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Wash Post: ‘Climate change puts more women at risk for domestic violence’

By Geoffrey OndiekiDisha Shetty  and  Aie Balagtas See
UMOJA, Kenya — Pilot Lenaigwanai covers her mouth as she speaks. She is trying to hide her broken tooth, a bitter reminder of all she endured before finding refuge at a shelter for abuse survivors in northern Kenya.

The mother of three arrived here in July after being forced from her home by escalating violence. Her husband was abusive even before the drought that’s now ravaging Kenya’s arid north, the worst in decades. When the family’s 68 cattle — their only means of survival — died, the abuse became impossible to bear.

For these and many other women around the world, the threat of violence could become more common as climate change makes extreme weather events more intense and frequent.

Scientists have long warned that climate change disproportionately impacts the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, and negotiators from wealthy countries at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Egypt pledged to do more to help poorer countries already grappling with its devastating effects.

Until recently, relatively little attention has been paid to its disproportionate impact on women and girls. But this year the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identified a link between climate change and violence, citing the growing evidence that extreme weather events are driving domestic violence, with global implications for public health and gender equality.

2021 study of extreme weather events in Kenya by researchers at St. Catherine University in Minnesota found the economic stresses caused by flooding and drought or extreme heat exacerbated violence against women in their homes. The research, which used satellite and national health survey data, showed that domestic violence rose by 60 percent in areas that experienced extreme weather.

That analysis, and 40 others published this year as part of a global review in the journal The Lancet, found a rise in gender-based violence during or after extreme weather events.

Terry McGovern who heads the department of Population and Family Health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, called the scientific evidence for this connection “overwhelming.”

“Heat waves, floods, climate-induced disasters increase sexual harassment, mental and physical abuse, femicide, reduce economic and educational opportunity and increase the risk of trafficking due to forced migration,” said McGovern, who added that the data remains limited on some fronts, including on psychological and emotional violence and attacks against minority groups.

Several academics, activists and humanitarian workers said the links between violence against women and extreme weather events need more research. Unlike the hard science of climate change, they said, the complex drivers of violence cannot easily be captured in numbers.

“The climate discourse is all about the numbers, but the evidence on violence and changes in power dynamics cannot be captured that way, and so it is not given the same weight,” says Nitya Rao, a professor of gender and development at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. “It is very difficult to make a linear connection.”

In Umoja, no one is in much doubt that the drought is driving up violence — its swelling numbers are proof enough. Jane Meriwas, whose nonprofit organization the Samburu Women Trust helps women who have fled abusive homes support themselves, says the number of women at Umoja has doubled to 51 in the last year.

‘The violence peaks during the floods’

In eastern India, more frequent downpours and devastating floods are what’s driving violence. Poverty is exacerbated by sudden economic stress, and societal inequality often traps women with abusive partners or other family members because they have nowhere else to go and cannot rely on authorities for help.

A mother of five who asked to go by her middle name, Devi, to protect her identity, said she doesn’t know anything about climate change. She just knows that whenever floods come to her village in Bihar state, her husband comes home angry and violent.

With her husband working away from home much of the year as a farmhand, each season can be a challenge. But the monsoon season, Devi said, is by far the toughest. That is when the rivers in her low-lying village downstream from the melting Himalayan glaciers swell to bursting, flooding large swaths of land and making farming impossible. With no prospect of work until the floods recede, her husband returns home and takes his frustration out on his family.

“The violence peaks during the floods. Everything gets worse at that time — the hunger, the stress. We have snakes coming into the house,” says Devi, 40.

“The anger gets taken out on me. There’s a lot of stress during those times and I can’t sleep because of all the tension,” she says, wiping away tears as one of her young sons leans in closer.

Lessons from a typhoon

Scientists emphasize that extreme weather events do not cause domestic or gender-based violence, but instead exacerbate existing pressures or make it easier for perpetrators to carry out such violence.

The mass displacement that follows disasters can expose women to greater danger, according to studies in Bangladesh and parts of India.

“When there’s a calamity or disaster or conflict, that can put families in difficulties. The situation at evacuation centers is a contributing factor,” Lopez said. “It makes them agitated. It adds to their frustration. When someone is frustrated, they could reach a certain point and that could trigger [violence].”

Aira Nase, 37, has been running away from violence all her life. Her mother suffered beatings from her partner and as a young girl, Nase vowed never to be like her. She was proud of raising her three children alone, taking on jobs in Manila, the capital, to provide for them.

There’s no official data showing how extreme weather disasters affect levels of violence against women and girls in the Philippines. One study, based on in-depth interviews with 42 people including survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, aid workers and government officials found reports of domestic violence, sexual violence and incest had increased in its aftermath. A separate survey of more than 800 households in the affected area carried out by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) found increases in both early marriage and domestic violence.

Humanitarian organizations working in the Dinagat Islands, which were badly hit by Typhoon Rai, sought to break this pattern. They launched a poster campaign highlighting where women can go for help if they are facing violence at home, along with a phone number to call.

For the Samburu women at Umoja, escaping the twin pressures of violence and drought has become key to their survival.

Rose Lairolkek sat in the little remaining shade afforded by the cluster of traditional mud-roofed huts that make up the refuge. She recounted how her husband came home angry after discovering all his cattle had died and attacked her, and how she still bears the scar on her right shoulder more than two years later.

“It almost cost me my life.”

Disha Shetty reported from Paik Tola village in Bihar state, India; Aie Balagtas See reported from Saint Bernard, Southern Leyte Province, The Philippines.

The Washington Post is publishing this article in partnership with The Fuller Project, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to the coverage of women’s issues around the world. Sign up for The Fuller Project’s newsletter, and follow them on Twitter or LinkedIn.