Understanding women's health: the effects of extreme weather events on gender-based violence

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    A picture of a woman looking at the camera. She is wearing a black t-shirt and sunglasses on the top of her head.
    Dr Rita Issa

     

    Dr Rita Issa, School of Global Development, answers questions on her research into the effects of extreme weather events on gender-based violence.

    This article contains reference to gender-based violence (GBV) of different forms.

    Why is it vital to undertake research in this area?

    It is a curious thing to write about women and vulnerability, particularly when many of the women I know I consider to be immensely powerful. A pastoralist in Kenya, who carries a child strapped to her back while walking miles for water; a Syrian refugee, who I met in the backseat of a car, who birthed her baby alone, unable to make it to our health facility in time; a climate activist colleague, who watches the world burn and holds the grief that others numb to ignore. Despite these contexts of hardship, I have found women to hold a strength, steadfastness and service to their communities that might have one forgetting the vulnerability and risk that remains pervasive. It should not be the case that during Women’s Health Month in 2024 I am writing of women’s vulnerability and not strength, yet women remain at risk of physical and emotional harm, and the evidence suggests that this harm is at risk of further amplification due to the climate crisis. 

     

    "Along with being a social and political issue, GBV is a significant women’s health issue because of myriad global public health implications"

    What does your research suggest about the relationship between GBV and women’s health?

    The findings of our systematic review on GBV in the context of extreme weather events will come as no surprise to many. Women, girls and other sexual and gender minorities are disproportionately affected by GBV: interpersonal or intimate partner violence, domestic violence, physical violence, emotional violence, sexual violence, early or forced marriage, or human trafficking – directed towards a person because of their gender. The roots of such violence run deep, existing as a result of structural and societal power imbalances. Along with being a social and political issue, GBV is a significant women’s health issue because of myriad global public health implications: physical injury, unwanted pregnancy, exposure to HIV or other sexually transmitted infections, fertility problems, internalised stigma, and mental health consequences such as depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

    What did your research uncover?

    Across the 41 publications we studied, we identified GBV as a recurring theme during and after extreme events – such as heatwaves, storms, floods, droughts, and wildfires – all likely to increase in frequency and severity due to climate change. Several forms of GBV are perpetrated by both close relationships and strangers during these times​​. This aligns with existing literature that suggests general violence trends exacerbate due to natural disasters, with overlapping drivers including "economic shock, social instability, enabling environments – such as camp settings, and stress"​​ and "breakdowns in safety and law enforcement" that can occur. As such, extreme events do not cause GBV directly, but exacerbate drivers of violence or create enabling environments for such behaviours​​. Social roles, norms, and forms of inequity make women disproportionately vulnerable, facing a double burden of vulnerability when extreme events occur​​. While the focus is primarily on cisgender women and girls, extreme events also pose significant GBV risks to sexual and gender minorities due to frequent marginalisation​​.

     

    "It is likely that any figures of GBV are under-reported, where the landscape is plagued by silencing of victims, failures of law enforcement, and normalisation of violence."

     

    That said, it may well be that extreme events, with an influx of humanitarian and relief workers and organisations, might increase the reporting of GBV, unmasking existing violence where victims feel less inhibited to report abuse  after the event​​. Regardless, it is likely that any figures of GBV are under-reported, where the landscape is plagued by silencing of victims, failures of law enforcement, and normalisation of violence. 

    What should society take away from your findings?

    The findings of the review underline the critical gaps in our societal and emergency frameworks, where the needs of the most vulnerable are often overlooked or inadequately addressed during extreme weather events. Disaster management interventions must focus on preventing, mitigating, and adapting to drivers of GBV using a sexual-transformative and gender-transformative approach​​. Community engagement in both design and implementation of interventions will help address context-specific nuances and meet the needs of affected populations​​.

    As we face the unfolding impacts of the climate crisis, integrating gender considerations into disaster preparedness and response is not just necessary – it is essential for building resilient communities capable of withstanding the challenges ahead in order to safeguard women’s health and create safer environments for all. 

     

    Read "Extreme events and gender-based violence: a mixed methods systematic review" in full  in The Lancet Planetary Health.

    Dr Rita Issa is a GP and Leverhulme Critical Decade for Climate Change Doctoral Scholar in the School of Global Development researching climate change and health.