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Sat. July 20, 2024
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Unraveling the Ties: How Climate Change is Amplifying Gender-Based Violence in Pakistan


The alarming acceleration of climate change has ushered in an epoch of unprecedented challenges. The UN Secretary General's statement, "The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived, is a stark reminder of the gravity of the situation.  Ranked as the fifth most vulnerable country to the effects of climate change by the Global Climate Risk Index, Pakistan stands exposed to a plethora of risks with extreme weather patterns and natural calamities like floods and droughts becoming a common occurrence. Gender-based violence is one such faultline already prevalent in Pakistani society that the climate crisis has exacerbated to an alarming degree.

The UNHCR defines gender-based violence as “sexual, physical, mental and economic harm inflicted in public or private”. Intimate partner violence, sexual violence, child marriage, honor crimes, and female gender mutilations are some of the forms taken by GBV with devastating repercussions for survivors.  According to a report published by the Irish Consortium of Gender-Based Violence, climate-related conflicts, natural disasters, and displacement result in all forms of GBV along with the disruption of response services. These patterns have been observed in Pakistan at a staggering rate as it ranks 142 out of 146 countries in WEF’s Global Gender Gap Report 2023.

Intimate partner violence is a critical public health issue observing escalation with increasing fluctuations in temperatures, especially in low to middle-income countries. According to a study published in JAMA Psychiatry, a 1C increase in average annual temperature is connected to a rise of more than 4.5% in incidents of sexual, domestic, and physical violence across three South Asian countries i.e., India, Pakistan, and Nepal. The figures are projected to rise to 5.9% for Pakistan by the end of the century with physical violence remaining prevalent. The pathways of violence can be explained by citing crop failures, dwindling economies, buckling infrastructure, and unemployment as people are trapped in their homes due to extreme heat. It is important to note that although all income groups saw an increase in heat-related violence, lower-income and rural households saw the largest increases. This trend highlights how class intersects with gender to create structures of violence in the country.

Migrations and displacements during climate-related disasters put women at an increased risk of violence. This was observed during the 2022 floods as displacement affected women's access to resources such as basic shelter, healthcare, and food. Displaced women were forced to live in unsafe places such as schools and animal yards under the supervision of unknown men responsible for their commuting and support. These women faced an increased risk of sexual abuse and vulnerability to STDs. Local newspapers reported incidents of rape and abuse by rickshaws and truck drivers. Limitations on women's education and mobility especially in rural areas further make evacuations difficult as they do not have the essential life support and self-defense skills. The government's inattention to women’s role in the agriculture and informal sector leads to loss of livelihood as floods wipe away crops.

Poor maternal outcomes have also been amplified by the climate crisis as disasters put further stress on Pakistan’s already weak healthcare structure. According to United Nations Population Fund, 650,000 pregnant women and young girls were affected by the 2022 floods. The healthcare staff did not have adequate equipment to perform deliveries safely as 1460 health facilities were damaged and 432 were demolished during the floods. Consequently, these displaced women were left in the open skies to give birth having to rely on tarps and birthing kits provided by charities. Impoverishment and physical weakness create unsafe birthing conditions and complications.

Evidence and research have established that climate change and other environmental crises are multiplying the drivers of child marriages- including displacement, poverty, loss of education, and conflict. Pakistan has the sixth highest number of girls under 18 married in the world. The harrowing story of Dilmurad Lund from Sindh who “sold’ his 10- and 12-years old daughters into marriage for 45000 rupees after being displaced during the 2020 floods serves as one of the examples.

With the Climate crisis worsening, Pakistan needs to ramp up its adaptation efforts. Pakistan launched its first-ever Climate Change Gender Action Plan in a landmark step to accelerate progress and support a gender-responsive climate action plan. However, its implementation requires political certainty and coordination between the federal and provincial units, something which is absent from Pakistan’s political landscape in the present times. Moreover, a strong correlation exists between class and gender when it comes to the disproportionate effects of climate change. Women, particularly those from rural backgrounds are at a higher risk of GBV resulting from climate change. This remains Pakistan’s long-standing issue as these women lack access to the resources essential for capacity building and their contribution to the informal economy which is 74% remains unacknowledged. They are reduced to “unpaid family helps” in the agriculture sector, thus working without remuneration. Education and skills training can help enhance their employability while financial inclusion can provide them access to financial literacy training. Legal protection and social security in the form of labor laws, social safety nets, and protection from exploitation are important steps. Training on product quality and networking opportunities can connect them to potential buyers, thus providing access to markets.

All these efforts require Pakistan to set its economic house in order and harness the potential of this shadow workforce while developing adaptation strategies. In addition, women-led relief programs like the one observed by UN volunteers in Ecuador during the 2016 earthquake can reduce the risk of sexual violence and provide opportunities such as cash-for-work initiatives.

Simran Saeed Janjua is a research scholar studying  International Relations at National Defense University (NDU) Islamabad, my focus lies in analyzing non-traditional security challenges, with a particular emphasis on climate change.

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