New Delhi: Men migrating to bigger towns in search of employment, to support their families back home in the villages, is not uncommon. Climate change, which has caused a spike in natural disasters, has upped this “push” factor, adding to others like poverty and unemployment.
But what about women?
Not only has there been a rise in trafficking of women, but a World Bank study has also found that 14 per cent households in India are now women-headed, mainly because of male migration, creating an additional burden on them.
This feminisation of climate change-induced challenges has, however, not got the attention of government agencies. This is a serious gap that needs to be addressed, says a new study by ActionAid, Climate Action Network-South Asia, and Brot Fuer Die Welt (Bread for the World). The study, Climate Change Knows No Borders, analyses climate-induced migration and the challenges involved in South Asia, including India.
Take the case of 45-year-old Sandhya Kar of a village in Bolangir district in Odisha. Her 17-year-old son had to leave his studies mid-way and join his father who had migrated to Kerala for work after the village was hit by drought last year.
“We have agricultural land — three acres. But the crop died as the rains did not come on time last year. The ponds in our village dried up. What could we eat? We are not a family of menial labourers; we are farmers, but my son and my husband had to leave home because of this disaster,” said Kar, who now lives with her daughter.
As the men in the household left, the additional burden of tending to the agricultural land, over and above the household chores, fell on Kar’s shoulders. “My daughter helps me out, even then it’s a lot of work,” she said.
Rapid feminisation of agriculture as a result of male migration, the study says, has led to women reporting exhaustion, poverty and hunger. “The shortage of available labour can leave fields uncultivated during planting season,” the report says.
A 2015 UN Women study on the impact of climate-induced migration on women in Bangladesh found that “in most cases, migrated male family members were unable to or simply unwilling to send money back to their households, leaving the women (to seek) other means of survival during the period of migration”.
“A growing trend also has been noted of men who have migrated to cities abandoning their families and not returning,” the study says, adding that in the absence of their husbands, women in some Bangladeshi communities reported high levels of harassment, including sexual violence.
The study also points to the vulnerabilities of women and young girls migrating alone across borders from Nepal and Bangladesh to India in search of employment. They take the help of “agents” who turn out to be traffickers, forcing them into brothels in cities.
“While this phenomenon has been happening for years and is widely recognised, the extent to which climate change is contributing to this, and further threatening girls’ safety, is not fully understood,” the study notes.
Within India, climate-induced migration of women and girls from states like Assam — annually ravaged by the floods, leading to loss of life and property — to bigger cities like Delhi and Mumbai for employment has caught the attention of a child rights NGO.
“A number of young girls are promised jobs in cities by the agents, who are actually traffickers. Trafficking cases see a spike especially after a natural disaster,” said an activist of Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) that is headed by Nobel Peace laureate Kailash Satyarthi.
On the positive side, the study says that as a result of climate-induced male migration, women are discovering new roles as decision-makers and that they can cope in adversity. Strategies that encourage women to realise their potential and not buckle under negative social pressure may be key to their survival when they are left behind by migration.
“In the face of increased risk of climate-induced disasters, the empowerment and training of women in disaster-preparedness strategies, including early warning systems, search and rescue, emergency response, and relief distribution may be key to their own and their communities’ survival,” the study suggests, especially in the backdrop of the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, where some communities had to rely on their women, children and the elderly to try to dig the survivors free.
Further, the study also recommends research on the impact of high levels of migration on women and communities left behind, apart from developing targeted policies to tackle such challenges.
(Azera Parveen Rahman can be contacted at email@example.com)