8 March 2014 – ICJB to United Nations Women: Address Violence Against Women in Ongoing Bhopal Disaster

To: Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director, United Nations Women

cc: Chris Whatley, Executive Director, United Nations Association-USA, New York Robert Skinner, Associate Director, The United Nations Foundation, New York

March 8, 2014

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, and in light of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which emphasize the importance of improving maternal/reproductive health, The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB) wishes to draw your attention to the ongoing plight of women impacted by the Bhopal gas disaster. December 3, 2014 will mark 30 years of the Bhopal gas disaster and an extraordinary struggle for justice led by ordinary Bhopali woman. Noting that people everywhere are susceptible to the contamination of their bodies and environment by toxins, these women have called for an end to Bhopal-like disasters worldwide.

On behalf of the women of Bhopal, we urge all relevant agencies of the United Nations to heed the SHE imperative and intervene in the resolution of the humanitarian crisis in Bhopal, India, that has been neglected by both the Indian government and the Union Carbide Corporation (now owned by The Dow Chemical Company). ‘The World’s Worst Industrial Disaster’, the gas leak in Bhopal took the lives of approximately 7,000 people within the first week, and has resulted in 25,000 deaths to date. Over half a million people continue to suffer chronic health issues, as well as the debilitating effects of groundwater and soil contamination from Union Carbide’s abandoned pesticide factory.

In advocating for a much-needed corrective to the MDGs, United Nations Women (UN Women) have sought to address violence against women in its many forms such as sexual assault, femicide, trafficking and the suppression of reproductive rights. Poor women in many parts of the world have been demanding that governments and non-state actors stop the violence unleashed on their living and working environments. This is also violence against women. Toxic environments disproportionately affect women’s reproductive health and fetal development. In Bhopal too, reproductive health problems were identified soon after the disaster. study carried out by Medico Friend Circle (1985) found that in J.P. Nagar (one of the most severely affected communities), “[w]omen in the reproductive age group reported menstrual irregularities such as shortened menstrual cycles, altered pattern of discharge”. Moreover, “nearly half of the nursing mothers in J.P. Nagar reported a decrease or complete failure of lactation.” Nine months after the disaster, Varma (1987) found that of “the 3270 families surveyed [in the communities adjacent to the plant], 865 women reported that they were pregnant at the time of the accident; 43.8% of these pregnancies did not lead to the birth of a live baby. Of the 486 live births, 14.2% of infants died within 30 days.

Two decades after the disaster, studies found that gas-affected women and their female children were commonly experiencing menstrual abnormalities, including “chaotic” menstruation, leucorrhoea and premature menopause. In addition, significantly higher rates of developmental disabilities and birth defects have been found amongst children born to exposed parents and/or living in the communities facing groundwater contamination. These health impacts from the disaster have also had social implications for gas-exposed women. Many refuse to marry from gas-affected communities citing the inability of women to bear healthy children and the financial liability they might pose due to the high incidence of chronic illnesses in the area. Furthermore, research on the impact of the disaster on women’s reproductive health has been severely lacking. As a result, the women of Bhopal are doubly burdened, receiving largely symptomatic and temporary treatment for their health problems.   

Our previous letter outlined several ways in which the UN can be involved. In addition to these, we urge UN Women, The United Nations Association USA and The UN Foundation to respond to the SHE imperative and work to address the exclusion of environment-related reproductive health issues from the UN’s definition of violence against women and girls. In particular, we urge UN Women and The World Health Organization (WHO) to commission studies on the effects of toxic exposure on Bhopali women’s reproductive health and also call on the Government of India and The Dow Chemical company to commit to Bhopal’s SHE imperative.

On behalf of The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, North America (ICJB-NA),

Reena Shadaan

Community Relations Officer,

International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, North America


Renu Pariyadath

Member – Community Relations Working Group,

International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, North America


Help end the reproductive health nightmare in Bhopal, India.

Photo Credit: Giles Clarke, Reportage by Getty

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