Climate breakdown and the global crisis of environmental degradation are increasing violence against women and girls, while gender-based exploitation is in turn hampering our ability to tackle the crises, a major report of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has concluded. Attempts to repair environmental degradation and adapt to climate breakdown, particularly in poorer countries, are failing, and resources are being wasted because they do not take gender inequality and the effects on women and girls into account. Campaigners called for governments and institutions to take note, saying that the impacts on women and girls must be at the heart of any viable strategies on the climate and ecology.
The IUCN carried out what is understood to be the biggest and most comprehensive study yet of the issue, taking two years and involving more than 1,000 sources of research.
“We found gender-based violence to be pervasive, and there is enough clear evidence to suggest that climate change is increasing gender-based violence,” said Cate Owren, a lead author 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.”
Six in 10 respondents to a survey by IUCN, with more than 300 responses from organisations around the world, said they had observed gender-based violence among female environmental rights defenders, environmental migrants and refugees, and in areas where environmental crimes and environmental degradation were taking place. More than 80 case studies clearly showing such links were uncovered as part of the research.
Gender-based violence includes domestic violence, sexual assault and rape, forced prostitution, forced marriage and child marriage, as well as other forms of the exploitation of women. The report found human trafficking rises in areas where the natural environment is under stress, and links between gender-based violence and environmental crimes such as wildlife poaching and illegal resource extraction.
“Gender-based violence is one of the most pervasive but least talked-about barriers that face us in conservation and climate work,” said Owern. “We need to take the blinders off, and pay this concerted attention.”
Owren found abundant examples of the close links between gender-based violence and the exploitation of women and girls, and the competition for resources engendered by the impacts of global heating and our destruction of the natural environment. Global heating puts pressure on resources, as extreme weather, including heatwaves, droughts, floods and fiercer storms, grows more frequent and devastating. In most parts of the world, women are already disadvantaged and lack land rights and legal rights, so are vulnerable to exploitation. When the additional stresses caused by the climate crises bite, they are the first to be targeted. For instance, in some communities, young girls are married off as early as possible when the family faces hardship exacerbated by the climate. Globally, about 12 million more young girls are thought to have been married off after increasing natural disasters, and weather related disasters have been shown to increase sexual trafficking by 20-30%.
At the UN climate conference in Madrid last December, governments were criticised by campaigners for ignoring the plight of women and children and the threats they face. Some governments are moving to put action for women and girls into their climate and development policies, and the UN in Madrid moved to include a gender action plan as part of the climate negotiations. Campaigners and some countries are hoping for even greater focus on the issue at the crunch UN climate talks in November, to be hosted by the UK in Glasgow.
The report provided a timely reminder that “concerted action to tackle inequality can unlock new opportunities for climate action and women’s empowerment”, added Mary Robinson, chair of The Elders. “We need to recognise the unequal effects of the climate crisis on women, but also that women’s participation brings with it creative and sustainable solutions to both the climate emergency and social injustices. Tackling climate change and environmental degradation without the full inclusion of women will not succeed: gender equality is a prerequisite to the collective effort needed to address the climate emergency.”