Climate Change through the Eyes of Women

Renowned Indian environmental journalist Stella Paul won a prestigious award for shining a light on the connections between gender and climate change. But Stella says women’s voices need to be heard and data channels need to be improved if effective mitigation policies and measures are to be introduced following the COP21 talks in Paris.

Dry, cracked earth. People struggling to find water. Villages swept away by floodwaters.

When it comes to the media’s depiction of how climate change is affecting developing nations, these images are very familiar. But the work of Indian environmental journalist Stella Paul shines a light on another shocking and disturbing social effect of global warming recently — how women are being forced into the sex trade because of drought.

Stella recently visited India’s biggest drought-affected region, Vidarbha in the state of Maharashtra, an area which has been dubbed the graveyard of farmers. An extended drought in the region has driven thousands of farmers to commit suicide: 3,146 in Maharashtra in 2013 alone, and 60,000 in the state since 1995. Stella was interested in finding out what happens to the Indian women who are left behind by a spouse’s suicide to look after their children and elderly relatives alone.

headshot of Stella Paul
Journalist Stella Paul. (Courtesy of Stella Paul)

“Because the man had all the knowledge and resources, the woman is left powerless,” Stella said. “These women are forced to take jobs, and migrate, and many of them end up getting involved in sex work. They’re then caught up in a chain of exploitation and violation of their rights, while struggling with starvation and the grief of having lost their husband. The woman can’t escape — she has a responsibility to her family.”

Stella has spoken to hundreds of women and young girls across India, Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan who have not only suffered from crop failure and lack of water but also an absence of knowledge when it comes to using technology such as farming equipment.

She reports: “As it stands, women are the ones bearing the brunt of climate change — but if women were given training in using these types of technologies, they would have the power and knowledge to fend for themselves in times of great need. Right now, we’re talking about the rich-poor gap when it comes to global warming, but we need to be talking about the gender gap too.”

Stella’s work focusing on the interrelation between climate change and gender won her environmental story of the year at the Asian Environmental Journalism Awards in 2012. One of the women in her story was 45-year-old Aruna Raju who moved to Hyderabad to find a way to survive after severe drought and repeated crop failures led to the deaths of four of her family members. But with no schooling and no one to help her find a job, Aruna’s only option was prostitution.

There is also the story of 22-year-old Shashi Kumari from Anantapur, one of driest and most drought-affected districts of Andhra Pradesh. When Shashi was 15, her family’s landlord committed suicide after consecutive crop failures and her father went to Mumbai to find work. But she and her sister never heard from him again. A neighbor who owned an eatery near the highway offered Shashi and her sister a job, which involved serving food in the day and selling sex after dark. It was the only way they could make ends meet.

The importance of data

For this award-winning piece of investigative journalism, Stella reported that in the city of Hyderabad alone there are 25,000 female sex workers — a figure that is higher than in any other city in India. Of these women, 60% had been forced to migrate from villages and enter the sex trade, as they had no other way of providing to their families.

This valuable data, coupled with the stories of people on the ground paints a shocking picture of the dire coping mechanisms women are forced to undertake — and it all stems from climate change. But the information gleaned by Stella is only a snapshot of the struggles women are facing around the world.

Unfortunately, on top of the particular struggles of women, there exists a huge gap in the data available on women, which makes critical reporting like Stella’s even more rare, and difficult for other journalists to accomplish.

In 2014 for example, Stella investigated a story on how crop insurance mechanisms are failing because the number of disasters were rapidly increasing. Several cyclones had recently hit India. “I visited a number of government offices to gather data on those affected by the cyclone and to find out the extent of crop damage. But the data available was exclusively about men. There was absolutely no data and no records of how these cyclones had affected women.”

You can see why a journalist’s access to information is so crucial, and why data gaps covering gender can be so devastating. Stella asserts: “If only the government had a mechanism where women victims were listed separately and if I had access to this information, I could have written an investigative feature highlighting the impact of cyclones on women, or better still, on women farmers. This in turn could have opened up an opportunity for citizens or governments to take action on the issue. Solution oriented journalism can indeed be a powerful tool to change, but only when it has the credible information to build a report.”

Gender at COP21

I am so pleased that Stella Paul will be present at the COP21 talks in Paris reporting on the issue of climate change through a gender lens. Stella knows there is an urgent need for the media to report on gender issues from the COPs. COP21 is perhaps the most important, as we are both expecting a historic policy agreement, and are hoping it will be gender responsive.

A group of women sit on the grass
Journalist Stella Paul, speaking to women in India affected by climate change. (Courtesy of Stella Paul)

December 8, 2015 is being marked as “Gender Day” at the talks. But Stella is keen to make gender a focus throughout the entire conference. “It is critical that journalists who report on the COPs increase the number of reports they produce on women in their respective countries and regions. Even when we report on COP negotiations, we must be able to integrate a voice from the field — one that is at the center of climate vulnerability or climate risk.”

We need the world’s attention focused not just on climate change, but on how women can be equal partners in mitigating its effects. Ultimately, if more voices from women affected by climate change are amplified through media channels and access to data about them is improved, there is a better chance the international community can introduce effective climate measures that benefit the world’s most vulnerable populations.

Jeanne Bourgault is President and CEO of Internews. Internews’ Earth Journalism Network is active at the Paris Climate Talks, with a contingent of 40 journalists, journalism fellows, and senior journalism mentors from around the world attending the talks, including Stella Paul. Follow Earth Journalism for more information and updates from #COP21.

(Banner photo: Journalist Stella Paul (center) interviewing women in India. Courtesy of Stella Paul)

(This story was originally posted on Medium.)