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Sunday, 24 November 2013 10:00

Gender Based Violence and Climate Change: Linkages and Evidence

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Gender Based Violence and Climate Change: Linkages and Evidence

------ By Daniel Schensul

The impacts of climate change have already begun, and even with the prospect of a major global agreement on emissions reductions in 2015, will continue to increase, with enormous and far reaching implications for well-being, dignity and development. One of the challenges of preparing for climate change impacts, however, is that the most significant events will occur in the future. The best approach to meeting this challenge has been to use past natural disasters as proxies and as the basis of learning. By this approach, it is clear that gender-based violence is in critical need of significant focus in planning for and responding to climate change.

Available evidence indicates that the disorganization that accompanies natural disasters (e.g., separation of families and disruption in the rule of law) puts women and girls at heightened risk of multiple forms of violence.[1]  Observed frequency is high (even given significant underreporting, associated both with stigma and the absence of effective monitoring systems and health services in emergency situations), yet disaster risk reduction and disaster response have generally not included GBV-related activities.[2]

According to WHO,[3] increases in intimate partner violence levels have been reported in the Philippines after the Mt. Pinatubo eruption, in Nicaragua after Hurricane Mitch, in the USA after the Loma Prieta earthquake and the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens, and in several refugee camps worldwide. Women who were living in a violent relationship before the disaster may experience violence of increasing severity post-disaster, as they may be separated from family, friends and other support systems that previously offered them some measure of protection. After a disaster these women may be forced to rely on a perpetrator for survival or access to services. Displaced women and children are often at risk of sexual violence as they try to meet their basic needs. Rape of women and children collecting water and firewood has been reported in refugee camps in Guinea and the United Republic of Tanzania; as climate change exacerbates water shortages and spurs increasing competition over other natural resources including firewood, risk of violence will only increase.

In areas where human trafficking is widely prevalent, disasters may result in conditions that provide opportunities for traffickers (e.g. large numbers of unaccompanied children). Sexual exploitation may increase in situations where women's options for employment are diminished. Additionally, reports from the eastern Congo and Guinea show that refugee and displaced women and children may be coerced into sex in exchange for food or shelter for themselves or their families. In cultures with traditions of early marriage and dowry, adolescent girls' may face an increased risk of early and forced marriage because of poverty, which will be exacerbated particularly in high exposure areas like flood plains and in agriculture-dependent contexts where climate change is expected to cause decreasing yields.

A recent UNFPA report[4] estimates that in the past 10 years more than 800 disasters in the Latin American and Caribbean Region affected about 64 million people. According to statistics on reproductive health kits for interagency use in crisis situations, about 65,000 women may have been violated in this context (no doubt a very significant undercount).

In Chile, data from clinics and centres for the assistance of domestic violence survivors confirmed that reported incidents of VAW had increased. In Guatemala, an evaluation by Gestión y Tecnología en Salud y Desarrollo (GETSA) in June 2010 revealed that psychological violence had increased from 7 per cent prior to the storm to 22.5 and 19 per cent during and after the storm, respectively. The evaluation also observed an increase in economic violence from 18.3 to 20.4 to 26.1 per cent, prior, during and after the storm, respectively. Other contributing factors were: scarce security in temporary shelters, particularly at night; improvised shelters, the majority of which housed both men and women together, that were inadequate to provide for the high number of displaced persons and generally lacked even basic security measures (e.g., lighting); and insufficient military personnel to provide security. Besides sexual violence, cases of femicide were also reported.

Similarly, investigations on this issue in the Dominican Republic in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Noel (2007) revealed that sexual violence, both within the home and within society in general, had increased. The following primary contributing factors were reported by the authors:  destruction of traditional prevention and response services such as police stations, judicial courts and health centres; lack of priority given to medical and social services, the aim of which was to prevent and respond to VAW in the context of reconstruction efforts; loss of social and family protection frameworks that may have increased the vulnerability of women to SEA and/or survival sex. In the 2007 post-earthquake Peru, the majority of the GBV survivors who reported their cases were between 9 and 18 years old. According to testimonies, the majority of perpetrators were strangers who took advantage of girls’ being alone, either because they left their refuges or because their parents were away working.

Yet data and research also show some important temporal considerations for GBV response related to disasters. A preliminary study by the World Bank right after Hurricane Mitch hit Nicaragua and Honduras describes a pattern in which familial and sexual violence seems to have decreased in the immediate aftermath of the disaster and to have steadily increased in the reconstruction phase. This may mean GBV programmes are particularly vital in the period after immediate relief efforts, when world’s attention, and that of the humanitarian response community, is often already turning elsewhere.

Proxy analysis of natural disasters has its limitations for climate change impacts, but the direction of error is likely in underestimating GBV. Climate change impacts are pervasive, including not just short term, acute impacts like storms, but cyclical events, huge long term changes that will impact livelihoods on a pervasive basis, and impacts across a nearly all sectors of society. The breadth of climate impacts, and the strong links between GBV and disasters, yet further emphasize the urgency of climate change mitigation and adaptation.

[1] Gender-based Violence Area of Responsibility Working Group. “Handbook for Coordinating Gender-based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings.”

[2] UNFPA Fact Sheet on Gender Based Violence in Disaster Settings, LACRO.

[3] WHO Factsheet on Violence and Disasters.

[4] UNFPA. “Gender-Based Violence and Natural Disasters in Latin America and the Caribbean.”


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