Women and girls are disproportionately affected by climate change

The adverse effects of climate change have impacted numerous areas of human health and well-being. In most parts of the world, women are least able to mitigate such changes, so they are an appropriate focus in a recent research paper.

Nursing Outlook: Climate change and the adverse impact on the health and well-being of women and girls from the WomenNursing Outlook: Climate change and the adverse impact on the health and well-being of women and girls from the Women's Health Expert Panel of the American Academy of Nursing. Image Credit: Riccardo Mayer / Shutterstock


Climate change is traceable to man-made degradation of the natural and social environment over the last hundred years. A severe impact of such change, including extreme weather events, droughts, and famines, has resulted in millions of people fleeing their homes; the shortage of important micronutrients; war and struggles over scarce resources; and mental health deterioration as a result of failed attempts to address these challenges are all being felt throughout the world. Human and planetary health are inextricably interwoven.

Unsurprisingly, the poor and weakest sections of societies bear the brunt, as they can neither prepare for nor adapt to such changes. Women and girls are naturally, societally, culturally, and economically at risk in times of danger, and they suffer the most from extreme weather, food insecurity, and epidemics. In the current paper, published in the journal Nursing Outlook, female health and well-being against a setting of climate change is the point of interest.

The researchers identified five key areas of vulnerability among females due to their biology and social factors. These are access to food and water, migration, gender-based violence, infectious disease, and reproductive/sexual health. In addition, women are known to have less access to health care and are less likely to enjoy fundamental human rights anywhere in the world.

This awareness of the existing and expanding gender gap in the ability to prepare for and respond to the crises caused by climate change drove the current study. The researchers hope it will help shape better strategies, actively seeking input and leadership from women and girls, to help communities and families respond to climate change, preserving and even bettering their lives.

What did the study show?

The lack of water for drinking and cleaning makes it difficult for women to carry out their duties since they are largely responsible for home and family worldwide. The collection of firewood and fodder, tasks hardly ever undertaken by men irrespective of the availability of time, has become an enormous challenge due to deforestation, draining scarce time and energy as girls have to walk farther and work harder.

The same is the case with water pollution, drought, and floods. In addition, the difficulty in accessing drinking water encourages waterborne diseases and those due to poor hygiene. The latter again is worsened, for females and small children, by the increased need for water during many critical phases of their lives, driven by female biology.

Females typically get the last and the least turn at eating, compromising their health throughout childhood and the reproductive period of life. Food insecurity has become rampant in many areas of the world, with obvious harm to those already at risk. This leaves women malnourished and unable to lead meaningful and productive lives or to produce and raise healthy offspring.

Migration is speeding up due to the frequent and intense environmental events to which the global temperature rise has contributed. These include forest fires, cyclones and hurricanes, floods, rising seas, and advancing deserts. Over half the people hurrying to escape their homes, as a result, are girls and women.

Both climate-induced displacement and climate-induced migration are occurring at unprecedented rates due to rapid and slow climate-induced environmental changes. However, women and girls rarely take any part in these decisions, nor are they able to access early-warning systems or community resources meant to help mitigate such pressures.

"Women and children in these circumstances are 14 times more likely than men to die as a result of severe storms, tornados, and floods." Moreover, they are at risk of violence, disease, and death during such movements.

Violence against girls and women is already far in excess of that against boys or men, especially in sexual relationships. For displaced or resettled people, females are easy targets from their own and other people for a variety of tasks ranging from domestic help to organ removal and including forced prostitution. Yet they are far less likely to be able to get help for multiple reasons.

Violence against women rises with climate events, a phenomenon repeated throughout history. "With heightened threats from climate change, it is prudent to anticipate increases in violence against women and girls and proactively find solutions."

With changing weather conditions coinciding with altered host and pathogen factors, infectious microbes and their vectors are likely to expand or shift habitats. Dengue, malaria, filariasis, Zika virus, and Chikungunya are just some mosquito-borne illnesses poised to explode over larger areas of the world. Similar is the case with tick-borne diseases since ticks now enjoy a much expanded habitable area due to rising global temperatures.

With increased stress, reduced food intake, and overwork, women and girls are at a higher risk for such infectious diseases when exposed to these microbes. Even with the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, women suffered from disproportionate workloads and responsibilities within their immediate and extended families, lower income and job security levels, and a lack of social support systems.

Faced with climate change threats, sexual and reproductive health rights for women have gone on the back burner in many places. Many of the factors mentioned above directly impact the ability of females to take care of their sexual and reproductive health, including "the destruction of health care facilities during severe weather events; loss of water and sanitation, shelter, food, and menstrual hygiene products after natural disasters;" and loss of economic and legal support.

Adverse fetomaternal outcomes are also likely to increase with the increased susceptibility to infectious disease during pregnancy and rising risk. For example, malaria in pregnancy increases the miscarriage risk. Zika virus infection in pregnancy is severely teratogenic – (causing fetal abnormalities).

Excessive heat, air pollution, food insecurity, and extreme weather events are other predictors of unfavorable pregnancy outcomes. These include eclampsia and pre-eclampsia, low birth weight, stillbirth, and birth defects.  

What are the implications?

Given the historical and current evidence that girls and women are at high risk from climate change and its resulting disruptions to human life, new policies must seek their input while designing mitigation strategies.

"To reduce climate-change-induced disparities and vulnerabilities experienced by girls and women, woman-centered solutions must be developed and implemented."

Journal reference:
Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.


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