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A Crisis within a Crisis: Climate Change and Gender-Based Violence

March 2, 2022

By Kate Francis, Priya Dhanani

On March 8, the world marks International Women’s Day, a holiday that originated with the dauntless labor movements of the early twentieth century, when thousands of striking women garment workers marched through New York City to protest dangerous working conditions and rampant sexual harassment. It has been an official United Nations observance since 1975.

Women’s achievements and their ongoing, global struggle for equality, which this holiday commemorates, have taken on even greater importance in the face of climate change and Covid-19. In the two years of the pandemic, women’s progress has been set back by a generation globally and even further in Asia, where the World Economic Forum estimates that full gender equality in East Asia and the Pacific will take at least 165 years to achieve.

Perhaps most alarming is the dramatic increase in gender-based violence (GBV) in Asia and around the world—what UN Women calls a “shadow pandemic.” Failure to mitigate GBV can stunt national economies and have a corrosive effect on the social fabric of communities. Care International estimates that the economic cost of GBV tops 2 percent of global GDP or $1.5 trillion annually. The pandemic has driven up the incidence of GBV with the stress of lockdowns, the growing strains on household finances, and the breakdown of support networks.

At the same time, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies recorded more than 100 natural disasters during the first six months of the pandemic, the vast majority due to climate- and weather-related events. Women suffer increased violence and harassment during these disasters, particularly women from marginalized communities and backgrounds, who face greater risks of poverty, social exclusion, and structural discrimination.

The global struggle for gender equality has taken on even greater importance in the face of the climate crisis.

According to the Fiji Women’s Crisis Center, domestic-violence calls to their nationwide helpline increased by 300 percent when Covid-19 lockdowns began. During periods of drought in Micronesia, women and children, who were forced to walk farther to water wells, reported a rising incidence of rape and abuse. Following the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal, cases of human trafficking spiked. Respondents in Myanmar blamed increased alcohol consumption by men after Cyclone Nargis for contributing to a 30 percent increase in domestic violence.

Despite data linking GBV and climate change, risk-reduction measures have lagged. For instance, the Enhanced Lima Work Programme on Gender and Its Gender Action Plan, which debuted at COP25, provides a framework for gender-responsive action on climate change, but it does not refer to GBV; nor was the issue a priority at the COP26 Gender Day. Integrating GBV mitigation into global action plans is critical to ensure that funding, research, legal protections, and programming address women’s unique vulnerabilities to climate change and natural disasters.

At The Asia Foundation, we are working to identify the gaps in programming and policymaking and to recognize where there’s been progress, particularly by young feminists and Indigenous climate activists. The Foundation’s Pacific Islands program, for example, has been working with the Shifting the Power Coalition (StPC) to develop the PowerShift Fund, a flexible fund led by Pacific women to support the Coalition’s programs, including strategies to address challenges like GBV that women face from climate change.

While Pacific Island women bear the brunt of the climate crisis, we are determined not to be seen simply for our vulnerability, but as women with solutions. Through the StPC, with the support of the Power Shift Fund, we can organize even in the midst of disasters and crises and weave together our traditional and indigenous knowledge to enhance safety and protection.

— Sharon Bhagwan Rolls, regional manager, Shifting the Power Coalition, Suva, Fiji

Young women of the Shifting the Power Coalition in Tonga learn about women’s leadership and disability inclusion in humanitarian action.

During the April 2021 floods in Timor-Leste, the Foundation’s Nabilan program, which addresses violence against women, delivered psychological support services to evacuees and emergency funds to service workers affected by flooding and domestic violence. Nabilan also worked closely with CODIVA, an LGBTQ-focused organization, to conduct a needs assessment in LGBTQ communities, which are especially vulnerable to GBV in times of crisis. The Nabilan team continues to provide support to three evacuation shelters that house over 1,500 people who could not return home, including women and girls.

We know that disasters—whether they be pandemics, war, or the impacts of climate change—will have a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable and marginalized in our society. We can’t just focus on helping women and marginalized groups with aid after a disaster. We need to work with communities before disasters strike to build equality by sharing power and resources.

— Anna Yang, Nabilan team leader, The Asia Foundation–Timor-Leste

Nabilan volunteers in Timor-Leste deliver much-needed first aid for flood evacuees in April 2021.

Climate vulnerabilities often force rural populations in the Indo-Pacific to migrate to urban areas or across borders. The risks to female migrants include GBV, sexual exploitation, and trafficking. In Nepal, the Foundation and a consortium of social entrepreneurs developed the Shuvayatra app, a tool for Nepali migrant laborers to plan for safe work abroad in environments that can often be dangerous, abusive, and illegal. During Covid, additional resources were added to connect migrants with GBV support services, such as the national GBV helpline in Nepal.

During the pandemic, a lot of Nepali labor migrants lost their jobs and were returned to the country, many with no savings. GBV increased drastically due to the enforced proximity of lockdowns. With support from the Visa Foundation, Shuvayatra adapted its mobile app and its Facebook page to deliver GBV prevention messages and business development ideas to these struggling communities.

— Suswopna Rimal, senior program officer, The Asia Foundation–Nepal

The Shuvayatra app provides resources and information for Nepali migrant laborers to plan for safe work abroad in environments that can often be dangerous, abusive, and illegal.

These examples from the Pacific Islands, Timor-Leste, and Nepal suggest strategies to address the links between climate change and GBV. One is shifting funding, resources, and power to climate-justice organizations with female, LGBTQ, and Indigenous leadership. Another is working with local organizations to assess the risks to specific, structurally excluded groups during climate-related disasters. A third is collaborating with women and girls to devise new strategies like using tech to address GBV.

Importantly, more women from diverse backgrounds must become climate-action leaders. Evidence shows that applying a gender lens to climate action, under women’s leadership, can help countries effectively adapt to climate change. The social norms that underpin gendered inequalities must also be addressed systematically for interventions to succeed. With climate disasters likely to proliferate, the gendered impacts on women and girls, including GBV, will also increase. Let’s start by equipping women and girls in all their diversity to take the lead on climate justice—on International Women’s Day and every day.

Priya Dhanani is a senior program officer and Kate Francis is an advisor in The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality Program. They can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

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