What do climate and conflicts have to do with gender? Quite a lot actually, if we ask Maryruth Belsey-Priebe. Maryruth is a Harvard International Relations graduate and Director for Women, Peace and Security Programs at the Think Tank Pacific Forum. For her, addressing gender issues in climate and security crises is a question of equity because of their disproportionate effect on women and girls. This view is also shared by the UN Security Council, whose Resolution 1325 not only recognizes the vulnerability of women in times of crisis but also emphasizes the important role they play in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peacebuilding, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and post-conflict reconstruction. It also calls upon member states to adopt a gender perspective and to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence. To date, 107 UN member states have already implemented National Action Plans on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) based on this resolution.


On the other side of the nexus, climate change is increasingly recognized as one of the paramount security challenges of this century – not just by President Biden who acknowledged climate as the “existential threat to humanity” despite worries about nuclear conflict and “a crazy S.O.B. like that guy Putin.” NATO, for example, wants to become the leading international organization in understanding and planning for the impact of climate change on security, agreeing on a Climate Change and Security Action Plan at the 2021 Brussels Summit. Climate hazards can contribute to violent conflict through eroding human security and exacerbating vulnerabilities across multiple pathways such as increased droughts, floods, resource scarcity, and migration patterns. At the same time, conflicts undermine the ability of communities to adapt to a changing climate, enforcing a negative feedback loop. 


Climate-Security-Gender: A multilayered relationship

The concept of climate security allows us to understand and assess these intricate interlinkages. According to our expert, climate security can be divided into two categories: human security and security at the national or international level. Human security refers to “having a set of conditions in your life that allow you to work towards your goals and having the confidence that these conditions will remain the same in the future,” says Maryruth. Climate change is likely to cause an erosion of these conditions, for instance by making health systems more fragile. Hospitals or clinics can get destroyed directly in climate-induced natural disasters, or they might indirectly suffer from austerity measures implemented after such an event. Maryruth underlines that “as a result, people have less access to the healthcare system they need to live their lives securely.” Other examples include food security, water security, or the ability to evacuate in situations of risk. On a community level, human insecurity can lead to community fragility and subsequently tensions or violent conflicts within these communities. “At the national level, reduced human security can increase recruitment into non-state military groups or organized crime, as such organizations can prey on people’s inability to find employment or start a family,” Maryruth summarizes. This in turn could rise to national or even international security threats.


But how does gender factor into these dynamics? Climate change will put pressure on gender norms and can make certain genders more or less vulnerable because of the societal expectations concerning their adaptation techniques. In the words of Maryruth, “Looking at women in particular, we see that they take on most of [the] care work, and climate change will increase the number of hours and strenuousness of those tasks for a variety of reasons.” First, social programs are usually the first to fall victim to austerity measures and “women’s time is generally used as a mechanism of adjustment in times of crisis.” Second, these mechanisms also occur directly as an effect of natural disasters as they can destroy basic life-essential facilities such as water or sanitary systems. This enforces further negative feedback mechanisms since the increased burden of care work impedes women’s capabilities to engage in economic activity, driving them into poverty and furthering malfunctioning adaptation techniques such as taking out predatory loans or selling assets they require for producing income to fill short-term needs. Additionally, gender roles can also physically impede women to act in a self-sustaining manner in times of acute disasters. In India, for example, women were more likely to die in flooding, because they didn’t know how to swim, climb a tree, wore too heavy clothing to be able to swim, or wouldn’t leave their house without a male family member. “All these factors will erode women’s human security at an individual level…”


Climate Disasters Don’t Grant Male Privilege

“Men, too, will experience their own challenges,” Maryruth continues. Many might have to migrate out of their communities for employment, “making them more vulnerable to predatory employment tactics or human trafficking.” Men also tend to be more involved in responding to disasters which can result in higher death rates. But the biggest issue for them is that climate disasters can inhibit the achievement of culturally important milestones – usually marriage, property, and family. Not reaching these goals makes them susceptible to being recruited into organized crime, gangs or non-state militias. As Maryruth put it: “This leads to more people flowing into terrorist organizations, which influences national and international security due to increased violence, which in turn erodes capabilities of governments to address other challenges.”


Not Just a Problem Far, Far Away

While many of these examples originate from the Global South, gender-based violence and unpaid care burdens increase after climate disasters all over the world. Migration, of course, is another factor: Already, more and more people are flying from Asia to Latin America to ultimately cross the border into the US due to changes in their home countries, many of which are caused by climate change. These mass migration movements – where the majority of people are women and children – put pressure on systems in developed countries, undermining their adaptive capacities. Therefore, Maryruth stresses, “taking a gender perspective is not only the moral thing to do, but will also ensure a more equitable, sustainable response” that counteracts spill-over effects. But to achieve this, we must first tackle the biggest challenges to such an approach: designing a localized, contextualized approach for each community, and successfully consulting with affected women on the ground to evaluate their true needs.


Written by Clara Wend, Edited by Viktor Kharyton

Photo credit: Tobias Rademacher, Unsplash