Approximately 90% of the countries include climate change in their curriculum at secondary and primary stages, according to the Global Education Monitoring Report by UNESCO, 2021. The same report further elaborates that only around 50% of countries have considered climate change to be part of their national level education plans and national level laws. Plan International states that ‘No national climate strategy formally recognises the benefits of investing in girls’ education’. Climate change is an emergency, an act of ‘socio-ecological violence’ (Jonathan Silver, 2019) upon marginalised communities and particularly a gendered disaster besides other cross cutting parameters.
The climate crisis has multiple deleterious effects on women – abandonment, sexual exploitation rooted in poverty.
Slavery of girls – child labour and trafficking
Muhammad Hidayat Greenfield discusses how agriculture accounts for 70% of global child labour. Elaborating further, he adds that children are more susceptible to dehydration and heat stress while working on the farms. In order to avoid such unbearable conditions, the child labour would be working on the farm during dawn and dusk, thus becoming vulnerable to vector borne diseases. With soaring temperatures, the abominable effects on children’s health in agriculture would soon fall under one of the worst forms of child labour.
Climate change related distress migration makes women of the households sole breadwinners back home. Discontinuation of education for girl children to ‘help out’ on the farm ensues. Feminisation of agriculture in India includes young girls, a fact seldom discussed. Trafficking of poor workers – low skilled and poorly educated – from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to work as bonded labourers on large farms in Punjab constitutes a continuum of debt bondage, bonded labour and sexual exploitation. Given that most agricultural bonded labourers are dalit, the dalit girls bear the brunt of climate change, discontinued education and child labour; not to forget the intergenerational bondage of dalit agricultural labourers on Indian farms.
Landless families migrate seasonally to urban areas. The duration of seasonal migration is getting elongated in India as climate-driven factors foster rapid rural to urban migration. Anti-Slavery International includes child marriage, forced begging and human trafficking as well in forms of modern slavery.
UNICEF confirms that climate change forces girls to explore pathways that endanger them to modern slavery. Physical, sexual and emotional abuse is possible when girls collect firewood, water and food or live at refugee camps. In India, a sequence of droughts pushes young girls into trafficking rings as traffickers recruit pre-harvest or during drought across Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu. When climate related disasters take place, vulnerability to getting recruited by traffickers increases according to Michael B. Gerrard. In aftermath of annual floods in Assam and other parts of North East, girls are coerced into child marriages or child slavery to meet financial constraints.
Dropping out from schooling
Dwindling incomes owing to increase in heatwaves, frequent floodings and other climate-related stressors imply that fewer children can access schools at an early age. This has been studied in the context of Southeast Asia. Climate disasters can hamper early schooling, subsequently impacting the ultimate level of education attained. Long arduous journeys through rough terrain in Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir with inaccessibility to adequate transport and motorable roads lead to a large number of young girls dropping out of schooling. Roads become even more inaccessible due to cloud bursts, landslides and flooding. We see how power dynamics within households are linked to socio-economic violence that get further exacerbated by climate change.
School infrastructure is not equipped for climate disasters and shocks. Destruction of schools halts schooling for a prolonged duration. Besides, girl students in India are expected to drop out to lend a helping hand in domestic chores. Veena Poonacha holds the ‘household drudgery’ as responsible for multiplier effects of environmental degradation on women. This includes arranging water, fodder and fuel for the family. Water scarcity drives young girls to collect water from distant places from their home, endangering their lives, safety, health and massive opportunity costs. At the same time girls could have invested in studying and skilling; they spend on washing clothes and making their households water secure. As droughts and floods degrade large swathes of agricultural land, families pull out girls from school. Precarious economic conditions of these families convince women of the household to undertake informal employment as a daily wage labourer and domestic help. Concomitantly, it is expected of girl students to sacrifice their education to handle the household. Lack of swimming skills makes families in Assam, believe that boys are more capable than girls to wade out of floods!
Discontinuation of mid-day meal scheme leads to higher risks of chronic hunger and nutrition insecurity, particularly for girls who suffer discriminatory dietary practices within their households. When men and boys get priority-based nutrition in home cooked meals, young and adolescent girls rely heavily on school enabled nutrition. Additionally, climate change is compounding the issue of girls having to skip meals as cropping seasons become erratic and diversification of diets remains obscure.
The recommended weight for the school bag is less than 10% of the body weight of the child. The burden of carrying heavy cans on their back for long distances give young girls spinal problems, let alone heavy school bags leading to spinal deformation. The link between Lower Back Pain and heavy school bags is still a contestable terrain, however studies do show that Lower Back Pain can lead to absenteeism in schools. Longer time taken to reach school means longer duration with the heavy backpack, therefore those covering miles rather than shorter distances have more persistent lower back problems. The resultant musculoskeletal deformities in adolescents with developing bodies is a ground for concern. Add to that, spinal pathology including spinal deformity causes sexual and reproductive health concerns!
Twelve to thirteen years of mean schooling for girls helps them to become adequate family planners and decision makers once they grow older. This ensures healthier sexual and reproductive health practices. As population pressure gets reduced resultantly, climate change driven scarcity of resources will not be spread out thinly.
In South Asia, loss of pregnancy could be salvaged if air pollution is mitigated. Stillbirth, low birth weight and malnutritioned children are all exaggerated effects of air pollution that surrounds a pregnant mother. Massive amounts of PM 2.5 and PM 1.0 result in conditions akin to passive smoking. Passive smoking amounts to an increased probability of breast cancer.
Young girls at construction sites with their families are exposed to construction and demolition waste. But it is not only outdoor air pollution but also indoor air pollution that plagues the urban poor. Respiratory symptoms are seen among those women and children living in urban slums, especially in winters when the indoor Particulate Matter 1.0 and airborne pollutants are high. Increase in absenteeism is something girl students can ill afford.
Indoor pollution also results in poor concentration levels and retention capacity, therefore directly impacting academic performance. Feelings of despair, loss, and frustration are caused by poor coping ability due to climate change. Solastalgia refers to the difficulty in adapting to environmental changes.
As climate change-related disasters strike, the number of child marriages of young girls shoots up. In Malawi, Ethiopia, South Sudan; to facilitate family income, child brides are sold off in exchange for cattle or better financial health. India is no different. Early parental death, discontinuation of studies, rising poverty all consolidate the higher risk of a young and adolescent girl students getting married off to never return to her books. In the eternal drought-struck region of Marathwada, child marriages are normalised, the pandemic just fastened and eased the horrific process in the district of Beed. The families of the child bride did it for reducing their responsibilities and fear of young girls being recruited for trafficking owing increasing poverty during the pandemic.
- The emotional trauma in young minds upon losing one’s peers due to climate disasters is understudied.
- Proactive skills – swimming, climbing trees – to manoeuvre through floods and cyclones should be imparted in a gender-diverse manner.
- Climate finance architecture should be gender diverse-youth focused.
- Data on young and adolescent girls from pastoralist communities and their levels of schooling and learning need to be formally recorded
- Specific disaster risk reduction strategy for young and old queer population as disaster rescue services could be discriminatory
- Environmental education must be gender-diverse, educating and addressing to cis-boys, cis-girls, trans individuals and LGBQ community as well.
- Physically disabled young and adolescent girls require intensified solution in prevention and post-climate related disasters. Broken schools do not have disabled friendly ramps! Physically disabled youth should not be abandoned by their families only due to their ‘disability’.
- Integrating Mental Health and Psycho Social Services (MHPSS) in National Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) strategies into risk assessment for enhancing individual and community mental health.
In what UNICEF calls as ‘Climate-proofing the education sector’, it seeks to build climate resilience in school infrastructure, pedagogies and curriculum. It seeks to secure families of educational staff and guardians of the children as well. However local contexts introduce multiple factors such as casteism, transphobia, prejudices that inform responses to climate change. We have seen in this article how intersections of gender, climate and education sector in no way obscures the essentiality of other crosscutting dimensions – class, disability, caste and sexuality.