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Why India’s Women Are More Vulnerable to Disasters

As rising temperatures increase the frequency and severity of floods and other natural catastrophes in India, policymakers must consider how gender inequalities amplify their effects. During and after such events, women experience higher mortality rates, have less access to relief measures, and are more susceptible to violence.

PUNE/NEW DELHI – Of the many natural disasters that afflict India each year, floods are by far the most prevalent. This is no surprise, given that around 40 million hectares of land in the country are prone to flooding, and nearly 75% of the annual rainfall comes in the space of a few months.

But as rising temperatures increase the frequency and severity of natural disasters, floods in India have become deadlier and more destructive (relatedly, cyclones have grown more intense). The country has the highest number of flood-related fatalities in Asia, and the economic damage caused by flooding has swelled from nearly $1.4 billion in 2013 to $11.5 billion in 2020. While this escalation has upended the lives of many rural Indians, who account for 65% of the population, women have borne the brunt of its impact.

There are many reasons why natural disasters disproportionately affect women in India. For starters, they comprise a significant share of the agricultural sector’s workforce. In 2021-22, 57.3% of working-age women in India were employed in agriculture, compared to 34.4% of men. Despite a structural employment shift to non-agricultural sectors, many rural women have been unable to take advantage of these opportunities, owing to limited resources and mobility restrictions. Working on family farms or as agricultural wage laborers, they are exposed to the economic volatility caused by floods and other extreme weather. Moreover, since only 14% of women in India own land, very few have the ability to adapt and respond to climate change.