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The impact of climate crisis on violence against women

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Zoé Cerutti, in charge of international projects at the International Observatory on Violence against Women, participated in the 7th World Human Rights Cities Forum in Gwangju, to present the linkages between climate change and protection of women victims of violence.

23 November 2022

Violence against women: elements of definition

Violence against women is universal and extends to public space (street harassment, violence in the workplace, etc.) and private space (domestic violence, forced marriages); as well as to the online space (cyberstalking, sexual violence through digital tools). According to UNODC 1 out of 3 women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence from their partner. Every 11 minutes, a woman is killed by her intimate partner or a member of her family. Femicides, honor killings, these gender-based homicides are widespread throughout the world. In Mexico, between 1993 and 1998, 1653 women’s bodies were found in Ciudad Juarez. In 2020, women remain at great risk and more than 10 women per day are still killed worldwide.  Feminist movements have been working for the recognition of the term “femicide” to refer to an homicide motivated by the victim’s gender. In addition, worldwide, 650 million women have been forced into marriage before the age of 18, according to UNICEF .

At the international level, violence against women has been the subject of several international agreements; conventions and declarations. In 1993, the provided the first definition of this global phenomenon, including within it physical, sexual and psychological violence. However, violence can also be economic, such as in the case the aggressor prevents women’s right to employment or the use of money.

Although violence is universally spread in all cultures and territories, contexts of exacerbated vulnerability, such as those affected by the climate crisis, reinforce violence against women. According to the 2021 OECD report on Gender Equality and Fragility, working on gender inequality requires a systemic approach that addresses all the different aspects of vulnerability. Indeed, violence against women and exposure to crises (climate crisis, security, economic or health-related), mutually reinforce and exacerbate women’s inequalities and women’s rights violations.


Violence against women and climate change

Climate change exposes women to several challenges in their daily lives; but also to increased violence.

In the past 20 years, extreme climatic events such as drought, floods and cyclones have been multiplying. The reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change show that these events have affected 4 billion people worldwide and killed more than 300,000. However, the exposure to the consequences of climate change should be examined through a gender inequality perspective. Indeed, climate change has an impact on our society as it makes access to resources, goods, and basic services more complex: women, who are often the main providers of resources such as clean water, are more exposed to danger and to violence, also because  they often travel greater distances to access these goods.

In this sense, the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean is a powerful example which testifies that – even if climate change affects our society as a whole, the inequality between women and men affects human being’s right to life and survival. Indeed, due to systemic discrimination, many women living in the area did not learn to swim and did not have access to information and tools to ensure their safety vis-á-vis such a tragic event, after which there were only between 20 to 35% of female survivors.

Moreover, according to the Red Cross, human trafficking for sexual exploitation and sexual violence increased in Laos and the Philippines after the typhoon in 2013. In addition, domestic and sexual violence is higher during extreme weather events due to psychotrauma that leads to stress, increased alcohol consumption, and temporary absence of the rule of law.

Similarly, climate change causes an increase in early marriage. Several studies show that extreme weather events such as Cyclone Roanu in Bangladesh and Malawi have increased the number of girls married before age 18. These marriages are a strategy for families to reduce their expenses in contexts where they no longer have access to basic resources or services. In Malawi, for example, these girls were known as “Brides of the Sun“, as their families pushed them to forced marriage due to the economic consequences of the drought.

Also, violence against women in highly vulnerable situations is a consequence of systemic failures caused by extreme weather events, which cause socio-economic and institutional instability that make healthcare, security and law enforcement inaccessible.

Climate change is not the direct cause of violence against women; but they enable an environment where violent behaviors can more easily take place with impunity. Nevertheless, the primary and direct cause of violence remain patriarchy, which “normalizes” violence against women. 

The role of Local and Regional Governments

Local and Regional Governments and municipalities are key in the fight against violence. Their proximity to the people allows them to take action that is adapted to the realities and to the needs of their inhabitants.

In this sense, the the Observatory of Violence against Women Seine-Saint-Denis was created in 2002 as a laboratory to build data and promote effective tools to protect women victims of violence and their children; as well as to train professionals to support these women in the best possible way. Although Seine-Saint-Denis has not been radically exposed to the climate crisis like other territories, it has experienced another crisis, the one of the COVID-19 pandemic: the Observatory has rapidly reacted to this crisis by adapting its tools and provided a rapid response to the increased violence against women due to the prolonged lockdown.

Finally, adopting a feminist point of view to the climate crisis enables local territories to position themselves into the UN strategy of the “Sustainable Development Goals” that adopts a plural approach to human rights, environmental and political issues. On the one hand, the increase in violence against women must be taken into account in environmental public policies. On the other hand, policies committed to the protection of women must take into consideration the increased exposure to violence during extreme climatic events.

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