International and governmental responses to any crisis, such as the pandemic, have previously excluded women and dismissed the gendered impacts. This article examines the gendered impacts of climate change and displacement. It comprises four main sections. I) The first section examines the extent of the climate crisis today and how this disproportionately affects developing countries. II) Secondly, the concept of climate refugees is explored. III) The third section assesses the gendered impacts of climate displacement such as the increased risk of gender-based violence and the health consequences. IV) Finally, some solutions and recommendations are posed.
The Climate Crisis
The last seven years have been the world’s hottest temperature ever recorded (The Guardian, 2022). According to the World Meteorological Organization, 2020 saw new highs of Greenhouse gas concentrations and this has most likely contributed to at least 1.1 °C of warming since 1850-1990. It is said, that although this global increase in temperature is gradual, it can cause extreme effects all over the world. These changes have contributed to effects such as more intense rainfall, rising sea levels, reduced oxygen levels, flooding, and intense drought (IPCC, 2022). However, as noted by many organizations, these effects are not felt equally across the world. For example, low-income communities are often living closer to polluting facilities. Moreover, although only contributing a very small amount to global pollution, many developing nations are coastal and therefore suffer most in terms of coastal changes and are more vulnerable to floods and storms.
“It takes longer for low-income communities to be rebuilt after natural disasters, and many people in poorer nations don’t enjoy the same social safety nets as those in wealthier nations if their livelihood is crippled by a climate disaster”(The Independent, 2021)
Most importantly, however, it is important to recognize the term ‘climate colonialism’ when conversing solutions. Climate colonialism relates to the way in which the Global North has imposed climate policies that are simply not feasible for developing countries. For example, demanding green hydrogen and smart micro-grid networks, which are highly expensive, to be used by developing countries is not the solution. Indeed, the Global North is imposing standards and expectations that countries in Africa should not be using fossil fuels. However, as described by Foreign Policy (2021), this is an example of ‘the rich world telling the Global South to stay poor and stop developing, which under no scenario is possible without a vast increase in energy use’. This use of climate colonialism must be considered within posed solutions and conversations.
According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is defined as someone who has left their home country and crossed an international border due to fear of persecution for reasons of ‘race, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’. However, the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol are limited in their scope and their applicability to today’s climate circumstances. For example, it becomes difficult to fit the definition to seek asylum if you are escaping a climate crisis in your home country. The term climate refugees is by no means endorsed by the UNHCR, however, the imminent climate crisis has encouraged many scholars to argue for its scope in a legal framework to be evaluated. For the purpose of this article, I will refer to climate refugees as those who have fled their country due to the adverse weather conditions that have occurred as a result of the climate crisis. The area of climate refugees is become an increasingly explored area due to its complexities and the importance of its understanding and applicability for countries experiencing the effects of the climate crisis.
The Gendered Impact of Climate Displacement
As with many crises, women are affected differently, and often more harshly. This is due to social, economic, cultural, as well as biological reasons. As previously discussed in ‘Recognizing The Differences Between Refugee Women and Men’, refugee women have a very different experience to refugee men and are at increased risk of violence, exploitation, and burden care responsibilities. This section elaborates on these areas but against the context of migration caused by the climate crisis and focuses predominately on violence towards women and women’s health.
Violence Against Women Climate Refugees
Many studies have noted how environmental stress has been heavily linked to the increased risk of gender-based violence. The effects of scarce resources caused by environmental factors have been demonstrated to lead to increased incidents of domestic abuse, sexual assault, early marriage, and forced marriage. Daalen et al. (2021), expand on specific experiences faced by women climate refugees. Many climate refugees end up in emergency shelters after natural disasters. In these instances, some families are split up and often miss male family members. This lack of a male family member, unfortunately, increases the risk of outside sexual harassment and forced marriage. Moreover, the lack of shelter and privacy in emergency shelters after a natural disaster not only makes women feel uncomfortable and unsafe but means they are subject to higher instances of sexual harassment.
In addition to this, interviews performed by Tower (2020), reveal the high prevalence of sexual violence for women who are collecting freshwater within these temporary shelters. These unwritten gender scripts that exist place women in greater danger as they are responsible for these long trips to collect resources for the family. It is often data such as this, which is ignored in emergency responses and leaves women with little safety and confidence.
Women’s biological differences place them in different positions to their male counterparts and are their specific needs are often overlooked in emergency responses. For example, Daalen et al. (2021), report that only 16% of mothers who were displaced were able to give birth in a health facility. This demonstrates the lack of resources emergency shelters and international response to natural disasters accommodate to women’s health. Furthermore, forced migration has complexities and obstacles for women in terms of accessing sexual reproductive health services. Moving to a new region with a different health system and different support networks cannot only be overwhelming and confusing but does not encourage ease of accessibility to this vital service specifically for women.
In addition to women’s biological differences, women also burden the care responsibilities which also put their health at risk. According to the World Health Organisation, there are 30.8 million people each year who will die prematurely from indoor pollution. This indoor pollution can occur in houses where coal, charcoal, or wood is burned indoors for cooking and heating. As a consequence of gender norms and expectations, women are more vulnerable to these poisonous fumes by completing tasks such as cooking and cleaning near these fumes.
Solving the problem
Through examining the gendered impacts of the climate crisis, especially relating to climate migration, the solution must be conscious to firstly avoid climate colonialism and to put women at the center of the solutions.
- Dialogue with affected areas ensuring that solutions involve their choices, long-term solutions, utilizing their skills and that these solutions are community-led.
- Key examples where solutions have helped reduce gender expectations include the initaitve Renwable Energy for Refugees (RE4R) which has provided reliable and renewable energy to refugees for sustainable forms of energy which reduce the gender expectation on women to cook by increasing access to electricity.
- Access to essential healthcare for women including support after sexual violence and access to sexual reproductive health services.
- Research is the underlying factor that has been lacking in this area. Climate refugees itself is an understudied phenomenon due to their rapid and unexpected emergence. There is even less research on how this specifically affects women. Essential quantitative and qualitative research is needed to provide long-term sustainable solutions to the gendered impacts of climate displacement.