India is one of the world's worst countries for air pollution, with women more likely to be affected by the problem than men. Now, experts and activists are fighting to reframe pollution as a gendered health crisis.
MUMBAI — In New Delhi, a city that has topped urban air-pollution charts in recent years, Shakuntala describes a discomfort that has become too familiar. Surrounded by bricks and austere buildings, she tells an interviewer: "The eyes burn and it becomes difficult to breathe". She is referring to the noxious fumes she routinely breathes as a construction worker.
Like Shakuntala, women’s experiences of polluted air fill every corner of their lives – inside homes, in parks and markets, on the way to work. Ambient air in most districts in India has never been worse than it is today. As many as 1.67 million people in the country die prematurely due to polluted air. It is India’s second largest health risk after malnutrition.
This risk of exposure to air pollution is compounded for women. Their experiences of toxic air are more frequent and often more hazardous. Yet “policies around air quality have not yet adequately taken into account gender or other factors that might influence people’s health,” Pallavi Pant, a senior scientist at the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit in the U.S., told The Wire Science.
“It’s unacceptable that the biggest burden [rests on] those who can least bear it,” Sherebanu Frosh, an activist, added. People like her are building a unique resistance within India.
Sherebanu herself recently joined "Warrior Moms", a women-led movement to raise awareness of air pollution as a women’s health issue. It is a way for the country’s people most vulnerable to hazardous air to simultaneously learn and educate others – about how the air they breathe is also the air that kills.
Gender-based social roles, lack of economic agency, caste structures and restricted access to healthcare shape women’s experiences of polluted air. They are exposed more to household air pollution. In India’s tribal households and houses occupied by people belonging to marginalized castes, people are almost 30% less likely to have cleaner cooking fuel to use.
The risk is as severe inside as it is outside. In Bhopal, in central India, a pilot study in 2015 found that women were more likely to walk to work or to use public transport like autos, and were thus exposed more to higher levels of outdoor air pollution – where the fine concentration is 6.8-times worse than the WHO’s guidelines.
Air pollution is a health crisis shaped by patriarchy and gender inequity
Next, many women are employed in occupations like sweeping, construction work and brick-laying, all of which expose them to more air pollution exposure as well as pay little. A survey in Delhi in May 2022 among women construction workers found that 75% of women felt sick or uncomfortable when the air was bad. But “94% of women never raised their voice or took any steps … due to the fear of losing their jobs,” the survey report said.
Air pollution impairs women’s ability to work and their health, leading to worse reproductive health outcomes for women, painful menstruation, an increased risk of depression and, of course, puts them at risk of financial despair.
“I don’t think women realize the full extent of their vulnerability,” said Nina Subramani, a Chennai-based resident and a member of Warrior Moms.
Many women are employed in occupations like brick-laying, which expose them to more air pollution exposure
Toxic dust and smoke
Policies in India don’t recognize women as constituting a vulnerable group despite the higher risk to their reproductive, sexual and mental health. Community-based solutions, including those helmed by women, are shaping up to be one answer to this.
“There’s a lot of data already but data is just numbers. We need women to come out and speak up about their issues so that there are faces behind the numbers,” Subramani said. Last year, "Warrior Mons" wrote to the Delhi government objecting to its vague projects and policy documents, which spoke of eco-waste parks and smog towers but failed to account for women’s concerns in particular.
Some women in Delhi are also working with the Mahila Housing Trust as “AQI ambassadors”, with the task of spreading awareness among the people through newsletters, street plays and plastering posters on e-rickshaws that shuffle through the roads.
Shakuntala said she was asked to wear masks and full-sleeved clothes when she was out and that she had to urge her employer to splash water around the construction site to dampen the toxic dust and smoke.
Greater awareness among women “can be a useful first step in greater engagement for clean air for all,” Pant agreed.
In Korba, an industrial zone in the land-locked state of Chhattisgarh, coal is everywhere, and for the marginalized Adivasi people — the original tribal inhabitants of India — in the area, the relentless “developmental” operations have put residents at risk of asthma and bronchitis. Here, mitanin – women community health workers – serve as public health messengers, explaining to women and children how air pollution affects their health.
“‘Mitanin’ means someone who is a friend, an ally to the community,” Bijoya Roy, a gender studies researcher, said. Their rootedness in the communities allows them to reach women who don’t have the means to access healthcare facilities or the corresponding knowledge.
What we need
A grey blanket of pollutants – a fugue of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone and lead – appears to be deceptively distant, and thus harmless. But “it is safe to say that there is a gender, class, and caste bias in the environmental injustices arising from air pollution,” Mithali Ranganathan, an associate professor at American University, Washington D.C., said. Yet it is rarely seen through the intersectional lens of environmental justice.
“Since the decision makers aren’t giving birth, or bearing the burden of children and elderly care, air pollution is a problem invisible to them,” Sherebanu added.
The most fundamental need is then of visibility – of reframing air pollution as a health crisis shaped by patriarchy and gender inequity. “We have had multi-level, multilingual public health messaging on nutrition, sanitation, water, and it is time to consider a similar approach for air pollution,” Pant said.
There is insufficient data to account for gender, class and caste differences in how people are impacted by air pollution. An investigation by the Council of Energy, Environment and Water found no mention of gender or caste in city-level plans to curb air pollution in India’s National Clean Air Programme.
Women have historically been sidelined in environmental movements
While national policy addresses indoor pollution, there is very little understanding of how outdoor pollution affects women specifically. In this way lawmakers and policymakers remain oblivious to marginalization and repeatedly fail to make it part of mitigation policies.
Experts have argued that a comprehensive national data collection exercise would make it easier to monitor progress as well. “Rather than address air pollution in silos,” said Pant, “we need to integrate it into our decision-making across sectors such as health, employment, and welfare.”
This lacuna also raises concerns about women’s representation in local governance. According to Pant, mere election is not enough: we need more “inclusive processes that create opportunities for women’s voices to be heard.” Women have historically been sidelined in environmental movements – be it those focused on land, water, air or soil. Protests that articulate their loss and struggles thus fall into a long history of defiance.
At its heart, the fight for clean air is a climate issue as much as it is one against social inequity. The contention is that women should be seen in the entirety of their personhood: as people who work, people who take care of others, people with sexual and menstrual identities, and people who have a right to breathe clean air.
*Saumya Kalia is a journalist in Mumbai with a focus on health, social equity and culture.