Climate Change Worsens Gender-Based Violence: Here’s How the WPS Agenda Can Help

Climate Change Worsens Gender-Based Violence: Here’s How the WPS Agenda Can Help

8 December 2022

By Jenaina Irani*

Edited by Shawna Crystal

Climate change is a growing threat to progress, peace, security, and human rights. The negative impacts of climate change often have gendered impacts and are another barrier to achieving gender equality. The climate crisis is also a threat multiplier. The impacts of conflict and climate change affect people differently depending on the power dynamics of their context. Additional stresses on social, political, and economic infrastructures lead to increased vulnerability for women and girls in patriarchal societies. Consequently, the lack of support and protection mechanisms allows violence and exploitation to flourish, harming vulnerable and conflict-affected groups.

Although generally lacking in coordination, the international community has been increasingly raising the alarm on climate threats. In October 2022, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls described climate change as “the most consequential threat multiplier for women and girls, with far-reaching impacts on new and existing forms of gendered inequities.” Women and girls in conflict-affected regions progressively experience the disastrous consequences of unmitigated climate degradation, notably in the form of rising mental, physical, and sexual violence.

CARE International has termed gender inequality reinforced by climate change a “double injustice.” There are many manifestations of this injustice, and they are continually growing and evolving. Intense heat and droughts are forcing millions of people to flee their homes, causing internal displacement and forced migration to other countries. In the Central American “Dry Corridor,” forced displacement is many people’s only means of survival. In such cases, women and girls face the double-edged sword of seeking environmental stability despite significant risks of sexual violence and physical insecurity. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), women and girls constitute 80 per cent of those displaced by climate change.

In rural Uganda, prolonged drought has increased the time and frequency that women and girls need to gather water and food. Similarly, the continued depletion of natural resources in Peru means that women and girls must walk further into the forest to fetch water daily. In both of these contexts, and for many other women worldwide, these long and often unaccompanied journeys leave women and girls vulnerable to physical attack, sexual exploitation, and violence.

Not only do women and girls face threats of violence by simply existing in contexts impacted by climate change, but women environmental human rights defenders have become increasingly targeted for their efforts. Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is utilized to suppress their activism and intimidate others to abandon their advocacy. Sexual exploitation and violence against women and girls are also used as forms of control over natural resources — for land grabbing, gaining property rights, and more. In defending human and environmental rights, women from indigenous communities who have been actively practicing environmental conservation and nature protection for generations continue to put their lives at risk.

Despite these challenges, women are far from passive victims of conflict or climate change. Research and policy continue to overwhelmingly posit women as vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Yet, we know that women’s “unique environmental knowledge is invaluable for peacebuilding efforts” and that their meaningful participation is vital for developing community adaptation and resilience.

The Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda arose to address the disproportionate impact of conflict on women and also acknowledges and supports the pivotal role women should and do play in conflict prevention, conflict management, and sustainable peace efforts. The WPS agenda is invaluable for ensuring women’s inclusion as agents of change in climate action, peace and security. Their activism offers essential lessons on tackling these compounding threats and building a sustainable future.

One pathway for action is to support women and girls’ participation in efforts to address climate-related security risks. The most in-depth review assessing National Action Plans (NAPs) on WPS found that only 17 of 80 reviewed NAPs mention climate change. Only three have a significant mention or action toward addressing it. There is a clear need to integrate climate action into NAPs on WPS.

Every day, women fight for a world free from gender-based violence, inequality, and the social, cultural, and human rights catastrophe of environmental degradation. It has never been more necessary to ensure their meaningful participation in policy- and decision- making on climate change response for a safe and sustainable future.

*Jenaina Irani is a Researcher at GNWP