"Gender-based violence undermines not only the safety, dignity, overall health status, and human rights of the millions of individuals who experience it, but also the public health, economic stability, and security of nations." - United States Agency for International Development (USAID)
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently released a new report that draws eye-opening–and deeply concerning–connections between gender-based violence (GBV) and environmental issues. In partnership with the United Stated Agency for International Development (USAID), Gender-based violence and environment linkages: The violence of inequality examines why examining gender-based violence with a close focus on the role of the environment is critical to continuing the fight against GBV and its widespread effects.
The 272-page report contains facts, statistics, personal accounts, and findings from more than 1,000 sources of information, including an international survey and calls for case studies to contribute to the report’s findings. International governments, activists, environmental practitioners and policymakers, and academics alike responded to IUCN’s requests for information, leaving us with a clear–and frightening–picture of the relationship between GBV and the environment.
The IUCN Report at a Glance
The IUCN report examines links between gender-based violence and environmental crimes through three main lenses:
- Access to and control of natural resources
- Environmental pressure and threats
- Environmental action to defend and conserve ecosystems and resources
“Gender inequality is pervasive across all these contexts,” reads the report. “National and customary laws, societal gender norms and traditional gender roles dictate who can access and control natural resources, often resulting in the marginalisation of women compared to men.”
What Happens When Men Abuse Control of Natural Resources?
It’s widely reported by USAID, IUCN, and other organizations that one in three women will experience gender-based violence over the course of their lifetimes. We report often on GBV issues like female genital mutilation, child marriage, and sexual assault. But when access to basic resources is controlled by a select few, this sets the stage for a dangerous new gendered power struggle.
The IUCN report details first-hand accounts from men and women alike describing the danger involved when women and girls seek access to basic resources, like clean water. It’s all too easy for people in positions of power to abuse their control over these resources, using sexual extortion and other violent measures as leverage for access.
Consider, too, women’s limited access around the world to land and natural resources, economic opportunities, education, healthcare, infrastructure, technology, and financial and extension services. For example, as the primary managers of water collection, women and girls spend a large portion of the day retrieving clean water, limiting the amount of time they can spend attending school, pursuing career goals, or enjoying leisure time.
Meanwhile, water retrieval poses a danger in itself:
While nation-wide statistical data on the violence suffered by women in relation to water collection does not exist, data available at the local level indicates that women and girls disproportionately suffer violence when collecting water. For example, a study in rural Ethiopia identified several ways in which women experienced violence: from tensions and domestic violence over the amount of water brought home or the time spent collecting it, to harassment, sexual assault and rape on their way to fetch water and in water disputes while queuing (Sommer et al., 2015). — Gender-based violence and environment linkages: The violence of inequality (IUCN)
This facilitated position of inequality makes it all too easy for people in positions of power to abuse women and girls, simply because the abusers have something that the victims need in order to survive.
Where Environmental Crimes Abound, So Does Gender-Based Violence
Consider the connection between an illegal gold mine and a brothel that serves the miners. In places where environmental crimes are common, and government action is lax, opportunities crop up for the exploitation of both environmental resources and women and girls.
“Environmental crimes thrive in contexts where limited governance over territories and resources create lucrative opportunities that are difficult to avoid,” reads the report. “The illicit nature of these activities fosters and relies upon the use of gender-based violence – such as human trafficking, coerced transactional sex, sexual abuse, forced and/or child labour and other expressions – as a means to enable environmental crimes.”
When corporations, governments, and people in positions of power work to hush up lucrative (but under-the-table) opportunities, it’s all to easy for human rights violations and GBV crises to get swept under the rug, too.
The same holds true for large-scale projects that are damaging to the environment, but are legally above-board and acknowledged, as well as environmental disasters like typhoons and hurricanes. Cases like the displacement of Indigenous women and communities, destruction of arable land, rerouting of rivers, and fisheries that take away critical sources of food all have a precedent of putting women into positions of inequality. And when it comes down to it, desperation all too easily leads to violence.
It’s Time to Support Women Environmental Human Rights Defenders
The deaths of female environmental activists are rarely widely publicized. Furthermore, statistics from the IUCN report show that violence against environmental activists is on the rise.
As the report explains, “Women environmental human rights defenders experience and are exposed to the same risks and types of violence as other defenders, but they also face gender-specific risks and violence – in part due to their actions challenging existing gender norms within their respective communities and societies.”
What’s more, “Gender-based violence is used to suppress women environmental human rights defenders’ power and authority, undermine their credibility, dismantle their status within the community and discourage them and others from coming forward.”
In recent years, calls for support for women who campaign for conservation, environmental justice, and human rights have been growing. But so too has the rate of violence against these women, and many nonprofit organizations are shifting their focus from supporting these women’s endeavors to protecting their lives.
There’s something inherently wrong with that: How can we “save the planet” if the people campaigning to protect it are being murdered in their beds?
How to Get Involved
The links between GBV and environmental action point to an opportunity for feminist philanthropy to get involved. We can start by reading the full report for free through IUCN’s website.
Here are more ways we can help protect the environment and women and girls at the same time:
- Do your research. Support organizations that protect not only the environment, but the female activists and women and girls in local communities.
- Send financial support. Donate to campaigns that benefit women and girls in rural areas, particularly Indigenous communities
- Don’t let these stories disappear. Keep pressure on the media to report gender-based violence against women in general, and environmental activists in particular
- Stay informed. Keep reading and sharing reports like IUCN’s, media stories on the deaths of female activists, and campaigns from organizations fighting to end gender-based violence.
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