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From trafficking to unemployment – climate change hits women in the Himalayas

Women in Assam, India

Impacts of climate change are being felt across the globe. One region that is particularly hard-hit is the Eastern Himalayan range in the Northeast of India, ecologically an extremely fragile region.

Assam is a case-in point as it has been severely impacted by climate change: Temperature and rainfall data from the Indian Meteorological Department from between 1951 and 2010 indicate that the mean temperature in Assam has increased by nearly 0.6°C. Furthermore, the annual rainfall has decreased by 2.96 mm per year during the same period. According to the State Action Plan on Climate Change of Assam, the mean average temperature is likely to rise by 1.7-2.2°C by the mid-century.

The adverse impacts of climate change affect traditional livelihood means like agriculture, fishery and sericulture, activities which are predominantly carried out by women. Consequently,  women in rural areas are disproportionally impacted by the environmental transformations caused by climate change.

The Centre for Environment, Social and Policy Research, in collaboration with the Indian Network on Ethics and Climate Change, has undertaken a study (‘Impacts of Climate Change on Marginalized Women in Assam’) to identify the burdens women bear as climate change kicks in.

Summary of the Findings of the Study

In Assam, over 86 percent of the population is dependent on agriculture, and a majority of this populace is from rural areas. Climate change has affected thousands of farmers across the state, and their income has progressively declined over the last decades.

  1. Women were forced into labour work: The study found that, as agricultural outputs decrease, women needed to take up the lowest-paying labour work to be able to supplement the income of their family. In most cases, they took up labour work with a meagre daily wage, ranging between Rupees 150 ($2.3) to 200 ($3.1). Many women interviewed for the study were pregnant or had newly born children. Hence, their health was severely affected by the additional physical labour.
  2. Women lost jobs in tea production: There are over a thousand large and small tea gardens in Assam, which employ about one million casual workers, over half of them women. Impacts of climate change have affected production and many have lost their work.
  3. Women lost jobs in textile production: Thousands of rural women are engaged in weaving, a major source of livelihood in the region. However, the activity is being threatened, as temperature rise and humidity are affecting the production of “Muga silk”, the material used in weaving.
  4. Young girls became vulnerable to trafficking: The study found that, due to declining household incomes of farmers and tea garden workers, young daughters of these families have become more vulnerable to trafficking. In many instances, young girls have been lured into the flesh trade in exchange for promised jobs. According to data of government agencies, Assam is highly vulnerable to trafficking: 1,494 cases were registered in 2015 alone. This finding is also backed by recent reports from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), stating that young girls across the Himalayas are being forced into the flesh trade due to poverty and unemployment.
  5. Impacts on education: Besides this, as female members switch to paid work to supplement the family’s income, the education of female children is being affected in many households. This is happening because when the mothers decide to go out for work, the responsibility of the house usually rests on the female children and, in most cases, these are asked to leave school for taking over responsibilities pertaining to the household.
  6. Increased child marriages: The number of child marriages has gone up. Many parents in poor families with declining income are opting to marry off their young daughters in the belief this will provide them with a better future.

Cause of Concern for India’s North East

Things will get worse as global warming increases. The findings of this study should be a cause of concern for policy makers in Assam and in the entire Northeast of India, a region characterized by similar degrees of ecological fragility, population patterns and livelihood means. Threatened agriculture and the steady rise in the trafficking of young girls are major causes of worry and need to be addressed, as the declining conditions of rural women in India’s North East could trigger social unrest in the region in the days to come.