Extreme heat has a unique impact on women's lives in Asia and the Pacific. Effective, gender-responsive strategies are needed to build resilience and ensure women’s health and economic security.
Climate change is increasing the intensity, frequency, and duration of heatwaves, with 2023 shaping up to be the warmest year on record. In May, Viet Nam and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic recorded their highest temperatures ever, while in June, Bangladesh faced its most prolonged heatwave in decades.
As the world grapples with a rapidly warming climate, we are only beginning to understand how to prepare for heatwaves with urgency. They pose threats to every aspect of our lives, including public health, economic productivity, food security, and environmental quality.
While heatwaves will impact everyone, the experiences of women and men will differ significantly. Inequality and gender shape people's experiences of heatwaves. The poor, for instance, have a 40% higher exposure to heatwaves, and in places like Dhaka’s informal settlements, temperatures have been recorded at 12 degrees higher. Heat stress disproportionately affects women’s health, livelihoods, and security, presenting unique challenges that require targeted support and solutions.
Consider the daily cycle of a woman living in a heatwave-prone area: a mother spends long evenings trying to cool off her children for sleep, often walking up and down a cooler outdoor area due to the prohibitive electricity costs of using a fan. Sleep-deprived, she begins her morning cooking over a hot stove, followed by work where heat is relentless. If she works outdoors, as is likely in informal sectors like agriculture, it’s often under the glaring heat of the sun. If she is a home-based worker living in an informal settlement, the tin roof on her home turns it into an oven, making temperatures unbearable.
If she is from a country where there are cultural constraints on her mobility and clothing, she may not have a choice but to stay indoors and suffer through the heat. Despite limited access to water and sanitation, she may choose not to drink enough anyway if it means not having to look for a toilet too often.
If she is pregnant, she faces particularly heightened risks during heatwaves, but may not have access to crucial information to prevent complications. School closures can force her to forego income to care for their children.
Developing and implementing heat action plans, in consultation with women, is urgently needed to address the gendered impact of extreme heat, ensuring a more resilient and equitable future.
Extreme heat will have the heaviest impact on men and women who work outdoors in sectors with high levels of informality, such as street vendors, agricultural and construction workers, and also affects those in workplaces needing cooling, like factories or garment industries.
Among the ten countries with the heaviest labor losses predicted due to heat exposure, seven are in Asia, and the International Labour Organization estimates a potential loss of 5% in total working hours in South Asia. However, this loss is not uniformly distributed – women, who are more often informally employed than men, are disproportionately affected. In South Asia, women homeworkers make up nearly one quarter of total female employment, compared to just 6% of men.
Social and gender norms also restrict women's mobility, often confining them indoors during heatwaves without access to cooler, shaded outdoor spaces. Consequently, women face a higher risk of adverse health outcomes from heat stress, including higher mortality rates, especially among elderly women.
Research indicates that indoor heat significantly reduces women's work capacity. In India, home-based workers have reported up to a 30% drop in income due to indoor temperatures too high for work. A Cambodian survey likewise found that 22% of female factory workers reported reduced work capacity due to heat stress, with 6% missing work days, and 67% stating that heat stress at home affected their health.
Other health impacts include workplace injuries, heat-related illness, and chronic kidney disease. These are prevalent among agricultural workers and in communities lacking adequate water and sanitation, like informal settlements. Additionally, indoor cooking during heatwaves can intensify health risks due to heat and pollution.
The data on heat stress's impact on women, especially during pregnancy, is increasingly worrying. For instance, each 1°C increase in temperature has been linked to a 6% rise in preterm births and a 16% increase during heatwaves. Similarly, the risk of stillbirths grows by 5% per 1°C rise in temperature.
Addressing heat stress demands a comprehensive, multi-sectoral approach, encompassing health systems, workplaces, schools, social protection, financial planning, and disaster risk management. These sectors must rapidly adapt and incorporate strategies that specifically address women’s unique needs in the face of rising temperatures.
To adapt effectively to a warming planet, a deeper understanding of gender inequality's role in women's resilience to heatwaves is essential. Despite the increasing heat stress impacts, the multiple consequences on women have not been thoroughly examined, highlighting a critical gap in current research and action.
Developing and implementing heat action plans, in consultation with women, is urgently needed. We need innovative and accessible solutions, like passive cooling and nature-based approaches, particularly in urban areas to counter the 'heat island effect'. Such solutions not only offer immediate relief but also build long-term resilience, especially for women and the economically disadvantaged.
Countries in the region, and their development partners, need to focus on developing knowledge, gender-responsive planning, and identifying innovative solutions to tackle the gendered impact of extreme heat, with a particular focus Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Tajikistan.
By equipping women to face the challenges of a warming world, we pave the way for a more resilient, equitable future. As we confront the reality that extreme heat will change every aspect of women's lives, the question arises: Are we ready? The answer is clear. We're not ready yet, but with the right steps, we can be.
The blog is based on research related to the project Strengthening Women’s Resilience to Heat Stress in Asia and the Pacific, which is featured in discussions at COP28.