Women bear the brunt of climate change

A woman and a child taking shelter near their submerged house along river Brahmaputra in Morigaon, in Northeastern India, where floods and landslides killed dozens of people in July, 2020. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

Women are among the most affected by climate-related insecurity, and yet they’re often absent from the conversation. Experts hope that by understanding how they are affected but also by including them in the solutions, peace can be more sustainable.

In July of last year, South Sudan was hit by some of the worst floods it has seen in the last decades. With temperatures increasing 2.5 times faster than the global average, it is among the world’s five most vulnerable countries to climate change. After a five-year civil war between 2013 and 2018 that is estimated to have left 400,000 dead, the country still ridden with inter-communal violent conflict, is now spiralling into a humanitarian crisis.

Women are bearing the heaviest burden, according to Nyachangkuoth Rambang Tai, from the Assistance Mission for Africa, a faith-based organisation promoting peace, transitional justice, gender equality and sustainable livelihoods.

“Women are forced to cross rivers in order to get access to food and to [healthcare]. Pregnant women who are on labour pains sometimes give birth in the river and end up losing their children,” she said at an event on the links between gender, climate and security organised by the International Association of Genocide Scholars, Raphaël Lemkin Genocide Prevention Program and the Environmental Peacebuilding Association.

The event was organised as part of the Road to Geneva, an initiative bringing different actors together to discuss environmental peacebuilding ahead of the Second International Conference on Environmental Peacebuilding due to be held in Geneva next February.

Coined some 15 years ago, the concept of environmental peacebuilding is relatively new. It essentially means that for achieving sustainable peace, resource management and environmental protection are key.

Why it matters. As climate change gains ground, people are increasingly struggling with access to water, food, energy and land. These crises, together with the pandemic, are pushing some of the already fragile regions over the edge, sparking violence and forcing people to flee their homes.

In these contexts, women are affected in very specific ways. “Gender intersects strongly with how environmental changes and climate change is perceived and experienced on the ground,” said Tobias Ide, a lecturer in politics and policy at the Murdoch University, who was also a panellist at the event.

In drought-ridden Ghana, they have to travel long distances in search of water or food, losing precious productivity hours. In Mexico, women face discrimination and own only four per cent of the land even though they produce half of food, said Úrsula Oswald Spring, a researcher and former secretary of the International Peace Research Association.

In contexts of conflict and mass violence, women also face higher levels of gender-based violence, she explained. In Mexico, where the government has been waging a war against organised crimes for over a decade, there is an average of 10 femicides per day.

The country is now facing a water crisis in some regions because of poor water management, on top of severe floods that hit the Eastern and Southern part of the country last year, damaging crops and displacing thousands of people. All of these elements converge to create the perfect storm.

Inviting women to the table. While the picture may be grim, experts argue that understanding how these elements interact is what will allow for new solutions to emerge.

“While these interrelated crises can exacerbate gender gaps, they can also create opportunities for inclusive collaborative action, and that is indeed the main premise of environmental peacebuilding,” said Marisa O. Ensor, from the Justice and Peace Studies Program at Georgetown University.

In South Sudan, the Assistance Mission for Africa has supported several peace conferences designed to include women. These women are often the mothers that play a role in morally guiding the communities, Tai explained, whether by composing songs or by scolding their sons when they steal cattle, which is one of the major contributors to intercommunal disputes and violence.

Including women in these processes also raises the chance of success. “Research shows incontrovertibly that when women participate in peace agreements the likelihood that the peace process will be more successful and more sustainable increases by a certain percentage,” Ensor said.