Since the adoption of the Paris Climate Accords in 2015, at least 108 women have been murdered after defending the environment from climate wrecking industries.
They included Fikile Ntshangase, a South African grandmother murdered at home in front of her grandson, following opposition to the expansion of a neighbouring coal mine.
Defenders like Fikile are on the frontline of the climate crisis and are most at risk from attacks and violent reprisals. The consequences for women – both from climate impacts and the reprisals faced after speaking out – are grounded in historic gender inequalities.
Women often lack land and legal rights, making them vulnerable to exploitation. As climate breakdown takes hold, the gap in social inequality looks set to widen – and many more women will be confronted with the need to speak out to protect their homes and livelihoods. This can be a life and death decision – but women also face additional threats, as it is not just their activism that makes them a target, but their gender too.
Those working on land and environmental protection are often surrounded by a culture of silence. Fear of public disapproval and suspicion of authorities can prevent women defenders from coming forward to report attacks. Between 2015 and 2016 alone, there were 609 instances of aggression against Central American and Mexican women working to protect the environment.
While sexual violence and harassment can be perpetrated against any rights activist, gender-specific risks tend to be reported by women defenders. “When they threaten me, they say they will kill me, but before they kill me, they will rape me. They don’t say that to my male colleagues,” says Lolita Chavez, a Maya K’iche indigenous defender from Guatemala.
Away from protests, women defenders also face more elusive forms of violence. Smear campaigns undermine their reputations and social standing, dampening wider public support for their cause. These slurs are often gendered, with many women defenders bombarded with insults like “whore” or “slut”.
While violence against women is a widespread global phenomenon prevalent in all walks of life and across all sectors, there is some evidence that the extractive sectors – particularly industries like large-scale mining – pose a significant violent risk for women. Nearly 30% of women defenders killed since the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 were campaigning against extractive industry projects.
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Research shows that where there are extractive industries, cultures of violence exist. Women working in the extractive sector are at an increased risk of attack including sexual assault. Similarly, domestic violence against women also appears to increase in proximity to large-scale extractive activity. This is the result of many factors, including disruption of traditional property ownership, the increase in male migration to towns close to extractive projects, and economic uplifts which tend to benefit men.
Not all women face the same vulnerability. Our data shows a higher number of reported killings of women belonging to indigenous or Afro-descendant communities in Colombia. Experiences of violence against women differs depending on a range of intersecting factors from race to socio-economic status.
So, what can be done? Environmentally damaging projects trigger shifts in social fabrics, affecting entire communities, with unique impacts on women. Corporate behaviour is at the heart of so much of this damage, and companies must be required to evaluate their impact with rigorous human rights and environmental due diligence designed to identity the acute impacts of their projects across all facets of a community. Governments must hold companies who fail to do that legally liable.
Gender inequity is intimately tied to the climate crisis – conversely, we won’t solve the climate crisis while gender inequity persists. Solving both requires a paradigm shift.
Rachel Cox is a campaigner with Global Witness, a climate advocacy group