9 months ago

Heatwaves and women: an unseen health crisis

A woman rides with her head covered from the sun during hot summer in Bhopal, capital of India's Madhya Pradesh state, July 6, 2023 — Xinhua Photo
A woman rides with her head covered from the sun during hot summer in Bhopal, capital of India's Madhya Pradesh state, July 6, 2023 — Xinhua Photo

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The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently announced that the era of global warming has ended, and the era of global boiling has begun. This affirmation came after July 2023 was globally declared as the ‘hottest month’ in around 120,000 years. Intense heatwaves swept through various regions of the Northern Hemisphere, including the Southwest of the United States (US) and Mexico, Southern Europe, and China. Countries in Asia also recorded soaring temperatures, climbing astonishing peaks of 45 degrees celsius in Myanmar, 44.5 degrees celsius in India, and 41.9 degrees celsius in China. In April 2023, Dhaka hit its highest temperature of 40.6°C in 58 years.

Such exorbitant temperature and humidity levels pose multifaceted risks to the human body. Wet-bulb temperature calculates how heat and humidity collectively impact the body’s cooling ability, creating a more comprehensive indicator for reading temperature. Health experts suggest that a wet-bulb temperature exceeding 35 degrees celsius would transcend the body’s capacity to cool itself through sweating. Heightened wet-bulb temperature raises alarming health concerns, especially in countries like Bangladesh, where a significant proportion of working population is engaged in informal sectors and work gruelling hours under extreme heat due to lack of alternatives.

The effect of heatwaves on the human body is not gender neutral. Women experience the greatest reverberation of torrid temperature levels, which can intensify existing gender disparities and pose unique threats to their wellbeing. While discussions frequently revolve around the overall repercussion of heatwaves on human health, they often overlook the distinct gender-specific ramifications.

Heatwaves are a prolonged period of exceptionally high temperature. Elevated humidity levels are often associated with periods of high temperature levels. According to reports, heat waves triggered by climate change will hit women harder in comparison to men.

DISPROPORTIONATE IMPACT OF HEATWAVES ON GENDERS: Let us take the case of Zahra Begum, a 32-year-old domestic help at a house in Dhaka, who said, “I toil in five different households, in this scorching heat. It’s an uphill battle; the heat makes me feel physically drained and dizzy. Just last Monday, I fainted because of the extreme heat. However, taking a day off isn’t an option for me, as it means a deduction from my already meagre salary. When I finally return home, my husband rests, but I can’t. Despite the sweltering conditions that make standing near the stove unbearable, I must cook for my children and husband. The unforgiving heat affects our sleep, and my children often fall ill. Despite waking up with anxiety and fatigue, I must go to work and look after my family. Heat is making our lives miserable.”

Women like Zahra are not only at a higher risk of experiencing physical complications but also often end up playing an unacknowledged role of primary caregivers for their family members affected by heat-related illness.

According to medical experts, extreme heat can have detrimental effects on different facets of women’s reproductive, menstrual and maternal health, affecting menstruation, fertility, pregnancy, and menopause, thus disturbing all phases of a woman’s life. Heat stress can jeopardise the body’s normal hormonal balance and interfere with menstrual cycle, leading to irregular periods, increased menstrual flow, increased menstrual pain (dysmenorrhoea) and absence of menstruation (amenorrhea).

Dehydration is one of the most immediate consequences of heat, spilling over to other health issues like headaches, dizziness, and fatigue. Dehydration can also negatively affect the reproductive system by decreasing cervical mucus production. Furthermore, heat can also cause increased fertility complications by causing damage to the ova, decreasing their quality, and impairing ovulation.

Moreover, women and adolescents feel considerable discomfort managing their periods during extreme weather events. During heatwaves, many females face difficulties accessing adequate ventilation, making it challenging to stay comfortable during menstruation. Social factors intensify already existing gender inequality. Women generally are expected to conform to culturally accepted clothing choices or norms, which limit their ability to cool themselves.

Women, during pregnancy, experience greater physiological susceptibility to heat due to differences in thermoregulation. Expectant mothers face heightened risk during heatwaves, as heat induced dehydration can result in preterm labour, premature birth, and low birth weight in infants. Extreme heat is linked to a higher rate of preterm and stillbirths. Expectant mothers are also more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses such as exhaustion and heat stroke. Heat exposure during pregnancy also elevates the risk of gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia, and other pregnancy-related issues, which can lead to serious long-term health complications for both the mother and the child.

In addition to health challenges, heat waves also pose threats to mental well-being. Long term exposure to extreme heat can give rise to mental health issues, including increased stress, sleep deprivation, anxiety, and irritability, which can significantly deteriorate overall quality of life. Anxiety disorders become more prevalent as temperatures and humidity rise. According to the World Bank, positive correlation exists between humidity and temperature levels and anxiety disorders. The convergence of health challenges, economic burdens, coupled with the responsibility of caring for family members often culminates in substantial mental health distress among women.

POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS: As heatwaves become more prevalent and acute, it is necessary that we understand and address the unique health challenges faced by women. Solutions involve increasing accessibility to cooling methods, enhancing urban planning for heat resilience, implementing healthcare initiatives tailored especially for women, and rolling out awareness campaigns that acknowledge the gender-specific impacts of heat. Additionally, addressing climate change itself is very important. Sustainable practices, climate adaptative strategies, and policies that especially focus on women’s health are important.

Furthermore, there is also a pressing need for more action research and knowledge generation to draw attention to this issue and accentuate its importance. This will help in formulating effective solutions and policies.

As we witness climate change transforming our Earth, the vulnerability of women amidst this unseen health crisis serves as a reminder for the need for urgent action to safeguard women and prioritise their well-being during bouts of excessive heat or heat waves.


Pragga Nilanjana Saha is a researcher, currently working at the SAJIDA Foundation in Dhaka.

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