Climate change leaving more women at risk of GBV, globally

Until recently, relatively little attention has been paid to its disproportionate impact on women and girls. 

Photo credit: Illustration | Diana Ejaita

What you need to know:

  • Scientists have long warned that climate change disproportionately impacts the world’s poorest and most vulnerable.
  • Negotiators from wealthy countries at the UN Climate Change Conference in Egypt pledged to do more to help poorer countries already grappling with its devastating effects.

Pilot Lenaigwanai covers her mouth as she speaks, trying to hide her broken tooth, a bitter reminder of all she endured before finding refuge at a shelter for abuse survivors in northern Kenya.

The mother of three arrived here last July after being forced from her home by escalating violence. Her husband was abusive even before the drought that’s now ravaging Kenya’s arid north, the worst in decades. When the family’s 68 cattle—their only means of survival—died, the abuse became impossible to bear.

“He was visibly frustrated and turned the heat on me and my children,” she says. “I just think he wanted us out, because he could not provide for us anymore.”

Ms Lenaigwanai is one of the dozens of women who have arrived at the Umoja refuge in recent months fleeing violence that they say got worse as each successive year of low rainfall plunged their families deeper into poverty.

Pilot Lenaigwanai, a survivor of domestic violence speaks to Nation.Africa at the Umoja Village women’s refuge in northern Kenya.

Photo credit: Geoffrey Ondieki | Nation Media Group

Her semi-nomadic Samburu community of pastoralists are particularly vulnerable to drought because they depend on the livestock whose emaciated carcasses litter the barren lands that once provided plentiful grazing.

For these and many other women around the world, the threat of violence could become more common as climate change makes extreme weather events more intense and frequent.

Scientists have long warned that climate change disproportionately impacts the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, and negotiators from wealthy countries at the UN Climate Change Conference in Egypt pledged to do more to help poorer countries already grappling with its devastating effects.

Until recently, relatively little attention has been paid to its disproportionate impact on women and girls. But this year, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identified a link between climate change and violence, citing the growing evidence that extreme weather events are driving domestic violence, with global implications for public health and gender equality.

A 2021 study of extreme weather events in Kenya by researchers at St Catherine University in Minnesota found the economic stresses due to flooding and drought or extreme heat exacerbated violence against women in their homes.

The research, which used satellite and national health survey data, showed that domestic violence rose by 60 per cent in areas that experienced extreme weather.

That analysis, and 40 others published this year as part of a global review in the journal The Lancet, found a rise in gender-based violence (GBV) during or after extreme weather events.

Overwhelming evidence

Terry McGovern, who heads the department of Population and Family Health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, called the scientific evidence for this connection “overwhelming”.

“Heat waves, floods, climate-induced disasters increase sexual harassment, mental and physical abuse, femicide, reduce economic and educational opportunity and increase the risk of trafficking due to forced migration,” said McGovern, who added that the data remains limited on some fronts, including on psychological and emotional violence and attacks against minority groups.

Several academics, activists and humanitarian workers said the links between violence against women and extreme weather events need more research.

Unlike the hard science of climate change, they said, the complex drivers of violence cannot easily be captured in numbers.

“The climate discourse is all about the numbers, but the evidence on violence and changes in power dynamics cannot be captured that way, and so it is not given the same weight,” says Nitya Rao, a professor of gender and development at the University of East Anglia, UK.

“It is very difficult to make a linear connection.”

Gender-based violence survivors in Umoja village, Samburu East. As Samburu grapples with one of the worst droughts in a decade, the dry conditions mean that women and girls are at increased risk of gender-based violence and other forms of exploitation.

Photo credit: Goeffrey Ondieki I Nation Media Group

In Umoja, no one is in much doubt that the drought is driving up violence—its swelling numbers are proof enough.

Jane Meriwas, whose non-profit organisation the Samburu Women Trust helps women who have fled abusive homes support themselves, says the number of women at Umoja has doubled to 51 in the last year.

“As communities and families lose their livelihoods and suffer hunger, there is increased experience of weak or broken family structures. Most are now engaging in dangerous activities to get a meal,” she said, citing sex work and bootlegging.

With their semi-nomadic lifestyle, Samburu women are particularly vulnerable. They have little or no stable access to health facilities, police protection or support services, Meriwas said, making it harder for them to report abuse. “They are really suffering in silence.”

In eastern India, more frequent downpours and devastating floods are driving violence. Poverty is exacerbated by sudden economic stress, and societal inequality often traps women with abusive partners or other family members because they have nowhere else to go and cannot rely on authorities for help.

A mother of five, who asked to go by her middle name, Devi, to protect her identity, said she doesn’t know anything about climate change.

She just knows that whenever floods come to her village in Bihar state, her husband comes home angry and violent.

Toughest time

With her husband working away from home much of the year as a farmhand, each season can be challenging. But the monsoon season, Devi said, is by far the toughest.

That is when the rivers in her low-lying village downstream from the melting Himalayan glaciers swell to bursting, flooding large swaths of land and making farming impossible.

With no prospect of work until the floods recede, her husband returns home and takes his frustration out on his family.

“The violence peaks during the floods. Everything gets worse at that time—the hunger, the stress. We have snakes coming into the house,” says Devi, 40.

“The anger gets taken out on me. There’s a lot of stress during those times and I can’t sleep because of all the tension,” she says, wiping away tears as one of her young sons leans in closer.

Devi, who shares her small thatched-roof home with her mother-in-law, has little privacy to describe the nature of the violence. But when the older woman went out of earshot, she said her husband beat her and verbally abused her “day and night” during the floods.

Shilpi Singh, who works with women in India’s poorest state as director of a grassroots organisation called Bhoomika Vihar, said she sees the connection between floods and violence as straightforward.

“It comes down to economic distress. When there is no food to eat in the house, the men vent out their frustration by beating the women, who are raised with the belief that leaving is not an option.”

For Devi, the flood waters trap her. When they surround her home, they cut her and her family off from the outside world, increasing her vulnerability even further. As she talks about her situation, she repeatedly invokes a well-known Hindi phrase that translates roughly as “I endure,” which almost always refers to women’s suffering.

“If my daughters find themselves in this situation, I will tell them, they must endure,” she said. “If there are bad days, good days must surely follow.”

Scientists emphasise that extreme weather events do not cause domestic or gender-based violence but instead exacerbate existing pressures or make it easier for perpetrators to carry out such violence.

The mass displacement that follows disasters can expose women to greater danger, according to studies in Bangladesh and parts of India.

The Philippines ranks as one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries, suffering frequent earthquakes and storms that are becoming more intense as the world warms.

Nine years ago, Typhoon Haiyan—one of the strongest cyclones ever recorded—flattened entire villages in the Philippines, killing more than 6,000 people and displacing around four million.

When Typhoon Rai hit the Philippines in December 2021, the country was better prepared. The relatively low death toll—in the hundreds—has been attributed, in part, to improved early warning systems and other measures put in place by local authorities.

But it caused nearly as much property damage as previous storms. Just over a year later, many victims are still living in makeshift shelters after losing their homes, and, in many cases, their crops and livelihoods.

Rommel Lopez, spokesperson for the local social welfare department, said these stresses often acted as triggers for abuse within families in a country where violence against women is common.

One in every four Filipina women aged 15 to 49 has experienced physical, emotional or sexual violence from a husband or partner, according to a 2017 demographic survey by the Philippine Statistics Authority.

“When there’s a calamity or disaster or conflict that can put families in difficulties, the situation at evacuation centres is a contributing factor,” Lopez said.

“It makes them agitated. It adds to their frustration. When someone is frustrated, they could reach a certain point and that could trigger [violence].”

Aira Nase, 37, has been running away from violence all her life. Her mother suffered beatings from her partner and as a young girl, Ms Nase vowed never to be like her.

She was proud of raising her three children alone, taking on jobs in Manila, the capital, to provide for them. When Covid hit in 2020, she decided to leave the city and take her family back to her home province of Southern Leyte on the eastern side of the archipelago that makes up the Philippines.

She got together with a local fisherman, and for a time the couple enjoyed a quiet life. They would occasionally quarrel over his drinking, particularly after Ms Nase became pregnant in 2021, but never got into physical fights.

All that changed after Typhoon Rai made landfall shortly before Christmas 2021, devastating swaths of the country and destroying the couple’s home. They spent the holidays in a school library that doubled as an evacuation site, remaining there until May.

Her partner began drinking frequently and the couple fought daily. Then Ms Nase’s breast milk dried up, but the couple could not afford formula for their two-month-old baby.

Her 16-year-old daughter gave birth to a premature baby, who died as they could not afford hospital care.

Jailed

The tensions between the couple peaked in February, when Ms Nase’s partner returned drunk and rowdy to the library, disturbing other evacuees.

Nase said she tried in vain to quiet him down. When she went to leave, he kicked her before rushing out of the room. Nase passed out and when she regained consciousness the next day, he was in jail.

“It was a very stressful time for us. We were broke and jobless. He was hot-headed and often drunk,” she said. “I told him: you’re not the only one who suffered from the storm, our neighbours did too. If you have a problem, why don’t you talk to me?”

There’s no official data showing how extreme weather disasters affect levels of violence against women and girls in the Philippines.

One study, based on in-depth interviews with 42 people including survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, aid workers and government officials found reports of domestic violence, sexual violence and incest had increased in its aftermath.

A separate survey of more than 800 households in the affected area carried out by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies found increases in both early marriage and domestic violence.

Humanitarian organisations working in the Dinagat Islands, which were badly hit by Typhoon Rai, sought to break this pattern. They launched a poster campaign highlighting where women can go for help if they are facing violence at home, along with a phone number to call.

For the Samburu women at Umoja, escaping the twin pressures of violence and drought has become key to their survival.

Rose Lairolkek sat in the little remaining shade afforded by the cluster of traditional mud-roofed huts that make up the refuge.

She recounted how her husband came home angry after discovering all his cattle had died and attacked her, and how she still bears the scar on her right shoulder more than two years later.

“It almost cost me my life.”

This story is published in partnership with The Fuller Project and The Washington Post

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