agricultural crops

Climate Change, Water, and Gender – Some Unusual Connections

agricultural crops
Image: FAO/Ishara Kodikara

Nearly 300,000 farmers have committed suicide in India in the last 20 years due to this combination of debt and drought.

July 16, 2016 — As many parts of the world see record summer temperatures this year, one of the negative fallouts has been water related problems. 

Water problems in turn set off a long train of other challenges, many of which are particularly invidious for women.

One tragic kind of water problem that has acquired some publicity in recent years is that connected with what are called “farmer suicides.” This term refers to the suicides by large numbers of small landowners in parts of Western and Central India who have been driven to kill themselves because delayed or absent monsoons have destroyed their only means of livelihood – crops for sale. Their situation has been exacerbated because a failed crop means not only the absence of an income to survive on; it also means an inability to pay back the loans for fertilizer, pesticides, and other agricultural inputs that have preceded the poor harvest.

These farmer suicides are largely male. But women are impacted in several ways that we are only now becoming aware of.

First, several “farmer suicides” are also by women; they often don’t get recognized or registered in the farmer suicide statistics because the women do not have the legal title to land and these statistics are about small landowners taking their lives. These are women who had taken on the primary responsibility for cultivation either when a husband was still alive (but not available to work – for reasons of illness, alcoholism, or absentia) or after the death (frequently a “farmer suicide”) or desertion of a husband.

In addition, there is the huge economic, social, and emotional impact of farmer suicides on the women left behind. To begin with, many of these widows face severe discrimination and abuse in a patriarchal system that still devalues widows. But in addition, many of these women suddenly have to manage the unproductive land that drove their husbands to suicide in the first place, they have to find ways to feed the hungry children who suffer from the failed agriculture and the rising food prices, and often they have to also face the moneylenders whose loans their husbands died trying to pay off.

Estimates of farmer suicides vary (it is often difficult to pin down the cause of a suicide), but all researchers are agreed that they number in the several thousand each year. By some counts, up to 300,000 farmers might have committed suicide in India in the last 20 years due to this combination of debt and drought.

The women left holding the fort are sometimes paid a compensation from the government, but they are often ineligible for this compensation because of the stringent eligibility requirements: For example, if the dead husband is found to have alcohol in his system, he is deemed to have died of alcoholism rather than debt – whereas the alcoholism is often in fact a way of coping with a loan that is impossible to repay because the rain gods have failed. In any case, the compensation is rarely enough to pay back a loan; moreover it does little for all the other expenses that also pile up – starting from food of course, but also extending to children’s education, children’s healthcare, daughters’ marriages (still a very expensive cultural event in rural India) and investments in agricultural output for the next year. No wonder, many of these destitute women end up selling their land, a short-term panacea that often increases long term distress.

It is not surprising at all that researchers have documented the severe mental problems – panic attacks, depression, and insomnia – that these “left-behind” women grapple with, even as they drag themselves to keep the family going.

The connection between climate change and agricultural drought is not simply one of inadequate precipitation or rain for crops; it also includes situations of there being plenty of water but at the wrong time or in the wrong place; for example, rains coming too early or too late. When that happens, and it seems to be happening more and more frequently now, a treacherous chain of events is set off that intensifies female hardship in ways that we have only now begun to try to understand and do something about.


by Alaka M. Basu | Global Daily