The Link Between our Climate Crisis and Violence Against Women and Girls
By Joachim Ostertag
What do the climate crisis and violence against women (VAW) and girls have to do with each other?
One way to look at this intersection is to recognize that VAW and the climate crisis are the result of the same social paradigm: patriarchy. Patriarchy is the overarching and at the same time hardly noticeable system that provides men and male domains with privilege, entitlement, and an assumed fundamental right to subordinate and exploit. It makes men believe it’s ok to take whatever they want without regarding the consequences, without empathy and without remorse. For thousands of years men have treated women from this privileged standpoint, just as they have treated the world around them. And, as privilege goes it’s unnoticed by those with privilege, and it has become normal, almost natural, to see and treat the earth as a convenient place to colonize other continents, oppress women and Indigenous people. With resource extraction and the seemingly endless supplies of fossil fuels came an ever-increasing carbon footprint, and the release of greenhouse gases leading to our climate emergency. “[Patriarchy is] the paradigm that has led to the climate crisis, an extractive, use-up-and-discard mentality that treats workers, those who are different, women and the natural world as commodities, at men’s disposal, for their enjoyment and their profit”.
Inequality is an integral element of patriarchy, and this inequality is also replicated in the impacts of climate change. Although climate change impacts all life on earth, these impacts are not equal. Women, girls, and LGTBQ2S+ people are affected more than men due to existing structural inequalities, racism, and misogyny. Climate change leads to greater environmental degradation and stress on ecosystems, including scarcity and stress for humans, and the evidence shows that, where environmental pressures increase, gender-based violence increases as well. Post-disaster gender-based violence against women and LGBTQ2S+ and sexual violence increase in all countries and all stages of development affect not only local women but also volunteers and support organizations, while social pressures impede on women’s capacity to report.  Covid 19 is a present and fitting example where reports of VAW to police and supports for women have decreased while male violence against women has increased significantly around the world.
Jaxqui Patterson (NAACP) observed that climate related migration and life in refugee camps leads to extreme vulnerability of women and girls. For instance, women who try to cross borders are frequently raped and end up with HIV and other diseases and mental health-related traumas. In South Africa, waterways are drying up as a result of climate change, which means that girls and women have to walk farther to get the water they need daily for their households, with the result that “the likelihood of sexual assault is so extreme, it is better if the girls wear … (female) condoms whenever they go to fetch water.”  However, this is not a “Third World issue.” In the United States, following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the rape rate among women displaced to trailer parks was 53.6 times higher than the highest baseline rate for Mississippi in 2004; with intimate partner rape being 16 times higher than the US yearly.
North America’s intense carbon extraction industry with its inherent negative impacts on climate is also closely linked to human trafficking, sexual and physical violence, and is mostly ignored when extraction projects (e.g. Tarsands) are planned. Indigenous women are particularly vulnerable to exploitation in this context by men who work hard, make lots of money and live far away from home in “man camps”. The National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women found that there is “substantial evidence” that natural resource projects increase violence against Indigenous Women, children and Two-Spirit people.   Patina Park, Executive Director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, describes this as “an epidemic of sexual violence being perpetrated against Indigenous Women in the Great Lakes region, driven by extreme extraction… the violation of the earth through extreme extraction runs parallel to the violation of the human rights of Native people…. We can’t be surprised that people who would rape our land are also raping our people.” Here in Ontario “Indigenous women and girls are three times more likely than non-Indigenous women to report having been a victim of violent crime; this higher rate of victimization was seen in stranger, acquaintance, and intimate partner violence… Ontario is one of the major hubs for sex trafficking in Canada. This type of sexual exploitation affects vulnerable people everywhere. Those most at risk are young women, many of them Indigenous women and girls”.
Cate Owren (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) states, “Gender-based violence is one of the most pervasive but least talked-about barriers that face us in conservation and climate work…. We need to take the blinders off, and pay this concerted attention.”  The systemic hate against women who speak up on climate change was culminated late February 2020, when an Alberta energy company created decals depicting the rape of teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. The decal shows an image of a naked woman or girl, with two long black braids, from behind. The word “Greta” is written across her lower back. When the general manager of the company was challenged and asked if he was fine with his company condoning the rape of a child, his telling answer was, “she is not a child, she is 17”. 
In Grey and Bruce counties, we have not yet experienced the extreme impacts of the climate emergency; however, there already is evidence of increased extreme weather patterns, rising Great Lakes water levels, and increasing health problems (e.g. heat related health problems, asthma, West Nile and Lyme disease). As temperatures increase further there will be great disruptions due to droughts, invasive species, extreme heat waves, floods and storms. The negative impacts on our mostly agricultural economy will be colossal, and, as history and the present Covid pandemic show, social disruptions, economic downturns, and break ups of our existing social fabric result in greater social injustice and increased violence against women. Under these increasing economic and ecological stresses, and the underlying oppressive dynamics of patriarchy, women and girls are increasingly at risk. We also need to ask ourselves about the impact on climate refugee women arriving in a rural, white community such as Grey-Bruce with lack of social and economic support.
Patriarchy’s systems of VAW, sexual violence, colonization and exploitation of the earth are interconnected and not resolvable in isolation. We need to work together for change. Tackling climate change and environmental degradation without the full inclusion of women will not succeed: “gender equality is a prerequisite to the collective effort needed to address the climate emergency.” As we acknowledge the unequal effects of the climate crisis on women, we also acknowledge that women’s leadership and participation in the change process brings with it creative and sustainable solutions away from patriarchy to both the climate emergency and social injustices. Mary Robinson, former Irish President: “Climate change is a manmade problem that requires a feminist solution,” …. Climate change is not gender-neutral – it affects women far more. So this is not about climate change, it is about climate justice.”
In order to make change we can start at many places:
The Community Foundation of Canada asks: “What do we see differently if we think of gender equality as an environmental issue and sustainability as a gender issue? Research has found that increasing gender parity in leadership improves how decisions are made and makes policies more “green”. The insights and knowledge of women, girls, Two-Spirit and gender-diverse people are what the world needs right now to help solve our most pressing problems, including climate change and its effects”.
Let us imagine a future that follows visions of equality rather than domination, healing rather than destruction, community rather than isolation, compassion rather than domination, respect rather than exploitation, listen to what we often don’t like to hear, where we make decisions include our children’s future and all the generations to come rather than aim for short term gain, satisfaction and power.
We can change our personal and collective attitudes and behaviours in our day-to-day actions, by telling our personal stories about who we are in these struggles; victims, bystanders, perpetrators, consumers, activists etc. Get to know each other. Speak about our fears, despair, pain, as well as our strengths, hopes, resilience, and resistance. Share our grief for what is lost due to environmental degradation and climate change, and due to male dominance and violence. Get informed about the impacts of our behaviours and daily routines on the environment, our climate, animals and our fellow humans: our consumer habits, what we throw away, our travel and money investments. We can ask whether the production of the stuff we consume, incorporate exploitation of children and women. We can ask how these are linked to injustice, colonization, violence against women and sexual exploitation?
We can decide where we stand and engage in the struggle towards gender equality, sustainability, and decolonization.
Here are some (local) ways to get engaged: Speak up and address violence, injustices and inequalities in your communities, join a local climate action group, e.g. based on the concepts of “Resilience – Transforming our Communities” movie, or watch: Healthy Communities Conference 2020,  and share your insights. Participate in future Fridays for Future. Get informed about VAW, Sexual ViolenceLGBTQ2+ organizations and/or feminist action groups, e.g. Violence Prevention Grey Bruce.
Men need to examine their sense of (hyper) masculinity, their use of violence, and privilege and how their behaviours are reinforced by societal messages, pop culture, pornography etc. We can’t expect boys to become non-violent, respectful men when we don’t raise them in non-violent ways. We can learn to raise our children without violence.  Raising our sons with great care, compassion and empathy, and surrounding ourselves with communities of likeminded people who are supportive and not following rigid gender stereotypes are important ways forward.
VAW and the climate crisis will not be resolved by changes in individual behaviour alone. This crisis is driven by economic systems that prioritize excessive consumption, corporate profits, and limitless growth. Any solution that advances climate justice must challenge this status quo. Educating girls and empowering women have shown to be one of the most effective climate solutions. We need to support women in leadership roles and as Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand points out:“We must have stronger female representation (in national parliaments) to drive solutions to those issues that have a dramatic and devastating impact on people, particularly millions of young girls and women. I am talking about poverty, lack of education, reproductive health, gender equality, pay equity, violence and climate change to name just a few”.
Joachim Ostertag is a community member of Violence Prevention Grey Bruce