Danger and violence await women in a world plagued by the climate crisis

Essay by Sarah Heins

Earlier this year we lost a national icon, United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ginsburg left behind a long legacy of fighting for equal rights and protections for women. Considered a reliable vote for the environment, she was key to decisions that impact environmental law such as Massachusetts v. EPA, which allowed the federal government to regulate greenhouse gas emissions as “air pollutants” under the Clean Air Act. The Friends of the Earth v. Laidlaw Environmental Services decision affirmed the right of residents to sue an industrial polluter. 

In the wake of losing one of the most prominent voices for women’s rights in this country, Amy Coney Barrett, whose record on women’s rights is far more concerning, was hatestly confirmed to the United States Supreme Court. We saw the Presidential election give us the first ever woman Vice President-elect. Now is a fitting time to think about the role that women play when it comes to one of the most pressing issues of our time — the climate crisis and environmental degradation. 

From a young age the term “Mother Nature” teaches children that there is an innate connection between women and nature, furthered by the idea that women are thought of as nurturing, and the earth nurtures all of us. Women and the earth are also connected in that both are juxtaposed against man in the man/nature and man/woman dichotomies. Unfortunately, in both of those scenarios, nature and women are seen as inferior to man and as a result are often treated as lesser beings. These parallel struggles are perhaps one of the reasons that the fight for women’s rights, as well as other civil rights issues, and the fight for environmental protection are often so intertwined.

While those of us here in the United States of America are lucky enough to have many civil rights protections thanks to the years of work of civil rights and feminist icons like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, countless women around the world are not as lucky. 

In many parts of the world women are already disadvantaged, with the lack of land and legal rights, making them incredibly vulnerable when the climate crisis and environmental degradation rear their ugly heads. It makes them easy targets, within their country’s cultural constraints,  when they decide to speak up.

In 2019 over 200 environmental activists were killed for their work, a 30 percent increase from the year before. Over 40 percent of these were indigenous individuals and around 10 percent were women. Not only are the sheer number of deaths concerning, but there has been an uptick of the percentage of women murders. The uptick started after the 2016 assignation of Honduran activist and indigenous leader Berta Caceres, only months after she won the Goldman Environmental Prize for fighting back against the building of dams in her region.

While murders are extreme actions, many women who speak up for their communities and the environment also face the threat of gender-based and sexual violence.

Lead author of a report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), on environmental degradation and gender-based violence Cate Owren wrote, “where environmental pressures increase, gender-based violence increases.” In that IUCN report six in ten respondents said that they’d seen gender-based violence, which includes domestic violence, sexual assault and rape, forced prostitution, forced marriage and child marriage, and other forms of the exploitation of women, inflicted upon female environmental migrants, refugees, and environmental rights defenders, in places where environmental crimes and degradation was happening.

Digging even deeper the IUCN found some incredibly frightening examples of this gender-based violence in places where environmental crimes are occurring and/or there has been significant environmental degradation. They found increases in human and sexual trafficking in areas where the natural environment is being stressed. In Colombia and Peru illegal mines have been linked to an increase in sex trafficking. In the Democratic Republic of Congo illegal logging and the charcoal trade have been linked to sexual exploitation. In south-east Asia and eastern and southern Africa reports have claimed that sexual abuse and exploitation are pervasive in the illegal fishing industries. 

Women and girls around the world are also made more vulnerable to violence due to environmental degradation. When a family is faced with hardships exacerbated by the climate crisis, such as lower crop yields, young girls are married off as early as possible. The increase in the occurrences and severity of natural disasters, such as fires and storms, is believed to have brought about 12 million girls being married off at young ages who may not have been married off, at least not so soon, if not for those disasters. Disasters related to the weather have also been shown to lead to a 20 to 30 percent increase in sexual trafficking. 

With the vulnerability of women and girls around the globe, continuing to increase with the climate crisis, we must see that it’s absolutely crucial to have women at the heart of strategies to combat global warming. According to Mary Robinson, chair of The Elders, “gender equality is a prerequisite to the collective effort needed to address the climate emergency.” 

If we don’t properly address the environmental degradation that is occurring around the world, the damage it could have to the well-being of women is unimaginable. In industrialized democratic nations we can not afford to take equal rights for granted.

We have to ensure that a woman’s right to speak up is kept and defended. We also have a responsibility to use our democratic rights to enhance the voices of women around the world who have been silenced far too often. At this point, fighting for the environment is a human rights issue, not seeing it as such is like trying to put together a puzzle with half of the pieces missing.