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Making the Connections Between Climate Change and Sexual and Relationship Violence

“Human relations were laid bare and the strengths and weaknesses in relationships came sharply into focus. Thus, socially isolated women became more isolated, domestic violence increased, and the core of relationships with family, friends and spouses were exposed” – written in response to a major flood in Australia (Dobson, 1994, p. 11).

Racism. Sexism. Classism. Immigration status. Violence against LGBTQ communities. These are just a few of the various forms of oppression that the mainstream sexual and relational violence (SRV) movements have taken a deeper approach to when addressing intersectionality and SRV. However, one piece that I believe is critical to address is the intersection of climate change and SRV.

So what is the connection between climate change and SRV? There is an increasing amount of research that connects gender disparities and climate change yet not a lot of research that directly connects SRV and climate change. What we do know is that climate change affects women differently than men whether it is through displacement, crop failure, employment, food, water and fuel shortages, access to health care or the effects of increased armed conflicts and civil wars. Women and girls are disadvantaged and at a higher risk of health and general safety concerns as a result of the aforementioned challenges. However, are girls and women and at a higher risk of sexual and or relational violence as well? As the effects of Climate Change increase globally, will SRV service providers be tasked with providing more services while competing with funding and resources that are being diverted to disasters?

According to Dr. Elain Enarson, author of “Women Confronting Natural Disasters: From Vulnerability to Resilience”, the disasters and major weather events that occur in the social worlds we live in “disadvantage women as a social group more than men, especially women who are already isolated or disenfranchised. Disaster homelessness and overcrowding in damaged homes, reduced income, health problems, lack of transportation, disrupted social services, and other disaster effects impact women disproportionately, exacerbating preexisting power imbalances between women and men” (Enarson 80). A result of the exacerbated power imbalance is sexual and or relational violence.

“Mega storms” like intensified hurricanes for example can displace hundreds of thousands of people. Thousands of families are forced to live and stay in make-shift camps, FEMA trailer parks and with extended families and friends. Women who were considering fleeing may feel compelled and or coerced into staying with the abusive partner during disasters. Children are also at risk and vulnerable to sexual abuse during that time. People who utilize abuse to enforce their power and control may feel total powerlessness during a climate-related disaster due to job loss, food insecurities and familial tensions. However, they may be in a position to exert even more power and control in the form of abuse over bodies that are smaller or more vulnerable. Additionally, what happens to the registered sex offenders who are displaced during disasters and major weather events?

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, 12 Domestic Violence Shelters were forced to close during Hurricane Sandy.  What happens to those shelter residents? Many move in to other shelters out of the area if they are able, others end up in the disaster relief housing and some return to their homes, often to the abusers. Here in California we have experienced a multi-year drought coupled with extended and more dangerous wildfire seasons. With wildfires come increased levels of stress, displacement, vulnerability, shifting and limited access to resources. All of these factors could lead to increased sexual and relational violence or at least increase families vulnerability to violence during or directly following catastrophic wildfires.

Climate Change and Armed Conflict

Another cause for concern is that there is more research on the correlation between an increase in armed conflicts and uprisings as a result of rising global temperatures. For example, studies of sub Saharan Africa indicate an increase in civil wars as a result of an increase in the global temperature. Violence increases as food and water become scarce, drought and or flooding increase and states become increasingly destabilized. In high conflict zones, once again women and children are extremely vulnerable to violence as it is well documented that the use of rape has been seen in most armed conflicts.

Sexual and Relational Violence is also a side effect of armed conflict. A quick google search on “Domestic Violence and U.S. Vets” brings up over 1 million search results. Most of the vets being referenced in the articles are vets of geopolitically based invasions of oil rich countries or destabilized terrorist influenced states fighting for access to oil. Domestically speaking, sexual assault was essentially introduced as a colonizing tactic by the invasion of Europeans and the ensuing colonialism. As the Cheyenne proverb goes: “A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is done, no matter how brave its warriors or strong its weapons”.

In terms of increased migration and climate change, according to the Royal United Services Institute, “as temperatures rise and precipitation patterns change over the course of the next century, climate too will increasingly become a driver of both internal and international migration in Mexico.” – See more.

So if climate change is an impetus in increased migration, we can expect so see an increase in migrants experiencing sexual assault considering that some figures posit that well over half of all women migrating are victims of attempted and or completed sexual assault while crossing into the US.

There is a connection in our society to men’s entitlement to women’s bodies and men’s entitlement to destroying the planet (in the name of progress ie capital). Environmental destruction in the name of “progress” is in large part an effort to maintain our privilege, our way of life; our ability to have tomatoes year round and smart phones and other fancy gadgetry at the expense of mineral extraction, deforestation, fossil fuel consumption, dams and mountain top removal. It is my belief that maintaining our way of life is accelerating climate change which is leading to increased sexual and relational violence.

What can we do? How can heal our communities as well as the planet? How can our prevention efforts incorporate environmental justice? We need to start with movement-wide dialogue that includes climate change in our many conversations. Perhaps we can expand our understanding of “rape culture” to include the assault on the planet and how men disregard and disrespect not only the female body but also the female spirit. Additionally, to paraphrase author and activist Wilma Mankiller, we need to model for and teach youth how to live in synchronicity with their community as well as the planet. We need to reach out and learn from and share and partner with the environmental justice and immigrant’s rights movements to solidify our prevention and intervention efforts at the intersections of our work. We must listen and learn from the communities who already know how to live in relationship with the land. In the meantime we need to be prepared for an increase in Sexual and Relational Violence as the effects of climate change become more pronounced and more communities are adversely affected.

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