The sugarcane crushing season has commenced in Maharashtra, the leading sugar-producing State in India. However, this season will be shorter due to a decline in sugarcane production caused by insufficient rainfall in certain areas. Despite this, sugar mills do not appear concerned about the availability of sugarcane cutters. As the rains become scarcer, more sugarcane cutters migrate from the drought-prone Marathwada region to the sugar belt of western Maharashtra.

The water levels in reservoirs in Marathwada have plummeted to just 39 per cent, compared to the 90 per cent recorded on the same date last year. Most sugarcane cutters might not return to their villages even after the end of the sugarcane cutting season and might work as daily wage labourers in cities.

Dwarkatai expresses her fear that not only do the water levels drop but so does the hope of the people. She is worried that the number of child marriages may increase in the next few months, as well as the incidents of violence against women. As she speaks, a septuagenarian woman steps forward, bearing a scar on her forehead as a testament to the violence she endured when her husband struck her with a rod due to dissatisfaction with her cooking.

Dwarkatai solemnly remarks, “With the perennial drought, this is the fate that befalls almost all women in the rural areas of Marathwada.”

The Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate (IPC) Change echoes Dwarkatai’s observations. Climate-induced water scarcity and supply disruptions disproportionately impact women and girls. The necessity of water collection takes away time from income-generating activities, child care and education. “ Fetching of water is associated with increased risk of sexual abuse, demand for sexual favours at controlled water collection points, physical injuries, domestic violence for not completing daily water-related domestic tasks. Further, climatic extremes and water scarcity are associated with increases in violence against girls and women,” the report states.

Climate-related internal migration has been associated with the experience of violence by migrants, the prolongation of conflicts in migrant-receiving areas and civil unrest in urban areas (medium agreement, low evidence).

Climate Change and violence against women

| Photo Credit: Source: Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health

Structural inequalities play out at an individual level to create gendered experiences of violence (high agreement, medium evidence). Violent conflict is experienced differently by men and women because of gender norms that already exist in society and shape vulnerabilities.

According to a recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry, South Asian countries, including India, Nepal, and Pakistan, have observed a substantial increase of more than 6.3 per cent in incidents of intimate partner violence (IPV) as the average annual temperature increased by 1°C.

Notably, India witnessed the most significant surge among these nations, with an 8 per cent increase in physical violence and a 7.3 per cent increase in sexual violence for every 1°C rise in temperature. Projections indicate that by 2090, India is expected to experience the highest surge in IPV, estimated at 23.5 per cent, in contrast to Nepal’s 14.8 per cent and Pakistan’s 5.9 per cent.

Multiple studies have demonstrated a strong link between extreme weather and climate-related consequences and the rise in violence against women, girls, and vulnerable populations (consensus among experts, moderate supporting evidence). In the face of severe weather events, early marriages are sometimes resorted to as a means of coping with the impacts, exposing women to a heightened risk of harassment and sexual assault. This is exacerbated as women are compelled to cover longer distances in search of water and fuel due to scarcity and gender-based roles.

Additionally, within households, shifting gender norms can lead to violent reactions or increased tensions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPC) report further highlights that as temperatures rise, rates of intimate partner violence have been observed to increase.

Pressing emergencies
 The decline in water levels in Marathwada’s reservoirs raises concerns about violence against women and child marriages.

The decline in water levels in Marathwada’s reservoirs raises concerns about violence against women and child marriages.

As stated by UN Women, violence against women and girls (VAWG) and climate change represent two of the most critical global crises. VAWG is the most prevalent and enduring violation of human rights on a global scale, impacting an estimated 1 in 3 women during their lifetime. In 2020, a staggering 81,000 women and girls lost their lives globally, with a woman or girl losing her life in her own home every 11 minutes.

Following climate-induced disasters such as tropical storms, extensive flooding, and landslides, women and girls confront an elevated risk encompassing various forms of violence, which include rape, sexual assault, harassment, intimate partner violence, child marriage, trafficking, and sexual exploitation.

The shadow pandemic of VAWG during Covid-19 exemplified the surge of violence that occurs during crises and disasters, according to UN Women. The first Indian case of Covid-19 was reported on January 30, 2020 and the surge continued in 2021. Interestingly, 4,28,278 cases of crime against women were registered in India in 2021, which is the highest compared to the cases registered in the previous four years. The number is still considerable even as not all crimes against women are reported . 

Lives in whirlwind

A prior study conducted in the Aurangabad district of the Marathwada region in Maharashtra by MV Khire and YY Agarwadkar, has revealed that over half of the area in the district exhibits more than “mild desertification.”

The study identifies changing rainfall patterns and an increase in the lowest recorded temperatures as key factors intensifying the severity of desertification. According to the United Nations (UN), desertification is characterized by land degradation in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid regions, primarily from human activities and climatic fluctuations.

Perennial droughts and climate vagaries have added to the agrarian distress of the region which is infamous for farmers’ suicide.   

Life fluctuates with the uncertainties of climate, says Lata Waghmare, a sugarcane cutter from Beed. She was married at 13 and since then for two decades she has been working as a sugarcane cutter. Her life experiences are traumatic.   

Lata married her daughter to a sugarcane cutter. Her daughter was ruthlessly beaten up by her husband over a trivial issue. She was six month pregnant and fell unconscious. Lata is now looking after her daughter and granddaughter.

Asha Ugale, a sugarcane cutter from Kasari village says that her husband beats her every time he is agitated about anything. “ He hits with me with whatever he finds that time. Sometimes he beats with stik, stones, sickle or anything…” she says adding that many times she dosen’t even know the reason why she is at receiving end.  

UN Women’s document on climate change states that men may feel that their traditional role as “provider” is threatened due to poor harvest, livestock loss and ensuing food insecurity; they may attempt to reassert harmful notions of masculinity through violence, often drinking more alcohol which can also perpetuate the severity of VAWG.

Lata, Asha, and numerous others do not possess an explicit comprehension of the intricate relationship between the tumultuous shifts in our climate and the affliction of violence that they bear. Yet, what they do bear witness to is the parallel escalation of human fury in tandem with the wrath unleashed by nature.