Satellite image of Hurricane Lester on approach to the island of Hawaii
A new study outlines the links between environmental issues (including extreme weather like hurricanes) and instances of gender-based violence. Credit: NASA

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Climate change and environmental degradation are driving up violence against women and standing in the way of sustainable goals, according to a new report released by the environmental organization International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Worsening conditions across the globe could lead to even more violence as natural resources shrink.

The most vulnerable are often hurt disproportionately by environmental issues: A report by the Lancet Countdown found that children and pregnant women will suffer from rising temperatures and air pollution in the coming decades; African American communities are more at risk from air pollution; and people of color, particularly Native Americans, are more at risk from wildfires.

In the latest report, researchers studied the links between environmental issues (including deforestation, illegal mining, weather-related disasters, drought, and climate change) and instances of gender-based violence. People of any gender can experience acts of violence, including domestic violence, sexual assault, forced prostitution, and other acts of abuse. Because of social and cultural norms, women and gender minorities are often most at risk.

Combining information from peer-reviewed research, organizational reports, news articles, case studies, and IUCN’s survey, the authors found close links between worsening environmental stressors and an uptick in gender-based violence.

“The precedence, the vulnerability, the likelihood, and the actual rates of violence are already clearly increasing in some contexts,” Cate Owren, senior program manager at IUCN and a lead author on the report, said. “We’re on a dangerous trajectory.”

Violence as Control

Strict gender norms and rules, as well as laws, limit who has access to resources, like women farmers who can’t sell food at market because of their gender. Violence, said Owren, is “pervasively used as a tool to negotiate power, to keep power imbalance and keep inequality intact.” The report estimates that one in three women experiences gender-based violence in her lifetime.

In one case study in Vanuatu, intimate partner violence increased by 300% following two tropical cyclones. Owrens noted that domestic violence also increased in Australia after several years of drought, and generally, the report outlines how intimate partner violence rises when men try to control scarce resources under environmental pressures and threats.

Tensions from scarce resources can reinforce gender inequalities as well, such as families choosing to marry their daughters at a young age. Ntoya Sande, a woman who was married at 13 years old in the village of Kachaso, Malawi, said in the report that prior to her marriage, floods had taken her family’s land. “I was sent to be married because of a shortage of food in the house. Otherwise they would have waited.” Malawi now lists child marriage as a heightened risk in their 2015 postdisaster needs assessment.

A weak rule of law can lead authorities to turn a blind eye to abuse. Illegal mining, fishing, logging, and other practices can lead to sexual exploitation. The report notes that in eastern and southern Africa, fish sellers demand sex for fish from women, and an estimated 1,000 men and boys—the majority of whom were 14 years and younger—were trafficked in 2015 alone in the illegal fishing industry near Indonesia.

“We Need to Open Our Eyes”

Since climate change will spur weather-related disasters, droughts, extreme weather, and other consequences, report authors warn that exacerbating situations will lead to higher rates of violence. “We conclude that this a very concerning trajectory that we are on here,” said Owren.

Environmental advocates are at particular risk. Activists at the forefront of defending land and resources are increasingly being murdered, according to research released last year, and women, particularly indigenous women, face compounding threats, as described in the latest report.

Organizations addressing environmental impacts need to consider how their efforts impact gender-based violence; otherwise, solutions can do more harm than good, according to the report. LGBTQ+ individuals may face threats in evacuation centers after a disaster or encounter issues with relief efforts when official documents do not match their gender identity or presentation.

Disaster risk management planning must mitigate these challenges, according to Owren. “We need to open our eyes,” she said. “We hope this publication contributes as…a real call to action.”

—Jenessa Duncombe (@jrdscience), News Writing and Production Fellow


Duncombe, J. (2020), Violence increases with climate change, Eos, 101, Published on 06 February 2020.

Text © 2020. AGU. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.

Text © 2020. AGU. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.