Our work must recognise the links between gender-based violence and the environment

Orange illustrated figures of men and women moving forwards. The leader is holding a sign that says push forward to end violence against women and girls and another figure in the group is holding a sign that says #16Days

Our work must recognise the links between gender-based violence and the environment

Gender-based violence and environmental protection are linked. Transforming gender roles is indispensable for effective environmental democracy – which requires inclusion in decision-making on environmental governance – and better environmental outcomes.

In rural communities in the Sahel, women and girls are responsible for harvesting firewood for domestic cooking. Households without access to electricity depend on biomass fuels like firewood. This is a major driver of deforestation, desertification, and soil degradation across the region. In turn, this impacts the water, energy, and food security of communities.

What is more, the difficult task of sourcing firewood impacts women and girls specifically, because they must travel ever-greater distances up to the ever-receding tree line, exposing them to ever-growing risks to their physical integrity along the way – and this is on top of the severe impact on their health from being exposed to the toxic fumes of indoor wood furnaces. A woman in Borno State, northeastern Nigeria told the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) ‘‘When you go into the bush you can easily be attacked by Boko Haram. They can take your money, rape, or kill you. So we fear going into the bush for wood’’. Providing fuel-efficient stoves to households reduces the need for women and girls to look for fuel and energy in unsafe and insecure places, thus decreasing their risk of facing gender-based violence – while alleviating pressure on local ecosystems.

This example illustrates the links between gender-based violence and environmental protection.

In 2020 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published a major review: Gender-based violence and environment linkages: The violence of inequality. It provides a knowledge base for understanding and accelerating action to address the links between gender-based violence (GBV) and environmental protection.

Three main contexts for gender-based violence (GBV) were identified as regards the environment:

  1. access to and control of natural resources, particularly land, forests, agriculture, water, and fisheries;
  2. environmental pressure and threats, including environmental crimes and conflicts related to extractive industries and agribusiness, and climate change and weather-related disasters;
  3. environmental action to defend and conserve ecosystems and resources, encompassing violence against women environmental human rights defenders as well as GBV in environmental projects and environmental workplaces – discriminatory gender norms and stereotypes were reported to also shape the treatment of women and men working to protect and conserve the environment, affecting the success of those projects.

In IUCN’s review, GBV was observed as part of feedback loops which can exacerbate damage to livelihoods, women’s rights, and environmental and sustainable development. In addition, the risks to girls and women are exacerbated by persistent gender inequalities – such as the gendered division of labour, inequitable distribution of resources, and exclusion from decision-making. In this context, GBV is a means of control to enforce and protect existing privileges around natural resource access, maintaining power imbalances. Also, where the rule of law is weak, GBV enables illegal activities through sexual exploitation. This means that women and girls will continue to be at the sharp end of the consequences of environmental abuse, while having the least power, time, and resources to influence change, even though they may well have the most experience and therefore solutions to bring.  

In the run up to the 16 Days of Activism against GBV campaign, Federal Deputy Aishatu Jibril Dukku, from Borno State in North Eastern Nigeria, confirmed that women and girls in her state still suffer environment-related GBV in the context of ever riskier fuelwood harvesting and on top of the health risks of smoke inhalation and of the wider negative impacts of losing ecosystem services of degraded local flora and fauna.

It follows that transforming gender roles is indispensable for effective environmental democracy – which requires inclusion in decision-making on environmental governance – and better environmental outcomes.

IUCN’s review identified many entry points to prevent and respond to GBV within environmental programming, but warned that in many international policy frameworks, donor, aid and finance mechanism priorities, and sustainable development organisations’ strategies, gender-based violence and environmental matters "tend to be crosscutting but rarely linked, obscuring potential risks for exacerbating violence and/or environmental degradation." It recommended that  "bringing these interlinkages into priority focus offers a chance to see things differently, revealing strategic options for new and renewed efforts toward meeting human rights and international sustainable development commitments."

Aware of the links between GBV, women’s rights and inclusion, and environmental degradation, WFD applies a gender lens to the political economy analysis that informs our environmental democracy programmes, identifying entry points for programmes that can have an impact. It is essential that donors and practitioners take the GBV-environment nexus into account for greater effectiveness as they flesh out their environment, democracy, and gender strategies.