Climate change and environmental degradation increase the risk and incidents of violence against women and girls. Its cumulative effects violate the rights of these groups, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women and girls, its causes and consequences, warned on Wednesday.*.
Reem Alsalem presented a report to the UN General Assembly explaining the harmful ways in which violence against women and girls is intertwined with socio-political and economic phenomena, including armed conflict, displacement and resource scarcity. And when any of these are combined with climate change, the result is an exacerbation of the vulnerability of these populations, he adds.
The document recalls that violence against women and girls is a widespread form of gender discrimination which affects one third of women in their lifetime, preventing them from enjoying their rights and freedoms on equal terms with men.
Alsalem argues that the impact of climate change focuses on all types of violence against women and girls: from physical and psychological to economic, in addition to limiting the availability and effectiveness of protection mechanisms and weakening the ability to prevent abuse against them.
Despite the seriousness of the situation and the growing awareness of the impact of the climate crisis on women and girls, this not sufficiently reflected in policies global, regional and national, the expert complained.
“Climate change is the single most important threat multiplier for women and girls powerful effects in new and existing forms of gender inequality,” Alsalem said.
The expert stated that climate change “this is not only an environmental crisis, but fundamentally a question of justiceprosperity and gender equality’ and that it is ‘inextricably linked to and influenced by structural inequality and discrimination’.
To support this claim, he noted that when slow-onset or sudden-onset disasters strike and threaten livelihoods, communities can resorting to negative coping mechanisms such as trafficking, sexual exploitation and harmful practices such as early or child marriage and dropping out of school, all of which violate the rights of women and girls and place them in high-risk environments.
Sexual violence after disasters
The report states that although the parameters of the studies differ, an increase in post-disaster violence, including sexual violence against women, has been found in contexts as diverse as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 in New Orleans, USA, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake, among many other recent examples.
It states that the likelihood of being subjected to violence increases manifold when women and girls are displaced or in emergency shelters, when unforeseen circumstances limit their ability to access grievance and redress mechanisms. Limited access to safe havens deters women and girls from evacuating at-risk areas and leads to gender-disparate deaths.
On the other hand, the document specifies that the loss of livelihoods and scarcity of resources as a result of large-scale natural disasters or slow-onset environmental degradation push women and girls into sexual exploitation in exchange for food and natural resources, such as water or fuel in common areas. In addition, water scarcity caused by the drought forces women and girls to travel longer distances in unfamiliar areas or without the safeguards usually available, such as traveling in a group or during the day. In several countries, women are subjected to demands for sexual favors and threats of sexual violence and rape at water collection points. There are many accounts of women and girls being attacked, raped or mentally abused while searching for firewood or water.
This was also announced by the special rapporteur human and environmental rights defenders, indigenous women and girlswomen of different gender identities and sexual orientations, elderly women, women with disabilities and women in poverty and forcibly displaced women are at particular risk and often lack protection.
Human rights must be at the heart of the response to climate change
“Despite the significant and irreparable damage to the well-being of women and girls, more effort and resources to understand the link between climate change and violence against women and girlsAlsalem emphasized.
In this regard, he called on the international community to to redouble its commitment to gender equality and anchoring climate change response and disaster risk mitigation in human rights.
The expert argues that for concerted efforts against climate change to be truly gender-sensitive, they must address the vulnerability of women and girls based on the recognition of their interest in the political space. “The welfare and rights of women and girls must not be left behindmust be placed at the center of policies and responses,” he pointed out.
According to Alsalem, the global response to climate change and environmental degradation can stop reinforcing a vicious cycle and be truly transformative if it includes a strong focus on gender.
* Special Rapporteurs are part of the Human Rights Council’s special procedures. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN human rights system, is the collective name for the independent investigative and monitoring mechanisms established by the Council to address specific country situations or thematic issues around the world. Special procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN employees and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent of any government and organization and act in their personal capacity.