Women of the Rivers of South Asia - MHI




Women of the Rivers 
of South Asia: 

Unpsoken Trauma, Stress,
and Moral Policing In The
Face of Climate Change

Chhaya Namchu


Upasana Agarwal


illustrator’s bio

Amreeta Banerjee

Alice A. Barwa completed her MA in Education from Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Univerity, Delhi (AUD), in 2022, and is from the Oraon Adivasi community, a native of Chhotanagpur Plateau, Chhattisgarh. She has been an advocate for Adivasi rights and voices as a member of an Adivasi youth collective @TheAdivasiPost, and has been an Adivasi youth representative at UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2021. Her research interests include education, culture, sociology, and linguistics.

Through the course of this writing, I reconnected with women who, like me, have experience working with riverine communities as facilitators, researchers, activists, storytellers, and friends. Going back to our work and shared experiences helped us to reflect on how we have encountered the issue of mental well-being amongst women affected by climate change, which is otherwise sidelined to make room for more ‘urgent’ physical catastrophes.
Minket Lepcha, from Darjeeling, has been working in the Transboundary Rivers of Mahakali (Ganga) and the Brahmaputra for over 10 years, first as a filmmaker (Voices of Teesta) and now as a storyteller. She shared how as an indigenous woman herself, she felt that the medium of storytelling was easier to connect with and understand the soul of the rivers, issues of climate change, and the lives circling the rivers from the perspectives of the women themselves. This medium of storytelling and coming together has been a source of therapy and solidarity for women who face both physical and mental adversities as a consequence of climatic impacts. 

Discourses on climate change can often be restricted to academic, scientific, and political platforms. Vulnerable communities and people who bear the brunt of climate change, displacement, and climate-induced disasters end up as data figures and objects of studies. In this complexity of work on climate change, we fail to humanise the local people and stories, and personal and collective narratives become case studies in reports and publications. 

Studies are derived through a process of data collection, questionnaires, and carefully-curated indicators – such as level of rainfall, change in cropping patterns, and so on – all of which are driven by numbers and pre-determined assumptions. Almost always, the dominant issues of concern are measured in terms of physical casualties and tangible damages to property and infrastructure. This, unfortunately, leaves out the voices and perspectives of local communities, especially of women. 


The mainstream discourse on climate change which focusses on infrastructural damage, climate hazards, and data-driven findings may not be representative of all of its stakeholders. This is because women are often left out of this whole dynamic. This is especially true of rural areas in South Asia, wherein the burden of society and household chores create obstacles for women when it comes to participating in decision-making processes. Merely opening up opportunities and extending invitations for women to participate is not adequate – there is a need to create access and spaces for women. As a researcher working on gender and climate change across the South Asian Himalayan rivers, I often encountered this complex issue wherein women would attend meetings only because the project demanded them to. Mere attendance did not ensure the participation of women, especially in the presence of senior members and men. 

Evidence, experience, and literature have shown time and again that women are more vulnerable than men to the impacts of climate change. This is seen evident in the case of riverine communities across South Asia (Ganga and Teesta Brahmaputra dominantly – which, although divided by borders, are bound together by the shared impacts of climatic and anthropogenic changes in the form of floods, droughts, and displacement).  However, while discussing climate change impacts on women, we discuss them in relation to natural hazards, migration, livelihoods, food and water insecurity, and biodiversity loss. This limits the narrative of women, as there are far more layers to this than just broad areas and themes. Furthermore, issues of women are measured through factors of livelihoods, physical threats, and increased workload, and although this is valid and true, it also diminishes other areas that are equally important such as mental health, emotional well-being, and need for solidarity and support within their households and communities. 

Weather, women, bodies, and beyond

Women are seen in relation to their physical bodies – as caregivers to families and communities, contributors to livelihood streams like agriculture, fishing, and daily wage, and even as primary victims of climate impacts. The threats attached to women are immediately and solely seen in relation to their bodies and sexuality. This is true, as displacement caused as a consequence of disasters makes women more vulnerable because of their high dependence on natural resources, low sources of income, and lack of access to public and cultural institutions. This insecurity is known best to women who, as a consequence of flooding, not only face physical harm but also household-level breakdowns as men have to move away looking for better livelihood opportunities. 

Zerin Ahmed from Dhaka is a young river activist who has also been working with Oxfam in Bangladesh. Zerin has continued to keep in touch with the women she has met living along the flood-affected villages in downstream Brahmaputra. Out of the innumerable stories, she speaks of women who have lost their childhood homes and villages to the floods. The impact of displacement is both physically and mentally draining on women, she adds. Women and girls who are suddenly pushed out of their safe spaces of homes and community have to deal with the trauma and insecurity of facing the fear of physical, sexual, and mental vulnerability. 

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports have been validating these local experiences through their publications. The 2012 IPCC report warned us about global warming and unpredictable precipitation leading to more destructive and frequent floods. Even as early as 1990, the IPCC had pointed to migration as the greatest consequence of climate change. This is evident across many rural communities but even more so along river communities. Unpredictable rainfall patterns and flood displacements force the men especially to migrate, looking for alternative livelihood opportunities. Kriti Shrestha, from Practical Action in Nepal, has been working on climate change in Nepal. She has worked with women along the Gandak River (Ganga) and reiterated this very point on migration. She added how, following male migration, it is observed that women are suddenly pushed into public spaces. The women who are left behind have an increase in burden and responsibilities – looking after their homes and their communities. Too often, these women who have to move outside the home space for daily activities, face moral policing and are criticised by the older generation. Women who want to participate in public meetings and community services become the subject of gossip. The mental stress that women and girls face is multi-layered and arises out of all forms of vulnerabilities. While mental health issues in women are mostly studied with reference to disaster relief and post destruction, we must work towards normalising discussion on mental health at all levels of society, and not only as a last relief measure. 

Women will continue to build solutions and connect like the river

However, despite all adversities, Minket, Zerin, and Kriti agree that women of the rivers continue to form groups and push towards participation and opportunities in councils, even adopting art as a medium of relief to create a space where they can share and express their shared trauma and concerns. In a long list of priorities in the face of climate change, we must understand the need to build spaces for these women to share, and to heal and rebuild the communities that centred on the resilience of the women of the rivers. 

Cite this Article View all References


  • Dewan, Camelia. Translating Climate Change. Misreading the Bengal Delta: Climate Change, Development, and Livelihoods in Coastal​ Bangladesh, University of Washington Press. 2021. pp. 48–73. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv2114fm3.10 
  • Field, C.B. et al (Eds), IPCC, 2012: Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation. A Special Report of Working Groups I and II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 2012. pp. 582, https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/03/SREX_Full_Report-1.pdf
  • Kotze, P., Chakma, N. Women and Rivers’ Defender Spotlight: Zerin Ahmed, International Rivers. 28 January, 2022. https://www.internationalrivers.org/news/women-and-rivers-defender-spotlight-zerin-ahmed/
  • Mathur, Kanchan. Body as Space, Body as Site: Bodily Integrity and Women’s Empowerment in India. Economic and Political Weekly. vol. 43, no. 17, 2008. pp. 54–63. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40277391. 
  • Nellemann, C., Verma, R., and Hislop, L. Women at the frontline of climate change: Gender risks and hopes. A Rapid Response Assessment. United Nations Environment Programme, GRID-Arendal. 2011. https://wedocs.unep.org/handle/20.500.11822/7985
  • Patel, et al. Climate change and women in South Asia: a review and future policy implications. World Journal of Science, Technology and Sustainable Development.    Vol 17, No. 2, 2020. pp. 145-166, Climate change and women in South Asia: a review and future policy implications | Emerald Insight
  • Smith, Elizabeth Seymour. Climate Change  in Women, Peace and Security  National  Action Plans. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2020. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep25311.
  • Sungden, F., et al. A framework to understand gender and structural vulnerability to climate change in the Ganges River Basin: lessons from Bangladesh, India and Nepal. Colombo, Sri Lanka.  International Water Management Institute (IWMI). Working Paper, 2014, pp. 159, http://dx.doi.org/10.5337/2014.230
  • Turning the tides and telling Stories. Oxfam Asia. 25 November, 2020. https://asia.oxfam.org/latest/image-story/turning-tides-telling-stories-minket-lepcha
  • Ugwu, L. I. , and D. I. Ugwu. Gender, Floods and Mental Health: The Way Forward. International Journal of Asian Social Science, vol. 3, no. 4, Apr. 2013. pp. 1030-42, https://archive.aessweb.com/index.php/5007/article/view/2474.



C : Locating Adivasi Self within Environmental Jus...