COP18: Climate Change Increases Violence Against Women

Sophie Trevitt, a contributor of The Verb who is attending the United Nations Climate Conference (COP18), wrote the following article for use on The Women Worldwide Initiative blog:

Today is the United Nations Gender Day and earlier this week marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. As delegates gather for Day Two of the United Nations Climate Conference (COP18), it is important to remember that dealing with climate change is a critical part of the equation to reduce violence against women. Two young COP18 delegates Ruth Nyambura and Mirda Haidar share their stories of women, conflict and climate change.

Young climate change activist and women’s rights advocate Ruth comes from Nairobi, Kenya and knows only too well the conflict precipitated by climate change. She tells the story of two neighboring, pastoralist communities Sambure and Turkana that erupted into conflict about three months ago. Oil was discovered in Turkana in February/March this year. Ruth explains, “this place barely has roads, barely has anything! The government has not discovered a permanent source of water, but they let someone come in and discover oil – you can imagine the irony.”

Cattle rustling has always occurred within the region and with food and water shortages and a lack of infrastructure, heads of cattle are very valuable. But, the situation is aggravated in situations of above normal temperature where the likelihood of violence leaps an enormous 30%; particularly in pastoralist communities where rainfall and water temperature determines the proximity between neighboring communities.

In this particular instance, the discovery of oil had shifted the political dynamic between the communities. Over a series of weeks, political clout was thrown around, fifty police officers were massacred in Sugutu Valley trying to recover the cattle, women were raped and villagers were killed.

“Story is this – that region is resource rich.” And, in an area of political instability and harsh weather conditions due, at least in part, to the warming nature of climate change that renders land less arable and food more scarce; resource rich means conflict prone. Ruth tells  similar stories of conflict which echo the trends showing that violence against girls and women, particularly sexual violence increases in times of political upheaval – which are frequently provoked by land, water and food disputes caused by climate change.

Africa is not alone in its vulnerability to conflict contributed to by climate change. Climate change is a “threat multiplier”. It exacerbates any pre-existing factors that could precipitate conflict such as poverty, food and water shortages or political instability.

The Arab Spring was born out of an unprecedented drought in Syria stretching from 2006 – 2010 that saw 1.5 million migrate from the country to urban areas due to water shortages and effectively the destruction of the agricultural industry which lead to food prices sky rocketing and social structures fragmenting. This was the underreported undercurrent to “the many historical, political, and economic factors contributing to the Syrian uprising”. The concept of climate change as a threat multiplier rings true in the context of the Arab Spring. It was not drought alone that caused the overthrowing of governments; rather it was a culmination of factors that when compounded with the scarcity of food and water and destruction of arable land that accompanies climate change; reached a crisis point and exploded in violence. The sexualised nature of the often government or military perpetrated crimes against women in the region is further evidence of the uniquely vulnerable position women are placed in during times of war.

Mirna Haidar is a queer feminist from Lebanon who is passionate about reducing violence against women and preventing dangerous climate change. For her, conflict and climate change is epitomised in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Lebanon over water which is depleting due to climate change; and precipitates regional instability and social breakdown in the area. She describes the Arab Spring as a powerful time because it demonstrated the capacity for unity and strength. Mirna explains that “climate change by itself doesn’t know the difference between women and men” but the politics that surround it “make gender and climate change.. deeply rooted and related to each other”. Mirna cites the long term disadvantage of women as fuelling their powerful role in the Arab Spring. “Sufferance and struggle made us number one revolutionists against oppression… we as women, as the ones who suffered the most from dictatorships, wars and decision makers – we had had enough of it”.

Without tackling the pervasive problems, such as climate change, that feed the instability and volatility of these regions, the gender inequality persists. Mirna articulates that if our politicians do not succeed in preventing runaway climate change; “we as women will continue to suffer more than men” and “women will be even more dependent on men for survival”. It is clearly established that women bear the brunt of the violence, the poverty and the work that come part and parcel with climate change.

It is imperative not to separate climate change from the people whose lives it affects. To use the words of former British Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett; climate change “is not a matter of narrow national security; it is about our collective security in a fragile and increasingly interdependent world.” The collective security, economic empowerment and equal standing of women all over the globe depends on providing the resources to adapt to the impacts of climate change that are already being experienced as well as reducing our collective emissions to avoid more precarious and volatile conditions in the future.

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