24 Nov 2018 Story Gender

Fighting a silent battle: the unspoken war

Photo by Victor Tsang

“Before, we had firewood nearby, but nowadays we have to travel far to look for wood, women tend to come back from the bush late.” These are the words of a community of women in the region of Barh el Ghazal, in Chad, a land-locked country in Central Africa. 

Recently, there have been attempts of rape, but people have intervened in time,” added the women from another community. “We still hear that women are raped in neighboring villages while they are out fetching wood or at the market. To avoid this, we leave in a group when we are travelling long distances.”

At first sight, the link between violence against women and girls, and the resilience of communities to disasters or environmental crises, is not obvious. But when communities rely on fragile environments, their vulnerability is heightened.

The women in these communities, captured by researchers from the programme BRACED - which supports communities to become more resilient to climate extremes - are engaged in another battle too.

Theirs is a daily fight against drought; the silting-up of ouadis or semi-permanent streams; severe food shortages that affect one in five people; military instability; migration; rising food prices; extreme rainfall and deforestation.

“The complex power dynamics between men and women is further complicated when communities are relying on factors they have no control over – like weather and dependence on fragile ecosystems”, said Victor Tsang, UN Environment’s Policy Officer.

Considerable non-conflict violence is a global phenomenon. One in three women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence – mostly by an intimate partner. Yet in countries where communities already rely on fragile ecosystems, everyday violence is compounded.

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Complex power dynamics between men and women are further complicated when communities are relying on fragile ecosystems. Photo by Victor Tsang  

“Crop failure, drought, flooding: these all bring already vulnerable communities further uncertainty. What our studies have found is that climate change increases the risk of activities like farming which families rely on for food and income. Too often, this can affect gender relations and fuel domestic conflict, including violence.”  

Gender inequality to land rights is one of the underlying causes behind this. In countries where men consider themselves legitimate land owners, either by law or by custom, they try to take control of farm produce - even though it is mostly women who work on the farms, said Tsang.

“Such cases are all too common in Sub-Saharan Africa, compounded by the effects of climate change such as prolonged dry seasons, as illustrated by UN Environment’s recent gender analysis work in Uganda and South Sudan,” he added.

In areas that regularly experience droughts or floods, helping women and men to gain control over human, social, natural, economic and physical resources, or capital, is key. This includes empowering both women and men to regain control over income generation for example.

Strengthening community capacity in ecosystem-based adaptation involves building resilience to the effects of climate change, such as irregular rainfall patterns, through the conservation, restoration and sustainable management of natural ecosystems.

“The struggles of women and girls are only part of the picture. To fully address violence in communities, we need to involve both men and women. Listening to women and men can help us understand how environmental changes are shaping social dynamics,” Tsang said.

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To fully address violence in communities, the voices of men and women must be heard. Photo by Victor Tsang

Guided by its own Gender Policy, UN Environment strives to conduct a context-based gender analysis of each of its projects.

“UN Environment will continue to play a critical role in helping communities fight violence together. That means strengthening the environmental ecosystems on which they depend, and improving community control over natural resources and income generation,” says Tsang.

“Women should not have to walk further to collect firewood and become exposed to greater personal risk at the same time. Helping communities already relying on the fragile environment must involve speaking about and addressing social issues like gender based violence head-on.”    

Orange the worldUN Environment is joining the UNiTE to End Violence against Women campaign, managed by UN Women, during the 16 Days under this year’s global theme Orange the World: #HearMeToo.

It builds on recent movements and calls on global audiences to stand in solidarity with survivor advocates and women’s human rights defenders who are working to prevent and end violence against women and girls.

Find out more by following #HearMeToo and join the global #orangetheworld conversation.