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Climate change impacts: Women in Sri Lanka often bearing the brunt of violence as increasingly frequent heatwaves, droughts, floods and storms exacerbate economic hardship

With drought and erratic rains depleting harvests, women farmers in Sri Lanka tell of beatings by husbands as incomes shrink. DIMUTHU ATTANAYAKE, of Thomson Reuters Foundation, reports…

Sapumal Thenna, Sri Lanka
Thomson Reuters Foundation

After years of scant rainfall in a remote region of Sri Lanka, farmer Renuka Karunarathna’s crops failed and as the family’s income dwindled, her husband took his anger out on her, beating her so badly she had to go to hospital.

“I have got beaten up so many times,” Karunarathna told Context in her village of Sapumal Thenna in Sri Lanka’s North Central Province. “I suffer a lot.”

Renuka Karunarathna speaks to another woman farmer near Sapumal Thenna in Sri Lanka in August, 2023. PICTURE: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Ranga Udugama

Domestic violence is a little-studied side effect of climate change, especially in poorer nations where increasingly frequent heatwaves, droughts, floods and storms can exacerbate economic hardship, which in turn can fuel anger and violence.

As families fall into penury because of failed harvests and lost incomes, researchers and affected women say men sometimes take their frustrations out on family members, with women often bearing the brunt of the violence, especially in cultures where such behaviour is already commonplace.

“There are records of domestic violence where men beat their wives, when even the smallest issues in regard to buying food or expenses for children’s education or farming have to be discussed.”

– Rashmini de Silva, a gender and climate change researcher.

Karunarathna said she and her husband would fight over little things and he would often hit her. She had to seek hospital treatment several times.

She did report some of the incidents to the police but was told to try to make peace with her husband “for the sake of the children” – a common piece of advice in conservative Sri Lankan society where domestic violence is relatively common.

Although Sri Lanka has few detailed statistics on the links between climate change-related crop failures and gender-based violence, Rashmini de Silva, a gender and climate change researcher, said when basic needs are not being met, women can suffer physical, verbal and psychological abuse.

“There are records of domestic violence where men beat their wives, when even the smallest issues in regard to buying food or expenses for children’s education or farming have to be discussed,” she said.

Renuka Karunarathna sits in a neighbour’s home in Sapumal Thenna, Sri Lanka, in August 2023. PICTURE: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Ranga Udugama

Sri Lanka is among the countries most affected by extreme weather events but even as it tries to build more resilience, it is still grappling with the fallout from its worst financial crisis in decades after a severe shortage of foreign exchange reserves shattered the economy in 2022.

It is estimated that close to 19 million Sri Lankans may live in areas that could become moderate or severe hotspots in terms of floods or droughts by 2050.

According to Sri Lanka’s 2023 national policy on climate change, climate-induced hazards in the country have increased 22-fold during the last decade compared to 1973-1983.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in its sixth assessment report in 2022 that climate change can harm mental health, causing anxiety and anger and sometimes fuelling drug and alcohol use, and violence.

“During and after extreme weather events, women, girls and LGBTQI people are at increased risk of domestic violence, harassment, sexual violence and trafficking,” it said.

In 2019, Sri Lanka’s Department of Census and Statistics carried out its first dedicated national survey on violence against women.

The Women’s Wellbeing Survey found women were more than twice as likely to have experienced physical violence by a partner than by a non-partner. Nearly 40 per cent said they had experienced physical, sexual, emotional or economic violence or controlling behaviour from partners.

The survey also found that women did not disclose violence for fear of social pressure and stigma and because they did not want to disrupt the family. Meanwhile, more than one-third of women said men can have a good reason to hit their wives.

The financial and mental strain of living with the effects of extreme weather events seems to exacerbate the problem of violence against women in rural areas.

Another farmer from Sapumal Thenna – who asked that her name not be used for fear of reprisals – said she had not been able to grow enough rice to feed her family in recent years, with elephants sometimes eating part of the harvest while other stalks produced “empty grains” because of water scarcity.

She said food shortages had led to violence at home.

“With the economic problems, I end up getting beaten up,” she said. “When there is no money, when we talk about expenses, it builds up to a fight.”

Renuka Karunarathna and other women farmers stand in the forest area near Sapumal Thenna where they want to make a small reservoir, August, 2023. PICTURE: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Ranga Udugam

Just over a quarter of Sri Lankans were employed in agriculture in 2021, and about a third of those were women, according to government statistics.

Many women grow crops on family-owned land to feed their families, selling any surplus, while others work as farm labourers. Most of the country’s food crops are grown by small-scale farmers with properties of less than one hectare

But as floods and droughts become more frequent – and as rain patterns and temperatures change, largely as a result of climate change – crop losses are becoming regular.

Although Sapumal Thenna is surrounded by reservoirs built to collect rainwater for rice cultivation during the dry season, many farms do not have access to the canals that carry the water.

This means Karunarathna and other farmers are dependent on rainwater, and can only grow crops during the monsoon season, known as Maha, which lasts from September to March. A second monsoon, the Yala, which occurs from May to August, does not reach Karunarathna’s region.

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The women are trying to renovate a long-abandoned ancient water storage tank to store rainwater.

“If we have at least a little bit of water, we can farm paddy one season, and grow pulses in the next,” Karunarathna said.

These climate stresses – and the resulting domestic violence – are repeated in other communities across this island of 22 million people, including in Uva province in the south.

Since 1984, large areas of forest in the district of Monaragala have been cleared for banana and sugar plantations by multinational companies, contributing to an “acute change in climate,” said KP Somalatha, a farmer and leader of the Uva Wellassa Women’s Organisation.

A range of reservoirs, creeks and wells that once supplied water are also drying up because of this, she said.

“Rains stop, droughts come, and then there are cyclones,” said Somalatha, who has worked in the area for more than two decades.

KP Somalatha, a leader from the Uva Wellassa Women’s Organisation, gestures as she speaks during an interview in Handapanagala, Wellawaya, Sri Lanka, on August, 2023. PICTURE: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Ranga Udugama

Harvest failures are becoming more common, decimating traditional vegetable cultivation, known as Chena, and slashing incomes for women, leaving them more reliant on their husbands, she said.

As the women lose the income that ensured their independence, some are denied permission by their husbands even to visit their own parents or siblings, exacerbating gender-based violence, Somalatha said.

“If they try to leave home, they are beaten up or scolded,” she said. “Their dignity is shattered.”

Women obey because they have to survive, she said.

“What can they do if the husband beats them up when the doors are closed?,” Somalatha asked. “They are terrified.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.



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