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As Heat Soars in India, so Does Domestic Violence

Members of a “Jugnu” club get trained by UN Women to support women who experience gender-based violence. Credit: UN Women

NEW DELHI, India, Jul 4 2024 (IPS) - As the temperature soars to new heights in India, so does domestic violence. It’s a well-established correlation that is largely left out of the climate change discussion, but the gap is glaring and needs to be bridged.

For the third summer in a row, temperatures in India are breaking historical records. The recent record high of 52.9° C (127.22° F), has resulted in loss of livelihood, water rationing, health impacts, and even death. The heat affects some more than others. As people are advised to shelter at home, those in lower economic strata contend with cramped living situations, lack of air conditioning, and power cuts.

Women bear the worst impacts. New Delhi’s Heat Action Plan (HAP) registers their greater vulnerability – noting, for example, that they’re more susceptible to falling sick from the heat compared to men, the heightened risks for pregnant people, and greater expectations of women to be caretakers. But it fails to note the increased threat of violence.¬¬¬¬¬

It is well-documented that temperature extremes lead to an increase in domestic violence cases, with low-income women bearing the brunt. In South Asia, for every degree that the temperature rises, domestic violence increases about 6%.

As India grapples with its large carbon footprint, rising temperatures, and growing population, intimate partner violence can be expected to increase drastically. P¬¬ar¬¬¬ticularly if greenhouse gas emissions aren’t regulated effectively, India could see a spike in domestic violence of more than 20% by the end of the century.

Extreme temperatures are associated with frustration, aggression, and disruptions in people’s daily routines. Researchers theorize this is the reason why heat has a such a strong influence on rates of intimate partner violence.

For low-income daily wage laborers in India, heat may result in loss of livelihood and income. Economic stress and resultant anxiety can significantly increase domestic violence risk.

In addition, women are expected to be caretakers for the family, which gives them little chance of escape from abusers and increases their vulnerability under extreme conditions. This phenomenon was prevalent during Covid-19 pandemic, when the “shadow pandemic” of domestic violence affected women across India.

The pandemic also revealed strong patterns of economic abuse of women due to unequal power dynamics within the family.

Despite research demonstrating this, the spike in domestic violence during heat waves remains hush-hush. New Delhi’s Heat Action Plan (HAP) does not mention gender-based violence even once across its 66 pages.

While it acknowledges women as a vulnerable group and deals with increased risk during pregnancy, other risks to women remain shrouded in the vagueness of “social norms” and “gender discrimination.” Failing to address the threat of intimate partner violence explicitly leaves out a key piece of the puzzle.

The omission has manifold impacts. It lets policymakers shy away from confronting the issue, creating a gap in policy at the highest level. It sets up government workers tasked with implementing the plans such as New Delhi’s HAP on the ground for failure.

With no guidance on how to deal with the predictable increase in domestic violence during extreme heat, government can offer little support for women who need it. Mahila Panchayats (“women’s councils”) and grassroots non-profits often help rural and low-income women find support and community, but extreme weather can cut them off from these resources.

Forced to stay indoors and unable to access help, women have little recourse or respite. In theory, India’s laws protect them. But in practice, implementation is spotty, and they remain vulnerable.

India’s climate policy must not leave women out in the cold. New Delhi’s Heat Action Plan and other policy initiatives must protect women and offer them accessible support. First responders and government workers must be given the tools they need to help support those at risk for domestic violence, not only during heat waves but year-round.

Finally, India’s problem with domestic violence might be exacerbated during the summers but is not unique to them. India needs a suite of policies and concrete actions to contend with rising intimate partner violence, starting at the grassroots level and prioritizing education, employment, economic stability, and family planning for all.

Heat waves and the stressors they bring might be unforeseeable in a sense, but rising temperatures and rising domestic violence are completely predictable effects of climate change. There’s no excuse for failing to redress them.

By leaving women vulnerable year after year, we are doing a disservice, both to women who need help and to the institutions that they place their trust in.

Umang Dhingra is a Duke University undergraduate and a Stanback Fellow at the Population Institute, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that supports reproductive health and rights.

IPS UN Bureau


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