Climate Change is a Woman's Worst Enemy

Updated: Dec 7, 2021

Climate Change has been around for ages and while we have come to learn and witness the effect it has on our planet and our environment - physicians dedicated to the well being of women, including their safety, security and access to quality care, have recognized that climate change is a womens health concern as well as a major medical concern. The impact of climate change is not equally felt. A growing body of research suggests that Climate Change can have differing impacts on the health of men and women around the world. Women and girls often face high health risks from the impacts of climate change when compared to men and women.

For example, a study shows women and girls are more likely to die in heatwaves in France, China and India and in tropical cyclones in Bangladesh and the Philippines. In many world regions, women are more likely than men to suffer poor mental health, partner violence and food insecurity following extreme weather events. The heightened risks faced by women most often reflect their standing in societies around the world – rather than a physiological difference between men and women. The review shows that pregnant women often experience heightened health risks and reduced access to reproductive and maternal care services as a result of climate change impacts.

In terms of extreme weather, all around the world Climate Change has caused more adverse weather conditions which are likely to become more severe. Almost two-thirds (34) of studies, that examine rates of death and injury for men and women during extreme weather events, found that women were more likely to suffer death or injury from extreme weather than men. In many low- and middle-income countries, women’s lower societal status can put them at greater risk of dying during extreme events. For example, some research suggests that, in Bangladesh, social expectations placed upon women could lessen their ability to survive tropical cyclones and flooding events.

According to one study conducted in Bangladesh, cultural expectations for women to wear

the sari – a long dress that can restrict movement – could make it more difficult for women to escape from floodwaters. Another study found that, after a 1998 flood in Dhaka, women were less likely than men to leave their homes to seek medical help. The researchers suggest that this was likely linked to cultural norms that restrict women from leaving their homes without a male chaperone. In addition, a study published in 2016 drawing on data from 85 low- and middle-income countries over two decades found that women were more likely to be killed by extreme weather events in countries where their socioeconomic status was below that of men. (TaylorFrancisOnline)

However, other studies suggest that women in high-income countries could also be more at risk than men of dying in certain extreme events. For example, a string of research papers have found that women are more likely to die than men in heatwaves in France. One study, published in 2012, found that female deaths were more likely in nine European cities, including London, Paris and Rome. The reasons why women in Europe could be more at risk from heat waves are not yet fully understood. However, several research papers suggest that older women with underlying health conditions could be particularly vulnerable to increasing heat in Europe.

Moreover, climate change has affected the food security of many countries over the years. Rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns are affecting crop yields while extreme weather events, such as droughts, are causing unpredictable harvest losses. In low- and middle-income countries, food insecurity can be strongly linked to poor health. A review finds that, in low- and middle-income countries, climate-driven food insecurity can have a disproportionately large effect on the health of women. Understanding why women are more affected by climate-driven food insecurity requires an understanding of historic social hierarchies in many low- and middle-income countries.

“If there is less food available, then who gets to eat more food? In a lot of cases, it’s men. That’s not new, these gender roles have been around for thousands of years.”
- Dr. Raman Preet (global health researcher at Umea University in Sweden)

Studies show that, during times of climate-driven food insecurity, women were more likely than men to forgo food in India, Iran, South Africa, Ghana and Nicaragua. In many regions, female children are also more likely than male children to go without food. For example, a study in the Philippines found that, in the months following typhoons, female children face a greater risk of infant mortality, whereas male children do not face a heightened risk. The researchers attribute this to the preferential feeding of male children when resources are scarce.

First, it can raise the health risks for expecting mothers and foetuses. Second, it can limit access to reproductive and maternal health services, explains Van Daleen: “Climate change is increasingly putting strains on healthcare systems. It can quite directly destroy hospitals through extreme weather events, but it can also just indirectly put more strain on healthcare services. When this happens, what we generally see is that reproductive and maternity health services are most impacted because they are already undervalued in comparison to other services and so not prioritized.”

Studies show that exposure to extreme weather events can heighten health risks for expecting mothers and their fetuses'. For example, maternal and newborn health problems have been linked to hurricane exposure in Texas and Florida and heatwave exposure across 19 African Countries, Italy and Spain. The exposure of expectant mothers to heat, in particular, is known to have an impact on newborns. In addition, studies in Haiti and Thailand show that exposure of pregnant women to infectious diseases, such as malaria, could heighten the risk of miscarriage and other serious maternal health issues.

As the world continues to battle this monster called Climate Change and the world continues to deteriorate every year, we must remember that this fight is not just for our planet but also for our women and daughters and for the future generations that they carry and birth.

By Sophie Leota

Editor and Communications Coordinator