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India: Extreme heat worsening domestic violence

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
July 4, 2023

As the climate gets hotter in South Asia, more women living in low-income households are expected to experience domestic violence. A new study shows the problem will be most extreme in India.

Women collect water in plastic bottles
South Asia is expected to experience more extreme heat in the coming decadesImage: Satyajit Shaw/DW

A study published last week found that increasing temperatures in South Asia are connected to a rise in domestic violence against women, with India expected to experience the largest increase.

The study, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry from the American Medical Association, examined the "association of ambient temperature" with the "prevalence of intimate partner violence" in India, Nepal and Pakistan.

The researchers tracked over 194,800 girls and women aged between 15 and 49 to study the prevalence of intimate partner violence, which includes physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.

Overall, the study found that a 1 degree Celsius increase in annual mean temperature was associated with a 4.5% increase in intimate partner violence.

Although the study showed a heat-related increase in violence across all income groups, the largest increases were among lower-income and rural households.

India a domestic violence hotspot

Out of the three countries examined, India showed the biggest expected increase in abuse connected with a rise in temperature. The study found that a 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature in India was connected with an 8% rise in physical violence and a 7.3% rise in sexual violence against women.

"In the 2090s, India is estimated to experience the highest intimate partner violence prevalence increase at 23.5% followed by 14.8% in Nepal and 5.9% in Pakistan under an unlimited carbon emissions scenario," the study said.

Summer heat breaks records across South Asia

In India, unprecedented heat waves are becoming an annual occurrence. In May, blistering heat swept across large parts of the country, with temperatures hitting 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). 

"Climate extremes are becoming harsher and grimmer by ravaging lives and livelihoods, disproportionately impacting the poorest and most vulnerable communities and contributing to gender-based violence against girls and women," Abinash Mohanty, sector head of climate change and sustainability at IPE-Global, an international development organization, told DW.

South Asia is considered by climate scientists to be the one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change in the world.

A recent study published by World Weather Attribution, an academic group that examines the source of extreme heat, found that climate change makes heat waves in South Asia 30 times more likely.

Mohanty said that social welfare schemes in the region responding to climate change need to consider the connection of extreme heat to gender-based violence.

"Although empirical evidence and data limitations still remain blind spots in quantifying the impact of climate change and gender-based violence, it is imperative for vulnerable countries like India to ensure that climate action plans should converge and address these challenges," said Mohanty.

Connecting extreme heat to domestic violence

Civil society organizations have also recognized that climate change-induced crises have been shown to worsen domestic violence.

"In our experience of working with migrant communities of women and girls in northern India, climate change-induced migration has only exacerbated gender-based violence," Sonal Kapoor, founder of Protsahan India Foundation, an organization working to end gender-based violence, told DW.

"Climate-induced vulnerabilities are not just about people in cities needing more air conditioning. It will be about entire communities ceasing to exist because of disproportionate exposure to natural disasters and with the least accessibility to even basic resources to cope," said Kapoor.

Extreme heat has also been found to decrease working hours for daily wage workers, which reduces income and forces family members to spend more time at home. This increases domestic workloads for women and leads to tension and anger among men who find themselves unable to provide.

"Women in low-income households and neighborhoods bear the burden of care. They are vulnerable and bear the brunt of violence from their male companions in economic downturns and loss of employment opportunities," Kalpana Viswanath, a researcher on gender inclusive urbanization, told DW.

The JAMA study also found that economic strain from decreased agricultural production and labor efficiency and deteriorating living environments due to damage caused by extreme weather events could also exacerbate domestic violence.

"Any kind of stress triggers domestic violence. With South Asia having the least penetration of air conditioning, stress created by heat is leading to more domestic violence. I believe that the climate crisis will lead to more domestic and social discord," Chandra Bhushan, CEO of the International Forum for Environment, Sustainability and Technology, told DW.

Why climate change is harder on women

Edited by: Wesley Rahn 

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11