before,” he said.

Gupta, who has been working with women cultivators for several years now, has observed the increasing number of health issues, which according to him are caused by irregular rainfall, increase in the use of pesticides and unpredictable seasons.

In the case of the Botiya and Ghariwal pahadi communities who live in Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve at Uttarakhand, climate change has most inevitably spelled consistent crop loss, which researchers Monica Ogra and Ruchi Badola, found, contributed to food insecurity.

Despite Himachal Pradesh recording an overall increase in crop production (production of foodgrains increased from 1068.69 metric tonnes in 2005-06 to 1602.50 metric tonnes in 2014-15), recurring floods led to massive damages in crops, reports of which are yet to be disclosed by the state government.

The increasing “monkey menace” in the mountains, which leads to Rs 230 crores in annual crop losses, has also led to additional stresses on the women cultivators, said experts. Hence, “women's well-being in this regard,” the study by Ogra and Badola noted, “gets affected a great deal” since they prioritise the family's nutritional and caloric needs over their own.

“The agriculture and the livelihood cycles are linked to the rains and the weather. So, when the rains don’t come in time then it’s a massive burden and since most of the manual work is done by the women, the pressure falls on them,” Ruchi Badola, who is a scientist with the World Wildlife Institute, told News18.

Even among the women in the states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, those belonging to the pastoralist nomadic communities like the Gujjars and Gaddis face bigger challenges given the shrinking grasslands.

A rise in temperature by almost 1.6 degree in the north-western Himalayas where many of these nomadic tribes are found, has spelled an increase in the population of pests and diseases affecting the cattle. Often times, these tribes have to move to higher levels for better fodder.

Hasandeen, the president of the Gujjar Kalyan Sabha and the sarpanch (village head) of Paliur village in the Gujjar-dominated area of Chamba, explained that these changes in most cases affect women’s health.

“Because of increasing population and the decrease in land (which is available for grazing), the animals aren’t able to get the necessary fodder. This impacts how much milk the cow is producing, which again affects women’s diets. These women still have to do a lot of work and since their diets are now affected, this is taking a toll on their health.”

Need for data and a gendered policy

The impact of climate change on the health of mountain women is still a contentious link for several experts. Dr Mayank Badola, an officer with the Director General of Health in Uttarakhand, points to the insufficient data to explain why there are yet no indicators linking health and climate change.

“The data around climate change can go back several years, but there is insufficient data on health. The NHFS data itself is barely 20 years old and is not enough to come up with a correlation with climate change that is useful,” he said.

Mayank Badola, along with a group of other medical officers, is now working to integrate such measures in the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme (IDSP). “Until and unless you have a working model you cannot link climate change with women’s health,” he said.

A lack in the scientific framework linking the direct impact of unseasonal rains, falling crop production and the warmer days has meant a situation that is marked by gaps in government policy.

For instance, as Asher points out, “even when there is a loss of crops, it is the men who are given compensation as they control the cash income” despite women doing most of the work. “They don’t get to voice their opinion and because they don't get heard, the policy framework is completely devoid of women's voices, especially among rural communities,” Asher said.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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