We’re Killing Mother Earth: The Climate Crisis is Gendered Violence

In the most comprehensive report on the subject, taking two years and more than 1000 sources of research, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has found that there is clear evidence to suggest that climate change is increasing gender-based violence. The United Nations defines the term gender-based violence (abbreviated as GBV) as referring to harmful acts directed at an individual due to their gender identity, and most commonly affects women, as well as Two-Spirit, transgender, and nonbinary people. According to Cate Owren, one of the lead authors of the report, “As environmental degradation and stress on ecosystems increases, that in turn creates scarcity and stress for people, and the evidence shows that, where environmental pressures increase, gender-based violence increases.”

Somalian women carrying jerry cans of water from shallow wells dug from the sand along the river bed, which is dry due to drought in Somalia’s Shabelle region

During Natural Disasters

Climate change has been responsible for the induction of weather extremities and natural disasters globally, which are in turn responsible for disruptions to all aspects of life — from impeding food production to degrading natural resources to damaging infrastructure. These catastrophes also prevent progress in ensuring equal rights. In natural disasters, levels of mortality and morbidity are much higher for women and girls, due to gendered economic inequalities that make women and female-heavy households more vulnerable to poverty; this makes them more likely to live in inadequate housing and thus more likely to be affected by natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, or landslides. For example, in the case of Cyclone Gorky in Bangladesh in 1991, women and girls made up a staggering 91% of victims.

Gender-based violence has been shown to increase in the aftermath of climate and weather-related disasters. The facilities that are meant to aid in disaster response such as shelters and relief programs are not often constructed with women in mind, presenting difficulties in accessibility needs. Additionally, in such temporary or emergency shelters, social and economic stresses skyrocket, as does GBV. In the year after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the United States, the rates of GBV against women tripled, and never returned to the baseline measurement. Most reported cases occurred in emergency shelters. Loss of property, PTSD, and economic pressure to provide for households created by the aftermath of such natural disasters correlates to increases in violent behaviors among men, including domestic and intimate-partner violence. For example, during the Murray-Darling Basin droughts in Australia, alcohol and drug consumption by men increased, and led to higher rates of violence against women.

Furthermore, the vulnerability of women and girls after such disasters presents an opportunity for human traffickers. Over 70% of human trafficking victims and over 80% of sex trafficking victims are female. With these statistics in mind, consider that it is estimated that trafficking increases by 20–30% during and after disasters. According to assessments conducted by UNHCR and Save the Children, the perpetration of human and sex trafficking by those responsible for recovery efforts (such as humanitarian staff or security forces) is not uncommon.

Lack of Access to Resources

According to reports made by both Oxfam and the United Nations, women represent the majority of the world’s poor, landless, illiterate, and unpaid workforces, and women are still discriminated against economically and socially due to their lack of access and control over land. With regards to livelihood tasks such as fetching water or firewood — typically female roles — the labor involved in completing such tasks has drastically increased since natural resources such as freshwater and arable land have been depleted. This situation forced women and girls to abandon paid employment and education in order to support their families. This also forces them to walk long distances in order to assess the dwindling resources, increasing their risks of being harassed, attacked, or sexually assaulted.

One of the most prominent examples of gender-based violence due to lack of access and control over resources is the sexual abuse found in illegal fishing industries in Southeast Asia as well as Eastern and Southern Africa. In Western Kenya, the phenomenon is so common that it has been named: the Jaboya system. In this and similar systems, male fishers expect sexual relationships from female fish buyers; having a boyfriend (for lack of a better term) in fishing camps enables women to buy fish, often at lower prices. This drives women to engage in transactional sex to provide food for their families.

In Environmental Action

Prior to the development of environmental human rights defenders, women’s grassroots organizations and Indigenous people have been the primary actors in defense of the environment. However, as efforts to slow and prevent climate change have become increasingly critical, these groups are most vulnerable to violence enacted against them. According to Global Witness, 212 environmental defenders were killed in 2019. In addition to the risks that male defenders face, women face gender-specific risks due to social, economic, and political power relations. As such, female environmental defenders experience a unique intersection of violence as well as stigmatization and criminalization to a greater degree.

For Indigenous people and especially women and Two-Spirit people, the violence that they face is exacerbated by racial discrimination against their community. This makes them especially vulnerable to gender-based violence when defending their environment. The case of Berta Isabel Cáceres exemplifies this concept. A leading Indigenous figure in standing up against the construction of a hydroelectric dam on sacred Indigenous Lenca land, the Gualcarque River, she was assassinated after facing years of gender-based harassment and threats.

Policy Recommendations

Acknowledging the gendered impacts of climate change and the environmental issues that it presents will produce effective and inclusive policies that don't serve to further endanger women; without the consideration of gender in climate change, such policies are bound to perpetuate social inequalities. The collection of data based on gender will enable organizations to develop such policies, as it would aid in the differentiated impacts of environmental issues. Finally, the inclusion of gender-diverse people in decision-making would be a relatively simple fix to the underrepresentation of women’s experiences with climate change.




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