A leaked draft opinion showing a majority of Supreme Court justices in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade has thrust sexual and reproductive health into the public spotlight. With this news, the climate movement’s attention swings to a related story: the disproportionate effect of climate change on female health and wellbeing. Women are more vulnerable than men to the effects of climate change. Women make up a majority of the world’s poor, and are more dependent on threatened natural resources. In addition, women rarely are afforded access to financial services and disaster information. They tend to be excluded from decision-making and resource allocation. All this works to undermine women’s ability to prepare for, and recover from, climate shocks and stresses.
Here are five ways climate change can affect women’s health and wellbeing:
1 Extreme weather and mosquito-borne illnesses can hurt pregnancy.
There is a proven link between extreme weather and pregnancy complications. One study analyzing over 32 million births found a statistically significant association between heat, ozone, and fine particulate matter and adverse pregnancy outcomes like preterm birth and low birth weight. As climate change exacerbates wildfires, more particulate pollution is entering the atmosphere, accelerating an already alarming problem. Climate change also leads to above-average rainfall, tropical storms, and flooding. These phenomena create more standing water, which facilitates reproduction of disease-carrying mosquitoes. Some mosquito-borne illness, such as malaria, Zika virus, and dengue, can lead to birth defects and elevated rates of miscarriage, premature delivery, low birth weights, and death of the mother or baby. Current estimates show mosquito-borne disease affecting an additional one billion people by 2080.
2 Climate change hinders youth education and increases instances of child marriage.
Climate emergency acts as a “threat multiplier” in preventing girls from attending school. When droughts, floods, and other disasters make resource gathering even more difficult, girls are often pulled out of school to help. A case study in Botswana found that 70% of the young people taken out of school during droughts were girls. Child marriage also becomes a coping mechanism against the impact of climate change. In a climate crisis, families resort to child marriage because it brings in much-needed income and reduces food, clothing, and education costs. In many cases, families believe early marriage will improve their child's food security.
3 Natural disasters can lead to higher rates of sexual assault and violence.
Natural disasters sparked by climate change increase the triggers for violence against women and girls by accelerating the means, opportunity, and underlying drivers of assault. Such factors as poverty, displacement, lack of housing, and lack of law enforcement create conditions that leave women and girls especially susceptible to violence. A survey by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center found almost a third of sexual assaults reported during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were committed at shelters. In the wake of Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Haiti saw a rise in sex trafficking as economic deprivation intensified. In addition, homeless individuals, those with physical disabilities, and those suffering from mental illness or substance abuse may lack essential mobility during a disaster, becoming even more vulnerable to sexual violence.
4 Women suffer from higher rates of food and water insecurity.
As climate change threatens the food and water supply, women are inordinately affected by food and water insecurity. Food insecurity during pregnancy has been linked to gestational diabetes, iron deficiency, and low birth weight. To add to the problem, mothers struggling with food insecurity may sacrifice their own nutrition to protect their children from hunger. Women and girls are also held primarily responsible for water collection, devoting 200 million hours daily worldwide to collecting water. Water scarcity allows women and girls less time for crucial social mobility activities that could reduce gender inequality. From a health perspective, limited access to clean water for hygiene and sanitation purposes increases women’s vulnerability to communicable diseases.
5 Climate stress causes negative mental health and pregnancy outcomes.
Climate change-induced stress impacts both genders. But research shows that women face the greater risk to mental health. Not only are women the largest single group to be affected by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but studies also show that women faced a greater risk than men of suffering from PTSD following natural disasters in the U.S., Australia, Myanmar, China, and the U.K. Another study found that in addition to PTSD, women tend to face a higher risk of depression and emotional distress after experiencing extreme weather events. Stress can lead to high blood pressure during pregnancy, which can lead to preeclampsia, premature birth, and low birth weights.