Climate change could intensify violence against women, study finds

Weather disasters occurring more often due to climate change create conditions in which gender-based violence often increases, according to new research.

The study, published in the journal The Lancet Planetary Health, reviewed research from five continents and found an increase in violence against women and girls following floods, droughts, hurricanes and other extreme weather events that are becoming more frequent as the planet warms. Humanitarian organizations responding to weather-related disasters should be aware of this worrying trend when planning their operations, the study authors said.

“When we think of the effects of climate change, we think of very drastic and very visual things, things like flooding, disruption to cities, disruption to supply chain – all of which are very valid and very of climate change,” said study author Sarah. Savić Kallesøe, a public health researcher at Simon Fraser University in Canada. “But there are also more veiled consequences that are not so easily seen or easily studied. And one of those things is gender-based violence.

The researchers scoured online databases for studies on rape, sexual assault, child marriage and other forms of gender-based violence following extreme weather events.

The initial search, based on general keywords like “violence”, “women” and “weather”, yielded more than 20,000 results, which Savić Kallesøe and his colleagues reviewed individually to determine if they were relevant.

Only 41 studies assessing the links between gender-based violence and extreme weather conditions were retained. The researchers then assessed the robustness of each study’s methodology using standard rubrics to assess data quality. Although many articles are flawed and a few contradict each other, most studies – especially the better ones – have reported an increase in gender-based violence following extreme weather conditions, said Savić Kallesøe .

For example, one study found that new moms were more than eight times more likely to be beaten by their romantic partner after Hurricane Katrina if they had suffered storm damage than before the storm. Five studies of good or moderate quality have linked drought in sub-Saharan Africa to increases in sexual and physical abuse by dating partners, child marriage, dowry-related violence and femicide.

And interviews with survivors revealed that asking for disaster relief can make women more vulnerable: “The shelter is not safe for us. The young men come from seven or eight villages,” one survivor told researchers after Cyclone Roanu in Bangladesh in 2016. “I’m scared to stay in the shelters. I am staying at home rather than taking my teenage daughter to shelters,” she added.

Lindsay Stark, a social epidemiologist at Washington University’s Brown School in St. Louis, said the pattern “is something those of us who work in the humanitarian space are inherently familiar with, because we see it all time. So it’s very nice to see this distillation of the evidence.

Savić Kallesøe emphasized that climate change itself does not directly cause gender-based violence. Instead, she and her colleagues found that gender-based violence is “exacerbated by extreme weather events because it is a type of coping strategy at the expense of women, girls and sexual minorities and gender,” she said.

Extreme weather conditions can put people under enormous stress, displacing them, forcing them into overcrowded relief camps, destroying their livelihoods and exposing them to strangers who could harm them. Along with the gender roles that are often at the root of gender-based violence, these risk factors make women particularly vulnerable. For example, a family may marry off a daughter early to have one less mouth to feed after a flood, or a man stressed out after a hurricane may snap and hit his wife.

Researchers widely recognize that humanitarian crises, such as conflict or forced migration, tend to expose women and girls to violence. That climate disasters have similar consequences is not surprising, said Lori Heise, gender equity expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

However, the exact ways in which climate disasters lead to gender-based violence are still unclear from the data. Few high-quality studies are available – and almost no data has been collected on the challenges faced by LGBTQ people following extreme weather events. The new study underscores the need for more and better research and for humanitarian organizations to engage with women and girls in climate-stressed areas on how best to protect them in times of disaster, said Savić Kallesøe.

“Gender-based violence happens all the time, everywhere,” Stark said. “We must prevent gender-based violence now…and understand that if we don’t act now, the situation will increase exponentially with the looming climate crisis that we all know is upon us.”

Teresa H. Sadler