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When the Climate Crisis and Sexual Violence Intersect

by Pam Otal, Daya Outreach and Volunteer Coordinator

Every year on April 22nd we celebrate Earth and reflect on ways to better our physical environment. Every summer we also prepare for increasingly destructive hurricanes and other catastrophic weather events. Houstonians are so used to major flood events that it has become expected. It has become part of our routine. Climate change may be a global issue, but it does not affect everyone equally. For some, the rains, fires, winds, or droughts are an inconvenience. For others, they destroy homes, livelihoods, and bring repeated trauma. Privilege and wealth controls which group you fall into. Gender also plays a role. Due to gender inequalities and power imbalances in access to resources and relevant information, women and gender minorities are more significantly affected by disasters than men. Climate change worsens these effects.

Rising global temperatures over the past century has led to extreme climate conditions, causing resource scarcity and displacement. The effects of climate change also lead to an increase in sexual violence, particularly towards women and gender minorities. A study from the United Nations found the socio-economic impacts of climate disasters can erode sustainable development gains, causing increases in sexual and gender-based violence during and after disasters. For example, during prolonged drought child marriage is used by families as a strategy to cope with scarcity of food and income. In the aftermath of environmental disasters, intimate partner violence rates can rise—as they did in Bangladesh following cyclone Roanu. Overcrowded and unsafe conditions in disaster shelters and climate refugee camps can also expose women, girls and gender minorities to violence, while medical and legal services are overwhelmed, making it harder to get help.

In the United States, indigenous communities are particularly vulnerable to the increase of sexual violence in correlation to negative environmental impacts. Surges in non-Native populations on rural and indigenous lands, corresponding to the economic development of the extraction industry, have led to a surge in reported rapes and sex trafficking. Environmental activists are also increasingly victims of gender-based violence. Women and youths play a central role in climate change activism and political demonstrations in defense of environmental protection. Established climate justice movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America have incurred incidents of gender-based violence against environmental defenders as a tactic to intimidate and silence them, limiting the access of women and girls to equally and safely participate.

A report by CARE found one out of five women who are refugees, or who have been displaced because of a natural disaster, has experienced sexual violence. As global temperatures continue to climb, the effects of climate change will be increasingly catastrophic and destructive to human life. Therefore, combatting climate change is a crucial element in the ongoing fight against sexual violence.

Climate justice activist and member of the Lubicon Cree First Nation Melina Laboucan-Massimo said, “Violence against the earth begets violence against women.” The good news is that there already multiple solutions available to mitigate the effects of climate change, but we all have to do our part to uplift those especially impacted by it. One of the most accessible yet impactful solutions is to reduce waste. Challenge yourself to a day—or even a week—with as little waste contributions as possible. This could include a general refusal of consuming products in single-use packaging to more selected purchases of sustainable products, and trying to recycle your belongings instead of buying something new. Consider the importance of reducing waste, reusing products, and recycling items. Waste reduction may seem like a small step, but we can have a collectively large impact if we all participate. In reducing our waste and carbon footprint, it is possible that we can combat sexual violence through achieving environmental sustainability. Let’s come together to honor Earth every day and make sure we create a safer environment for all.

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