Climate Change Could Intensify Violence Against Women, Study Says

Weather disasters that happen more often because of climate change create conditions in which gender-based violence often spikes, according to new research.    

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

“When we think of climate change effects, we think of some very drastic and very visual things, things like floods, disruptions of cities, supply chain disruptions — which are all very valid and very real risks of climate change,” said study author Sarah Savić Kallesøe, a public health researcher at Simon Fraser University in Canada. “But there are also some more veiled consequences that are not as easily visible or easily studied. And one of those things is gender-based violence.”  

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

The initial search, based on broad keywords like “violence,” “women,” and “weather,” yielded more than 20,000 results, each of which Savić Kallesøe and her colleagues screened individually to determine whether they were relevant.  

Only 41 studies that assessed links between gender-based violence and extreme weather made the cut. The researchers then graded the robustness of each study’s methodology using standard rubrics for grading data quality. Although many of the papers were flawed and a few contradicted each other, most studies — especially the higher quality ones — reported a rise in gender-based violence following extreme weather, Savić Kallesøe said.  

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

And interviews with survivors revealed that seeking disaster aid can make women more vulnerable: “The shelter is not safe for us. Young men come from seven or eight villages,” said one survivor to researchers following Cyclone Roanu in Bangladesh in 2016. “I feel frightened to stay in the shelters. I stay at my house rather than taking my teenage daughter to the shelters,” she added.

Lindsay Stark, a social epidemiologist at the Brown School of the Washington University in St. Louis, said the pattern “is something that those of us who are working in the humanitarian space know intrinsically, because we see it all the time. So, it is very nice to see this distillation of the evidence.”  

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

Extreme weather can place people under enormous stress, displace them, force them into crowded relief camps, destroy their livelihoods, and expose them to strangers who might do them harm. Layered over the gender roles that often drive gender-based violence, these risk factors make women especially vulnerable. For instance, a family might marry off a daughter early to have one less mouth to feed after a flood, or a man stressed after a hurricane might snap and strike his wife.  

Researchers widely recognize that humanitarian crises, like conflict or forced migration, tend to expose women and girls to violence. That climate disasters would have similar consequences isn’t surprising, said Lori Heise, an expert on gender equity at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.  

However, the exact ways in which climate disasters lead to gender-based violence still aren’t clear 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 highlights the need for more and better research and for humanitarian organizations to engage with women and girls in climate-stressed areas about how best to protect them when disaster strikes, Savić Kallesøe said.

“Gender-based violence is happening all the time, everywhere,” Stark said. “We need to be preventing gender-based violence now … and to understand that if we don’t act now, the situation is going to increase exponentially with the impending climate crisis that we all know is upon us.”

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