Climate Change, Conflict, and Sexual Violence

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Introduction

In a quarterly UN Security Council debate earlier this year on women, peace and security, representatives from Kenya and Niger raised concern over the fact that women and girls face an increased risk of sexual violence, not only in conflict situations but also because of the impacts of climate change, forced displacement and economic precarity.1UNSC Press Release, Women Still Suffering in War Zones, Special Representative Tells Security Council, Highlighting Unmet GLobal Commitments to Victims of Sexual Violence, UN SC/144493, (14 April 2021), https://www.un.org/press/en/2021/sc14493.doc.htm. This article will explore the gendered impact of climate change and conflict, placing specific emphasis on sexual violence.

Climate Change, Conflict, and Gender

While climate change may not directly lead to conflict, it has been widely recognised as a ‘threat multiplier’ that can exacerbate conflict risks and instability.2UNSC, 66th Sess,6587th Mtg, UN Doc S/PV.6587 (Resumption 1), (20 July 2011). Climate change aggravates pre-existing political and economic conditions and can push tensions over a threshold, prompting new disputes or reigniting old cycles of conflict.3Clionadh Raleigh, Political Marginalization, Climate Change, and Conflict in African Sahel States, International Studies Review Vol. 12,1 (March 2010), p.69 https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2486.2009.00913.x Both slow-onset events (such as droughts, warming and sea-level rise) and acute disasters (such as flooding, cyclones and wildfires) can amplify conflict between and within nations as they create food insecurity, production shocks and forced displacement. The 10 countries identified by the University of Notre Dame’s index in 2019 to be the most vulnerable to climate change are all in the midst of violent armed conflict.4Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative (ND-GAIN), Country Rankings, (2019), https://gain.nd.edu/our-work/country-index/rankings/. It tests a country’s exposure, sensitivity and ability to adapt to the negative impact of climate change.

Shifts in climatic conditions, however, occur in conjunction with other conflict drivers and are shaped by the specific context. For example, the conflict potential of a drought depends on the community’s dependence on the land (eg. agricultural production), the population’s coping capacity (eg. access to irrigation systems and alternate modes of livelihood) and the humanitarian response (eg. Relied aid and subsidies).5Halvard Buhaug, Climate Change and Conflict: Taking Stock, Peace Economics Peace Science and Public Policy 2016, Volume 22(4), p.333-334, https://doi.org/10.1515/peps-2016-0034. Vulnerable groups are therefore more likely to be driven into conflict because they lack the ability to cope with climate change and are often overlooked during relief operations.6Halvard Buhaug & Nina von Uexkull, Vicious Circles: Violence, Vulnerability, and Climate Change, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, (2021), p. 560, https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev-environ-012220-014708.

Vulnerable groups are also the most harmed by climate change and conflict. Climate change magnifies existing inequalities.7 Irene Dankelman, Gender, Climate Change and Human Security Lessons from Bangladesh, Ghana and Senegal, (May 2008), p.6. https://www.wedo.org/wp-content/uploads/hsn-study-final-may-20-2008.pdf. It especially reinforces the disparity between women and men in their vulnerability to climate change and their capability to cope with its impacts.8UNDP, Human Development Report 2007-2008: Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World, (2007), http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/hdr_20072008_summary_english.pdf. Climate change also creates chronic and acute stressors which amplify pre-existing gender-based violence risk factors for women and girls such as poverty, rigid gender roles, personal and community conflict. Women and girls also face heightened risks of experiencing gender-based violence including domestic violence, forced marriage, and sexual violence as a result of conflict. When climate change and conflict overlap, women and girls are especially vulnerable.

Climate Change, Conflict, and Sexual Violence

Sexual violence which is a form of gender-based violence encompasses any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim.9UN OHCHR, Sexual and gender-based violence in the context of transitional justice, (October 2014), https://www.ohchr.org/documents/issues/women/wrgs/onepagers/sexual_and_gender-based_violence.pdf Sexual violence may take many forms, including but not limited to rape, sexual assault, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, forced prostitution, trafficking, and forced nudity.10UN OHCHR, Sexual and gender-based violence in the context of transitional justice, (October 2014), https://www.ohchr.org/documents/issues/women/wrgs/onepagers/sexual_and_gender-based_violence.pdf

Sexual violence during slow-onset events and conflict

While it may not seem like slow-onset events like rising sea levels or global warming can have an effect on the safety of women, climatic changes and conflict result in higher rates of sexual violence against women.11 Bharat Desai & Moumita Mandal, Role of Climate Change in Exacerbating Sexual and Gender-Based Violence against Women: A New Challenge for International Law, Environmental Policy and Law 51 (2021), p. 137–157, DOI 10.3233/EPL-210055 Sexual violence is used as a tool to control rapidly depleting natural resources as well as to defeat opponent groups during conflicts.12Jacqui True, Working Paper Ending violence against women in Asia: International norm diffusion and global opportunity structures for policy change, UNRISD Working Paper No 5 (2016), http://www.unrisd.org/80256B3C005BCCF9/search/0AE05C2AE73E998DC1257FD10051838E?OpenDocument&language=en.

With rising temperatures, regions in the Global South face increased desertification as water sources dry up and wells are attacked or destroyed during armed conflict. Women and girls who are tasked with fetching water for the household face a greater risk of sexual assault when they are forced to walk further away from their homes to find water.13Gender-Based Violence Area of Responsibility (GBV AoR) Helpdesk, Climate Change and Gender-Based Violence: What are the Risks?, (2021), p.5, https://gbvaor.net/sites/default/files/2021-03/gbv-aor-helpdesk-climate-change-gbv-19032021.pdf.This is especially the case in regions where armed gangs operate.14Jeannette Cwienk, Climate change leads to more violence against women, girls, (27 February 2020), https://www.dw.com/en/women-climate-change-sexual-violence-iucn/a-52449269.

Droughts, erratic rainfall and conflict all affect the livelihoods of families and place them under financial stress, especially if they are dependent on agricultural produce for survival. When climate and conflict impact the ability of families to meet their basic needs, marrying off daughters is seen as a way to reduce dependents and lighten the financial burden.15Human Rights Watch (HRW), Marry before your house is swept away. Child marriage in Bangladesh, (2015), https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/bangladesh0615_web.pdf; B. L. Yi, Sea change needed to achieve the goal of ending marriage by 2030, Thomson Reuters Foundation News (25 June 2018). More often than not, women and girls in child marriages or forced marriages face severe sexual violence.

Sexual violence after sudden-onset disasters and conflict

According to the World Disasters Report, women and girls are especially vulnerable to sexual violence, exploitation and abuse in times of acute disasters.16International Federation of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent Societies (IFRCRCS), World disasters report 2005, (2005 In regions where rates of sexual violence are already high, like South Asia, the Pacific, MENA, and North America, sudden-onset climate disasters accelerate the risks of sexual violence, especially for young girls.17Gender-Based Violence Area of Responsibility (GBV AoR) Helpdesk, Climate Change and Gender-Based Violence: What are the Risks?, (2021), https://gbvaor.net/sites/default/files/2021-03/gbv-aor-helpdesk-climate-change-gbv-19032021.pdf. Evidence of increased sexual violence and assault was documented immediately following the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir18Manjari Mehta, Gender Matters: Lessons for disaster risk reduction in South Asia, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), (2007), https://www.preventionweb.net/files/2406_GenderandDisasters.pdf and the 2004 Asian tsunami.19Oxfam, The tsunami’s impact on women, Oxfam Briefing Note (March 2005), https://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/women.pdf During sudden-onset disasters like floods and cyclones, affectees are forced to leave their homes and move into overcrowded emergency shelters or transitional housing. Women and girls are often threatened with sexual violence in these shelters where they lack privacy.20Plan international 2011, Khan Foundation & ARROW, A Scoping Study. Women’s Sexual & Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) and Climate Change: What is the Connection? (2015) The risk of sexual violence is also present in refugee camps where toilets are long distances away and men wait around toilets for unaccompanied women.21Falak Shad Memon, Climate Change and Violence Against Women: Study of Flood-Affected Population in the Rural Area of Sindh Pakistan, Pakistan Journal of Women’s Studies, Vol 27(1), (2020), p.77, https://doi.org/10.46521/pjws.027.01.0039 Camps are rarely designed keeping the needs of women in mind, and this lacuna, unfortunately, threatens the safety of the women and girls as they either risk their lives to stay back in their homes during natural disasters or risk sexual violence if they move to shelters.22Falak Shad Memon, Climate Change and Violence Against Women: Study of Flood-Affected Population in the Rural Area of Sindh Pakistan, Pakistan Journal of Women’s Studies, Vol 27(1), (2020), p.77, https://doi.org/10.46521/pjws.027.01.0039; Zayeda Sharmin & Mohammad Samiul Islam, Consequences of Climate Change and Gender Vulnerability: Bangladesh Perspective, Bangladesh Development Research Working Paper Series 16,(January 2013), Bangladesh Development Research Centre (BDRC), http://www.bangladeshstudies.org/files/WPS_no16.pdf

Families also face increased financial stress after disasters and opt to marry off their young daughters as a means of reducing their financial burden.23GBV AoR Helpdesk, Prevention of, and Response to Gender-Based Violence in Settings Affected by Natural Disasters, Guidance Note, https://www.sddirect.org.uk/media/1877/preventing-and-responding-to-gbv-in-natural-disasters.pdf Some men arrange child marriages to ‘protect’ their daughters from sexual harassment in the cities to which the families have migrated.24Shipra Jha, Climate Change in Exacerbating Child Marriage in Bangladesh, (12 November 2017), https://www.huffpost.com/entry/climate-change-is-exacerb_b_12913788?guccounter=1

Sexual exploitation in the form of human trafficking also increases following acute disasters, for example, criminal networks forced women and girls into prostitution along the Indian border after Cyclone Sidr struck Bangladesh in 2007.25 IOM, The Climate Change-Human Trafficking Nexis, (2016), https://publications.iom.int/system/files/pdf/mecc_infosheet_climate_change_nexus.pdf

Climate Change, Conflict, and International Law Mechanisms

There is no international legal instrument directly dealing with sexual violence against women during slow-onset and sudden-onset disasters, or, sexual violence caused and exacerbated by climate change related factors.26Bharat Desai & Moumita Mandal, Role of Climate Change in Exacerbating Sexual and Gender-Based Violence against Women: A New Challenge for International Law, Environmental Policy and Law 51 (2021), p. 142, https://www.un.org/sexualviolenceinconflict/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/report/role-of-climate-change-in-exacerbating-sexual-and-gender-based-violence-against-women-a-new-challenge-for-international-law/epl_2021_51-3_epl-51-3-epl210055_epl-51-epl210055.pd International humanitarian law (IHL), however, addresses the rights of women during conflict, while the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) from international human rights law (IHRL) address the general rights of women which are applicable to women affected by climate change. The following section seeks to examine the extent to which existing provisions in IHL and IHRL are effective to deal with the issue of sexual violence caused and exacerbated by climate change and conflict.

Applicable IHL provisions

Rape and other forms of sexual violence constitute violations under IHL when committed in the context of an international or non-international  armed conflict.27ICRC, Q&A: sexual violence in armed conflict, (19 August 2016), https://www.icrc.org/en/document/sexual-violence-armed-conflict-questions-and-answers The Fourth Geneva Convention 1949 (Article 27), and the two Additional Protocols 1977 (Article 76(2) AP I and Article 4(2) AP II) provide for the protection of women against rape and other forms of sexual violence during armed conflicts.28 Patricia Viseur Sellers, The Prosecution of Sexual Violence in conflict: The Importance of Human Rights as a Means of Interpretation, (1 January 2007), p.5-10, https://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/women/docs/Paper_Prosecution_of_Sexual_Violence.pdf. However, for these protections to be operative, the conflict must qualify as an international armed conflict or a non-international armed conflict by satisfying the requisite thresholds in IHL. Some conflicts caused or exacerbated by climate change may not satisfy the above thresholds. For example, the inter-communal farmer-herder conflict in the Nigerian Middle Belt region has exposed women to the risk of sexual harassment, assault and rape as a result of displacement,  yet the conflict does not yet qualify as a non-international armed conflict under IHL as the groups do not possess organised armed forces.29Saverio Kratli & Camilla Toulmin, Farmer-herder conflict in sub-Saharan Africa?, IIED (October 2020), p.38, https://pubs.iied.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/2021-01/10208IIED.pdf; See also International Crisis Group, Stopping Nigeria’s Spiralling Farmer-Herder Violence, Africa Report No. 262, (26 July 2018), https://d2071andvip0wj.cloudfront.net/262-stopping-nigerias-spiralling-farmer-herder-violence.pdf. As a result, the applicable international framework to violence which does not meet this threshold is international human rights law.

Applicable IHRL provisions

In General Recommendation No.37, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women noted that ‘[w]omen, girls, men and boys are affected differently by climate change and disasters with many women and girls experiencing greater risks, burdens and impacts.’30OCHR, Committee on Elimination of Disrimination against Women General Recommendation  No.37 on Gender-related dimensions of disaster risk reduction in the context of climate change, UN Doc. CEDAW/C/GC/37, (7 February 2018), p.3 para 2, https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CEDAW/Shared%20Documents/1_Global/CEDAW_C_GC_37_8642_E.pdf Regarding the climate change-conflict nexus, they noted  that ‘[w]omen and girls in conflict situations are particularly exposed to risks associated with disasters and climate change.’31OCHR, Committee on Elimination of Disrimination against Women General Recommendation  No.37 on Gender-related dimensions of disaster risk reduction in the context of climate change, UN Doc. CEDAW/C/GC/37, (7 February 2018), p.3  para 4, https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CEDAW/Shared%20Documents/1_Global/CEDAW_C_GC_37_8642_E.pdf To address this, the Committee recommended gender-responsive disaster planning and implementation so that facilities and infrastructures, including early warning mechanisms, shelters and relief programmes address the specific needs of diverse groups of women. The Committee recognised that ‘[w]omen and girls also face a heightened risk of gender-based violence during and following disasters.’32OCHR, Committee on Elimination of Disrimination against Women General Recommendation  No.37 on Gender-related dimensions of disaster risk reduction in the context of climate change, UN Doc. CEDAW/C/GC/37, (7 February 2018),p.4  para 5, https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CEDAW/Shared%20Documents/1_Global/CEDAW_C_GC_37_8642_E.pdf On another occasion, the Committee observed that ‘sexual violence is common in humanitarian crises and may become acute in the wake of a national disaster. In a time of heightened stress, lawlessness and homelessness, women face an increased threat of violence.’33OHCHR, Results of the forty-fourth and forty-fifth sessions of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women Annex IV: Statement by the CEDAW Committee on the situation in Haiti, UN Doc. E/CN.6/2010/CRP.2 (12 February 2010), https://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cedaw/docs/E-CN6-2010-CRP-2.pdf

Both State and non-State actors are required to make efforts to mitigate climate change and disasters and ensure the protection of the rights of affected women. In accordance with CEDAW and General Recommendation No.35 (2017) on gender-based violence against women, State parties are encouraged to: develop policies to address risk factors for gender-based violence (including sexual violence) in the context of disaster risk reduction and climate change; to provide effective mechanisms for women wishing to report gender-based violence; and to adopt long-term policies to address the root causes of gender-based violence against women in disasters. General Recommendation 37 also calls for the participation of women at all levels of climate-related decision making as a right.34 OCHR, Committee on Elimination of Disrimination against Women General Recommendation  No.37 on Gender-related dimensions of disaster risk reduction in the context of climate change, UN Doc. CEDAW/C/GC/37, (7 February 2018), paras 2, 5, 7, 8, 10,, https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CEDAW/Shared%20Documents/1_Global/CEDAW_C_GC_37_8642_E.pdf While IHRL is successful in dealing with climate change and gender-based violence, the compounding effect of conflict is often sidelined.

Recommendations for Better Protection

In view of the international law provisions outlined above which are inadequate to meet the challenge of sexual violence against women caused and exacerbated by climate change and conflict, policy-makers and scholars must take concrete steps to address the problem.

The lack of influence of women, particularly indigenous women, at the intersection of natural resources, climate, and conflict is disappointing. The UN Joint Programme emphasises that the failure to engage women in natural resource management and conflict resolution is a missed opportunity.35UNEP, UN Women, & UNDP, Sustaining Inclusive Peace on the Frontlines of Climate Change: Gender, Climate and Security, (June 2020), p.10, https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/librarypage/womens-empowerment/gender–climate-and-security.html. Overlooking both women’s needs and their rich local knowledge narrows the scope and efficacy of decisions relating to climate change, resource management. and conflict resolution.36Jessica Smith, Lauren Olosky & Jennifer Fernandez, The Climate-Gender-Conflict Nexus: Amplifying women’s contributions at the grassroots, Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, (2020), p.11, https://giwps.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/The-Climate-Gender-Conflict-Nexus.pdf. It is imperative to invest in women’s leadership and meaningful participation in decision-making around climate change mitigation, adaptation and conflict resolution.37Jessica Smith, Lauren Olosky & Jennifer Fernandez, The Climate-Gender-Conflict Nexus: Amplifying women’s contributions at the grassroots, Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, (2020), p.26, https://giwps.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/The-Climate-Gender-Conflict-Nexus.pdf.

It is also necessary to address knowledge gaps in the field of climate change, conflict and gender by prioritising the collection of gender and age-aggregated data to inform policy and mitigation measures. Increasing the focus on case studies of women-led efforts to address conflict exacerbated by insecurity will illustrate the integral role that women place in conflict resolution and climate change adaptation conversations.38Jessica Smith, Lauren Olosky & Jennifer Fernandez, The Climate-Gender-Conflict Nexus: Amplifying women’s contributions at the grassroots, Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, (2020), p.27, https://giwps.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/The-Climate-Gender-Conflict-Nexus.pdf. More research on the gendered effects of climate change and conflict will also facilitate the development of more targeted responses. It also remains important to integrate the climate-conflict-gender nexus into the agendas of international governance structures including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the UN Security Council.39Jessica Smith, Lauren Olosky & Jennifer Fernandez, The Climate-Gender-Conflict Nexus: Amplifying women’s contributions at the grassroots, Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, (2020), p.26, https://giwps.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/The-Climate-Gender-Conflict-Nexus.pdf.

Conclusion

The role of climate change and conflict in exacerbating sexual violence against women must attain priority attention, especially at the UN General Assembly, UN Security Council, International Committee of the Red Cross, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UN Development Programme, CEDAW Committee, and UN Environment Program to address the growing challenge of climate change, conflict, and sexual violence in a timely and effective manner.

The figure illustrates the interplay and linkages between climate change, gender, and conflict.
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Maha Husain

Maha is a Junior Research Associate at the Research Society of International Law, Pakistan. She has a keen interest in exploring all areas of public international law and their connection with the Global South.

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