Climate change is evolving as one of the major global threats and posing an enormous challenge to socio-economic and environmental wellbeing, globally. Nepal ranks among the fourth most climate-vulnerable countries in the world and is highly exposed to a range of water-related hazards such as floods, droughts, and landslides. The average annual maximum temperature in Nepal has been increasing by 0.056 C per year based on trend analysis of the past four decades from 1971 to 2014. In recent years and particularly since the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (also known as COP26), climate change has garnered wide global attention. On the surface, it seems only an environmental problem, however, there are various socio-cultural, economic, and political consequences.
During disasters, people with the least resources and adaptive capacity or those who are marginalized socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally, or otherwise, are the most vulnerable. Even within these highly vulnerable groups, women are disproportionately affected. There is an increase in women’s workload, due to crop failure and scarcity of water and food, leading to additional physical burden and stress. The increased temperature, uncertainty and risks pose direct threats to the psychosocial and physical wellbeing of women—including on their reproductive health. During climate-related disasters, the health systems’ capacity to ensure Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) and provide services is also hindered.
Services such as contraception and abortion care rarely find a place in such situations. Even though abortion care is time-sensitive, women suffering the impact of natural disasters leading to migration and displacement do not typically have the avenues to safely terminate an unwanted pregnancy. The ‘choice’ is to carry the pregnancy to term or resort to unsafe and clandestine means of termination. The economic inequality, a disproportionate burden of household responsibilities, and the lack of agency that women and girls live with indicate that contraception and abortion care are either very challenging to access or not accessible at all, even in cases of gender-based violence.
In societies like Nepal with historically entrenched gender inequality, women are always seen as caretakers and caregivers in the household settings, which makes them vulnerable when they are affected by floods, earthquakes, and landslides. Studies such as Nepal Demographic and Health Survey 2016 have already found that the low status of women, lack of education, poverty, isolation, and the socioeconomic and sociocultural consequences of the caste system all remain significant barriers to SRH care access and service utilization.
Nepal’s Vulnerability and Risk Analysis (VRA) report shows that between 1971 and 2019, 647 people died in Nepal each year because of climate-induced disasters. This figure, which except for road accidents, accounts for 65 percent of all disaster-related deaths. The VRA report also acknowledges that there is added vulnerability to livelihoods and households with limited asset flexibility, as well as those who face disadvantages and marginalization due to gender, age, class, race, (dis)ability, or ethnicity. Furthermore, the report highlights that the women, girls, and Indigenous Peoples (IPs) have been disadvantaged in terms of access to information, knowledge, technologies, services, and support networks due to socio-structural inequalities, socio-cultural norms, and gender disparities in access to assets, financial capital, and livelihood options, thereby limiting their adaptive capacity.
Another publication, Climate Change Scenarios for Nepal, highlights that in general, the climate in Nepal will be significantly warmer and wetter in the coming years. Indices of climate extremes related to temperature and precipitation suggest that more extreme events are likely in the future. This, in turn, will directly affect various sectors including health, such as water, disaster management, energy, biodiversity, agriculture, urban planning and livelihoods.
The increased temperature, uncertainty and risks pose direct threats to the psychosocial and physical wellbeing of women—including on their reproductive health.
Global studies also highlight that due to climate-induced displacement, women and children are more vulnerable to violence and abuse, as they are forced to leave their homes. Likewise, the conflict over access to scarce resources due to the climate crisis can give rise to practices such as ‘sex-for-food’ where women and girls are traded for food, which has been the case in Eastern and Southern Africa. Moreover, as resources become scarce, women and girls are compelled to walk further from their settlements to collect food, water or firewood, which heightens their risk of being subjected to gender-based violence.
Overall, climate change further reduces women’s adaptive capacity to cope with environmental change, worsened by exclusion of women from broader social roles, and decision-making for their SRHR. SRHR as an issue, goes beyond the realm of the public health sector, and encompasses wider avenues of education and awareness, legal reform, governance, gender justice, social norms, and climate change. Moreover, particular focus should be toward addressing the needs of marginalized groups, including through addressing the multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination that prevent them from realizing their rights.
Ipas, as a global organization working on reproductive health and safe abortion, is advocating for women-led climate justice, studying this interrelationship between climate change, gender and SRHR through an intersectional approach.
Sudeep Uprety, Dr Popular Gentle, Dr Lhamo Yangchen Sherpa and Jagadishwor Ghimire are affiliated with Ipas Nepal.