Lora Forsythe, Kaysara Khatun and Uche Okpara |
Gender-based violence (GBV) is experienced by one in three women worldwide . This significant global health and human rights issue has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as a result of measures such as lockdowns and disruptions to vital support services [2, 3]. UN Women defines GBV as harmful acts directed at an individual or a group of individuals based on their gender, and its roots are based in systemic gender inequality, the abuse of power and harmful social norms . The term emphasises the multiple forms of violence that can be experienced by adults and children based on gender.
The sheer scale and endemic nature of GBV means that understanding its drivers, forms and consequences is an urgent public health, human rights and public policy issue. There is less awareness, however, about the relationship between GBV and climate and environmental change and related conflict. In this article, we explore the issue referring to existing evidence in the context of the following three interrelated themes:
- Climate change and extreme weather
The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)  cites evidence that explicitly links climate change-related extreme weather and climate variability with increasing violence against women, girls and vulnerable groups, including LGBTQI people. These violent acts include domestic violence, controlling and coercive behaviour, harassment, sexual violence and trafficking .
There are multiple contributing factors to these trends. For example, reduced adaptive capacity due to climate change undermines households’ strategies to manage food and water scarcities and increases vulnerability to GBV [5, 6, 7]. As a result, the responsibility to obtain water and food or other scarce resources, which largely falls to women and girls, puts them at risk of violence as they attempt to acquire them [6, 8]. Heightened household stress due to fluctuating temperatures related to climate change has also been linked to increases in GBV prevalence in Australia, the US and Bangladesh . Vulnerability to climate change has been connected to human trafficking  and child marriage .
An increase in the prevalence of GBV is also evident following natural disasters [5, 7, 12, 13]. Power outages and the failure of mobile networks reduce safe spaces for vulnerable groups. As people flee climate-related dangerous situations, the overcrowded and unsafe conditions in emergency shelters and refugee camps can also expose vulnerable groups to GBV, particularly where support services are constrained, and governments are unable to provide support .
- Intensification of natural resource exploitation
The intensification of natural resource exploitation by large-scale extractive industries, such as mining, fishing and logging, can incur the displacement of indigenous and other communities in addition to the degradation of communal land and resources. Communities in these contexts are vulnerable to conflict and violence, as perpetrators carry out sexual violence, harassment, and murder to reinforce privileges and control over resources .
GBV can also be used as a tool against environmental and land defenders, to intimidate and prevent their participation in protests against natural resource extraction. Women and girls face not only the loss of access to livelihoods and resources, but their active participation in protest which may also disrupt existing hierarchies and cultural norms, also increases the risk of exposure to violence. As a result, the nature of the threats received by women are different to the threats faced by the community as a whole, and require different approaches to deal with them.
Global Witness, an organisation that has documented the violent deaths of environmental and land defenders since 2012, reports that a disproportionate number of people from indigenous groups have been assassinated, and, while 90% of them are men, the number of women environmental defenders suffering violent and lethal attacks has ‘skyrocketed’. One example is in Colombia, where assaults against women environmentalists doubled in the first quarter of 2019 . Thanks to the laudable work of Global Witness and similar organisations, gendered violence linked to natural resource exploitation is gaining exposure.
- Humanitarian emergencies and climate conflict
The links between GBV and climate and environmental conflict are particularly stark in times of complex humanitarian emergencies . However, GBV is scarcely considered in analysis and monitoring of climate conflict risks and outcomes. Evidence in the Sahel and Lake Chad regions in west/central Africa shows that women and girls suffer high levels of abuse, illness, disease and death when a humanitarian crisis interacts with fierce climate-related battles and wars . Here, displaced women and girls consistently face sexual and other forms of physical violence (including rape, female genital mutilation, trafficking and kidnapping). Many are forcefully abducted and impregnated, and others are coaxed to join terrorist groups and recruited as suicide bombers . Human deprivation and hopelessness experienced in times of climate conflict can lead to a breakdown in social systems and/or community structures, further worsening the situation of vulnerable populations, especially older women, young girls and women with disabilities.
In sum, while the evidence base linking GBV to climate and environmental change and conflict is gaining recognition, more work is needed to strengthen the context-specific evidence base and increase our understanding of approaches that work to reduce GBV risk, including community-driven responses. However, research alone is not enough. There is also an urgent need for integrated and thoughtful discussions among academics, policymakers, and practitioners to commit to addressing GBV as an integral part of agriculture, food systems and natural resource work. NRI’s Gender and Social Difference Development Programme aims to help address these gaps in knowledge, in line with the Globally Shared Research Agenda , and is participating in broader dialogue on these critical issues through a range of upcoming research initiatives.
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