To End Violence Against Women, We Must Also Confront Climate Change

Today is International Women’s Day, a time for celebrating women’s achievements and calling for greater equality. The United Nations has focused this year’s events on ending violence against women—not with more pledges and promises but with real, concrete action. We have made some recent strides. Just yesterday President Obama signed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Yet far too many women continue to suffer at the hands of others: 70 percent of women have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime according to the UN. We must do more to empower women and ensure their safety.

Unfortunately, climate change will make this critical goal harder to achieve.

Women are on the front lines of the climate crisis. They produce up to 80 percent of the food in the developing world, and they spend large stretches of time collecting water and fuel for their families. This makes them vulnerable to violence. More than 80 percent of rape victims treated in high conflict zones like West and South Darfur were attacked while taking care of household needs. During disasters like storms, floods and landslides, human trafficking in women and children skyrockets, according to a recent report from the UN Environment Programme.

Climate change will make all these problems worse. Severe drought and unpredictable rains will make food production far more precarious. Women will have to labor harder to ensure their families have food, fuel, and water. They will travel farther and face even more risk of attack.

The extreme weather events brought on by climate change will further endanger women. Research shows that women are 14 times more likely to die as a result of storms and other extreme weather as men. Fourteen times! Women must look after children, the elderly, and the sick, and that means they have less mobility in the midst of a flood or wildfire.

Meanwhile, violence itself will escalate as climate change intensifies. Numerous U.S. security experts have identified climate change as a threat multiplier because competition for limited resources and forced migrations from flood and drought can fuel conflict. Last year, for example, the U.S. Academy of Sciences showed that higher temperatures were linked to increased tensions in arid East Africa. Time and again, we have seen what these pain suffered by women caught in the throes of these conflicts.

The good news is that we can help women combat the threat of climate change—and the violence and scarcity that comes with it. Studies show that simply by giving women the tools to plan the size and timing of their families, we can reduce carbon emissions by between 8 and 15 percent—the equivalent of stopping all deforestation today.

This is a very promising finding. By no way does this take the place of actions to combat climate change by reducing emissions from power plants, transportation, and other sources. But in the face of so urgent a crisis, we must fight with every weapon we have. The fact that we can improve women’s lives while curbing emissions at the same time means we have another arrow in our quiver.

It also means women will experience real and lasting benefits. More than 215 million women around the globe want to avoid a pregnancy but aren’t using family planning, often due to lack of access. The consequences are profound.  The leading cause of death for girls around the world between the ages of 15 and 19 is medical complications from pregnancy. And a recent survey found that girls in India who married before age 18 were twice as likely to report being beaten, slapped, or threatened by their husbands as were girls who married later.

Most women and girls want more control over how and when they build their families. Now researchers also recognize that what is good for women is also good for the planet.

Now it is time to invest in the solutions that will empower women in their lives and communities. One of my heroines, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland—the former prime minister of Norway, former head of the World Health Organization, and UN special envoy on climate change—recently said: “I believe the next increment of global growth could come from the full economic empowerment of women. Half of humankind’s collective intelligence and capacity is a resource we can no longer afford to lose out on!”

I couldn’t agree more. Women who can choose when and how to expand their families will be better able to create economic opportunity, reduce carbon emissions, and protect themselves from violence. So this International Women’s Day, I’m thinking about climate change – and about simple, effective ways to empower women to weather the storm.

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