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Research shows that there’s often a rise in sexual violence against women after climate-related diasters, while female environmental activists have faced attacks — here’s everything you need to know.

Photo: Getty

We know the climate crisis is already here — with environmental destruction leading to many people being displaced from their homes, as well as causing health problems and economic hardship. And generally, the impacts of climate change are felt by women and girls the most. 

The UN estimates that more than 80% of people displaced by climate change are women, partly due to gendered labor roles such as having to stay behind after disasters to care for children and elders. In the 2004 tsunami, an Oxfam report showed that men survived women at a shocking ratio of almost 3:1 in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India. 

One aspect that’s not often discussed, though, is how the aftermath of climate disasters can often lead to an increase in sexual violence against women, girls and other marginalized genders of all ages. The reasons for this are multifaceted, and go back to issues of exploitation and displacement, which impact Indigenous, Black, and migrant people the most. 

“After natural disasters, women who are displaced can end up in unsafe, overcrowded shelters and other facilities where they’re at greater risk of sexual assault,” Osub Ahmed, senior policy analyst of women’s health and rights at US thinktank the Center for American Progress, tells Vogue

Almost a third of sexual assaults reported during Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, both in 2005, took place at evacuation shelters in the predominantly Black city of New Orleans, according to a 2006 survey by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, while a rise in sexual violence was also reported in Japan in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.   

The economic strain that often follows such disasters can also take away women’s financial independence, and often their partner’s, forcing them to travel further to get resources, such as wood or water in refugee camps, or find work. “Psychological and emotional stresses indirectly caused by climate change — job loss, being displaced from your home, or experiencing general civil unrest — can lead to higher levels of sexual violence in the home,” Ahmed continues

New research published in BMJ Global Health explores this connection between the climate crisis and domestic violence, highlighting cases of murder, coercive control, aggressive behavior, forced early marriage, and financial abuse. The study found that more than a third of perpetrators were current or ex-partners, while 15% were relatives. 

Native American participants in the 2019 Women’s March walk with signs and bullhorns in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photo: Getty

Extractive industries and gender-based violence  

In communities where extractive mining of fossil fuels or the construction of chemical plants take place, Indigenous communities are also at risk of violence from the sudden influx of mostly male transient workers, according to Amnesty International’s Out of Sight, Out of Mind 2016 report, as “young men are statistically more likely to be perpetrators of violent crime.” 

In North America, the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people has largely gone ignored, leaving these communities unprotected. In 2018, the Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI) conducted a survey, finding that out of 5,712 missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, only 116 were recorded in the US Department of Justice (DoJ) database. According to the DoJ, 56% of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced sexual violence and 90% of that group experienced violence from a non-tribal member.   

Many of the perpetrators of these crimes come from “man camps”, temporary communities created to house hundreds or thousands of pipeline construction workers, who often build structures in rural areas close to Indigenous communities. This, says Ruth Hopkins, Dakota/Lakota Sioux writer, lawyer and activist, can create an environment that is deeply dangerous for Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people.

“Pipeline workers are overwhelmingly male. They have money to spend and a lot of time on their hands, but are living in isolated locales where there isn’t a lot to do. This leads to an explosion in sex trafficking,” she explains. Because these pipeline workers are largely non-Native, Hopkins says, “tribes lack the jurisdiction necessary to prosecute them if they commit crimes, even on tribal land and against their own tribal members,” adding that US lawyers decline to “prosecute upwards” 30 to 50% of the time.

Dr Aditi Surie von Czechowski, research fellow at the University of Cambridge, says that in situations like this, “environmental activists also frequently experience violence aimed at silencing them. This can be structural and not only sexual in nature.” In the past few years, an increasing number of Indigenous women and trans activists have been attacked and murdered while fighting for their rights and against environmental disaster. 

Helping survivors of sexual violence 

For those who’ve experienced sexual violence, compounded by the trauma of environmental disaster and exploitation in their communities, healing has to happen on a community and individual level — with groups such as the Mujeres Amazonicas in the Ecuadorian Amazon, for example, providing a support network for women who have experienced sexual violence.  

Often, though, displacement means that the systems of support survivors would usually rely upon are diminished, if not completely gone. “If available, western-style psychotherapeutic treatments may be helpful. But they are usually expensive and out of reach for the majority of survivors of sexual violence,” says Alison Phipps, UNESCO chair, refugee integration through languages and the arts. There are, however, many nonprofit organizations that help provide immigrant women with access to wellness services, such as The Brave House in New York City and the London Therapeutic Women’s counseling service. 

Phipps, whose work focuses on non-western responses to adverse conditions and reactions to violence, adds that finding people who understand can also help, as well as engaging in arts and crafts and other activities to help process trauma

While it’s clear that rising sexual violence needs to be addressed, we have to be careful about how we do that. Narratives that isolate this as a “third-world” problem or blame it all on “tradition or religion” are common, especially in African and Middle Eastern region. Dr Surie von Czechowski says when we discuss this issue, we sometimes “risk replicating colonial narratives about women and their oppression, rather than focusing on the structural factors that drive climate injustice.” 

Soraya Bahgat

Soraya Bahgat photographed by Sanna Krook & Kim Öhrling.

After witnessing a sexual assault at a demonstration, Egyptian-Finnish women’s rights activist Soraya Bahgat launched the Tahrir Bodyguard as a collective effort to protect female protesters. “No woman should be prevented from exercising her rights to protest and make her voice heard,” she says. “This is a major year for gender equality – we have an opportunity to raise awareness on the issues that are arising, from climate change to women’s rights.”

Addressing the climate emergency means fighting to end gender-based oppression and all forms of injustice that intersect with this. Failing to do so will only result in more disaster. According to Delphine Pinault, humanitarian policy advocacy coordinator and UN representative at climate change activists CARE, “preparation and response [to the climate crisis] must have women and girls at its heart.”

She concludes: “Women and girls are best placed to tackle the risks caused by the climate crisis and help their communities adapt. They must have a seat at the decision-making table, have their voices heard, and be supported to lead the response.”

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