The dangerous consequences of climate change, crises, and conflict are not new topics in human rights discussions. However, it is imperative that we discuss how they affect women, children, and marginalized communities through an intersectional lens to implement appropriate solutions, services, and resources.
Sexual- and gender-based violence (SGBV) and violence against women and girls (VAWG) are complex and transverse issues that affect nearly 1 in 3 women globally.i While it is critical to address the needs of all victims and survivors, it is also necessary to focus on assisting and raising awareness of how these acts of violence are exacerbated during and after periods of crisis and conflict, especially natural disasters. Specifically, climate change and women’s rights and safety are two very significant political issues, but they are never discussed in ways that highlight how they intersect.
Climate change and natural disasters act as threat multipliers, escalating political, social, and economic tensions in fragile settings, leading to heightened pre-existing conditions and risk factors. While these conditions are harmful and detrimental to all populations affected, they disproportionately affect women, children, and other marginalized communities.
UN Women cites climate change as a major influence on increased vulnerability to all forms of SGBV, including sexual violence, human trafficking, and child marriage. It has also been observed that women and children are often “less likely to survive and more likely to be injured” during natural disasters due to “long-standing gender inequalities” that cause disparities in mobility, decision-making, and access to resources and services.ii This leaves populations more vulnerable to maternal and child health issues, cycles of disparities, and other unique safety issues; this is especially prevalent with sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Climate change leads to more SGBV for populations who are forced to migrate, as SGBV risk is heightened in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, among other unfamiliar areas.iii With more women and children being forced to migrate to and inhabit unfamiliar places, community and familial support systems are lost, and more of these populations are at risk of being abused, targeted, and exploited. In addition, rates of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and female genital mutilation have been found to rise in both underdeveloped and developed countries during these periods. This is often correlated with “economic instability, food insecurity, mental stress, disrupted infrastructure, increased exposure to men, tradition, and exacerbated gender inequality”. iv
Climate change also disrupts access to contraception and other ‘family planning’ measures. This can lead to both local and IDPs experiencing a loss of contraceptive resources and more SGBV, causing more unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. Furthermore, higher rates of STIs and HIV are evident in these situations due to more women turning to sex work as a source of income.
Another burden exacerbated by climate change is women’s dependence on natural resources. In many regions and cultures, women and children bear a “disproportionate responsibility for securing food, water, and fuel”. v While agriculture is one of the most important and common forms of employment for these populations in lower-income and rural countries, drastic climate changes make it more difficult to secure income and resources. These climate stressors add immense pressure on women, children, and families to manage this increased burden, generate income, and access resources, civil services, and healthcare.
During and after natural disasters, extreme heat can cause extended periods of drought, and erratic rainfall and storms can cause flooding and physical barriers to accessing natural resources. It can also increase the likelihood of stillbirths as well as the spread of vector-borne illnesses such as malaria, dengue fever, and Zika virus, which are all linked to worse maternal and neonatal outcomes, including miscarriages, premature birth, severe birth defects, and anemia.
In the Sahel, the geographic region in Africa separating the Sahara Desert in the north from the tropics to the south, communities are facing a rise in temperatures and weather extremes, making it difficult to continue living climate-sensitive, agriculture-based livelihoods. With so much climate variability, crops have continued to fail, incomes have been lost, food prices and insecurity have risen, and social and psychological pressure have been intensified. vi These climate-induced pressures have led to heightened risks of SGBV in the form of domestic violence as well as non-partner physical violence against women and girls in other tribes and indigenous communities.
Similarly, in Ethiopia, alarming levels of sexual violence have been used as a weapon of war against Tigrayan women and children in addition to the excessive drought and locust infestation affecting the population. Roughly 400,000 people in Tigray are “living in famine conditions,” and only “15% of hospitals and health centers” are fully functioning. vii Only one healthcare facility in the area provides a full range of services for the clinical management of rape survivors, and many women fear repercussions if they speak out and seek assistance. With almost no formal or informal accountability systems against men who perpetrate sexual violence and the continued stigmatization of sexual violence survivors, it has become incredibly difficult for women and children to receive support, care, and justice.
The Council on Foreign Relations explains that effective governance and assistance from international actors can help mitigate and prevent climate-related conflict and violence, although the proliferation of weak, authoritarian governance makes it difficult for women and girls to receive consistent support, resources, and services. Carolina Hernandez, a UN Human Rights adviser on migration and human rights, explained how taking a human rights-based approach to climate change-related migration is key to ensuring pathways for safe and regular migration:
Members of the communities that UN Human Rights engaged with have met climate-induced harm and related migration in vulnerable situations with resilience and tenacity. But far too often their voices and preferences are not taken into consideration in domestic and international policy. viii
By raising awareness of climate change being a major factor in increased gender-based violence, utilizing regional and international coordination, intersectoral approaches, gender-sensitive training, human rights-based approaches, and challenging patriarchal norms and traditions, we can begin to address this complex and critical issue. We must also uplift the voices and experiences of marginalized groups and those who experience these persisting acts of violence and exploitation, as their first-hand understanding of SGBV and its outcomes is imperative to creating true change and solutions. Furthermore, international humanitarian law must adjust be more precise and inclusive in accordance with violence against women and girls and sexual and gender-based violence, as well as how these issues intersect with the growing change in climate and the increased presence of natural disasters.
By Celia Duggan, NOW PAC Intern
1 Violence against women. (2021). World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sh.
2 Explainer: How gender inequality and climate change are interconnected. (2022). UN Women. https://www.unwomen.org/en/news-stories/explainer/2022/02/explainer-how-gender-inequality-and-climate-change-are-interconnected.
3 Five ways climate change hurts women and girls. (2021). United Nations Population Fund. https://www.unfpa.org/news/five-ways-climate-change-hurts-women-and-girls.
5 UN Women.
6 Campbell, J. (2022). Climate Change and Conflict in the Sahel. Council on Foreign Relations. https://www.cfr.org/report/climate-change-and-conflict-sahel.
7 Climate Change Increases the Risk of Violence Against Women. (2019). UNFCCC. https://unfccc.int/news/climate-change-increases-the-risk-of-violence-against-women.
8 The Crisis in Tigray: Women & Girls Under Violent Assault. (2021). Georgetown Institute for Women Peace and Security. https://giwps.georgetown.edu/the-crisis-in-tigray-women-girls-under-violent-assault/.
9 New UN report puts a human face on climate crisis in the Sahel. (2022). OHCHR. https://www.ohchr.org/en/stories/2022/11/new-un-report-puts-human-face-climate-crisis-sahel.