When environments are degraded and forests are cut down, people are forced to plow harder, walk longer to find firewood and water, and dig deeper wells. The added physical strain of this work impacts their health, and severe hunger and a lack of clean water affect their ability to stave off infection.
In less-developed nations, says Kelly Austin, those overworked individuals are primarily women.
In places like Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia, men are more likely to be engaged in the formal market, says Austin, assistant professor of sociology. Gender dynamics lead women to be the liaisons who turn environmental resources into usable household goods. Women plow the fields, grow the food and search for water. Additional time spent on these tasks prevents women from pursuing educational and economic opportunities that might improve their status and therefore have a positive impact on their health.
Austin's research examines the intersection of the environment and health—how changing environmental conditions impact the physical well-being of those living in poor nations. She recently co-authored a paper in the professional journal Social Problems. The paper, "Ecological Losses are Harming Women: A Structural Analysis of Female HIV Prevalence and Life Expectancy in Less-Developed Countries," links environmental degradation to the health of women in poor nations.
Informed by ecofeminist perspectives, which link women's well-being to environmental well-being, the study analyzed the direct and indirect effects of ecological losses on female health outcomes in a structural equation model of 136 less-developed nations. Austin and her co-author, Laura McKinney of Tulane University, found that ecological losses are tied to female HIV and reductions in women's longevity via increased HIV rates, hunger and diminished health resources.
Austin and McKinney found that, in particular, changes to the environment and a decreasing ability to meet household needs significantly impact women's HIV status.
Denied opportunities to earn money due to social inequalities, and faced with the effects of ecological loss on their ability to acquire needed resources, some women turn to what's commonly known as the "food-for-sex trade."
"When women are unable to get the resources they need, like food or water or fuel or firewood, they are maybe more likely to engage in unsafe sexual practices—trade their bodies for money or maybe enter into relationships with older men to secure some economic stability," says Austin. "It's much more likely that those older men have had multiple sexual partners, so they're more likely to be HIV positive. So there's this trickle-down effect."
The relationship between environment and health, Austin and McKinney claim, is likely cyclical and intergenerational "in ways that exacerbate and compound the strife experienced by each successive generation." Developmental and epidemiological approaches to improving women's health may benefit from including environmental dimensions as a key area of concern.
Austin hopes that her research might draw attention to women as essential participants in the global conversation about climate change.
"A phrase I hear a lot in my work in Uganda is, 'It's women who work the land, but men who own it,'" says Austin. "If we really want to think about stewardship of the environment and how we're going to mitigate the effects of climate change, it's really women who should be leading the discussion."
Austin plans to take her examination of environmental degradation and women’s health even further with two more studies. One, currently under review, examines how in societies where women have better socioeconomic standing or more decision-making power, there is less death, illness, hunger and displacement from climate-related disasters. Austin found that women tend to rechannel power into provisions for sanitation systems, schools and other infrastructure that helps to mitigate a natural disaster’s impact on the population.
“It doesn’t stop the flood or hurricane from occurring ... but if you have an improved sanitation system, the chance of it leading to a cholera outbreak is much less in the wake of a flood than if you just have a pit latrine,” says Austin.
In a third study, Austin and her colleague will look at how being impacted by climate disasters relates to female HIV, bringing their examination of HIV, women, and environmental change full circle.
Kelly Austin’s research interests include globalization and development, global health and the environment. She employs both quantitative and qualitative research methods and received her Ph.D. from North Carolina State University.