Environmental migration: gendered realities

4 mins read

By Marsha Linnartz

Climate change. Migration crisis. #metoo and a new wave of feminism.

Over the past decade, these buzzwords have labelled global headlines. Today, debates around them are not restricted to parliaments, but ordinary people are taking to the streets to make their voices heard. This article points to the link between these topical terms, and portrays everyday realities of environmental migration and sexual and gender-based violence.

The fingerprints of climate change are becoming more visible in our globalised world. Without any doubt, climate change is not only a scientific predicate but carries a clear humanitarian imperative that shows more and more livelihoods marked by resource scarcities and food insecurities. Communities are uprooted, families are torn apart. When coping attempts fail, people are often forced to leave their homes, temporarily or permanently. The International Organization of Migration (IOM) defines such environmental migrants as persons who are displaced by extreme environmental events or by deteriorating environmental conditions. This captures people moving within as well as across borders, while leaving may be forced or a matter of choice. Reliable estimates on climate-induced migration are hard to find, but the IOM predicates that “forecasts vary from 25 million to 1 billion environmental migrants by 2050, moving either within their countries or across borders”.

We should not forget that environmental migration is contextual. In a broader picture, it perpetuates and reinforces poverty, weak state governance and conflict. The interplay of underlying structural inequalities forces the displacement of some, while it hinders the mobility of others. When left behind, these people often remain trapped in their own vulnerability. The most vulnerable are assumed to be communities reliant on rain-fed agriculture; the poor; children; elderly; minorities that face cultural or religious restrictions; and, of course, women.

Considering the binary nature of gender, it is an established fact that responses to environmental migration differ among men and women. In other words, vulnerabilities and coping capacities are shaped by patriarchal power structures. They are deeply rooted in socially and culturally constructed gender roles, norms and values. Simply put, climate-induced migration and its consequences are not gender neutral. Often, climate migrants are fathers, young men and boys leaving women and girls behind. Thereby, male migration leads to the reversal of culturally-accepted gender roles in home-societies. The ‘feminization of agriculture’ in sub-Saharan Africa is one of many examples. In the absence of men, women stretch their capabilities and take on traditional male responsibilities. However, these women continue to face social stigma and discrimination, still lacking equal access to economic and social resources, to credit and information, land and property rights, and are underrepresented in decision-making.

Other than that, environmental migration amplifies the risk of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). According to the UNCHR, SGBV refers to five types of violence. These cover physical violence, such as physical assault, slavery and trafficking amongst others; emotional and psychological violence; harmful traditional practices such as early or forced marriages, infanticide and neglect or denial of education for women and girls;  socio-economic violence, comprising discrimination and denial of opportunities and services; and sexual violence including sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation. The fact that SGBV can take multiple forms should be kept in mind when reading the following.

The rephrasing of gender roles and with it the rise of the women in the household is often perceived as a threat towards patriarchal structures. Male figures become invisible within the household economy. Staying with their communities or returning to their families, men are often blamed and depicted as failures. It is not uncommon that their frustration and the need to force their dominance, pushes them towards toxic masculinity and domestic violence. Where climate-induced migration takes place along gendered lines, physical, emotional and psychological violence is prevalent.

Another side of this story is that more and more girls are expected to accomplish their domestic tasks and support their families economically. When fathers leave or cannot make ends meet by themselves, girls, compared to boys, are the first ones to be pulled out of education and experience socio-economic violence. Sometimes women and girls cannot even stay at their places of birth, but are sent to work far away from their families. Other times, they run away, are neglected or sold. With little money in their pockets, popular destinations are busy cities and informal urban settlements that are home to SGBV exposures and are again more prone to climate stresses. Sent by their families, women and girls that are restricted by their cultural and social status or lack intellectual and material sources, have no other choice than to engage in exploitative and illegal employment. Unfortunately, exploitative working conditions, forced child labour, sex work, prostitution and human trafficking are no exceptions. Troublesome, in a recent report by Girls Not Brides, Lakshmi Sundaram, the organisation’s executive director in London, stated a similar concern: “Many of the countries that are really affected by climate displacement are also countries that have high rates of child marriage”. Sometimes families arrange marriages to reduce their economic burden by having “one less mouth to feed”, while a wealthier husband secures their daughters’ future.

In short, environmental migration coupled with poverty and further structural inequalities frame the everyday realities of women and girls. They share experiences of lost years of schooling, diminished future opportunities and encounters with sexual and gender based violence, such as domestic violence, exploitation, child marriages amongst others. SGBV further reinforces the vulnerability of women and girls and impedes their resilience to climate change.

However, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, reminds us that the framing of women and girls as vulnerable universalizes victimhood. We should keep in mind that homogenizing the experiences of women and girls undermines their agency and traditional knowledge. Environmental migration carries the potential of being a game-changer when it comes to the deconstruction of oppressive gender relations. Women too can be powerful agents of change in climate change mitigation and community resilience. For that, we need to understand the nuances of environmental migration. Intersectional and cross-sectoral perspectives shape everyday realities and deserve representation. The empowerment of women and girls is only part of the picture: female and male struggles are distinct, but complementary. Men and boys need as much support in confronting the repercussions of climate change and migration as do victims of SGBV, because both are direct or indirect consequences of climate-induced migration.

Marsha Linnartz is a postgraduate student in peace and conflict studies here in Uppsala. Her personal interests lie in Eastern Africa, reconciliation, identity politics and migration, women’s and children’s rights amongst others. Outside of university, you will find her in a modern art museum, drinking spiced coffee while reading a poem by Rupi Kaur or doing some kickboxing for her work-life balance.

Cover photo: flickr (license)

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