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Considering Links Between Gender, Climate Change, and Conflict

The following analysis is from Volume 3, Special Issue “Climate Change, Security, and Conflict” of the Peace Science Digest

Citation: Fröhlich, C., & Gioli, G. (2015). Gender, conflict, and global environmental change. Peace Review, 27(2), 137-146.

Greater resource scarcity due to climate change is only likely to exacerbate already unequal resource distribution, and possibly conflict, with those who have less power in society further losing access to resources and livelihoods. Gender—along with other social identities—positions women and men in particular ways in relation to power and therefore influences both how vulnerable or adaptive they are to environmental change and how they experience violent conflict and its transformation. The authors are interested, therefore, in examining how we think about gender, environmental change, and conflict. Noting the lack of a “comprehensive research framework” integrating all three dimensions, the authors proceed by reviewing three separate existing literatures—environment and conflict, gender and environment, and conflict and gender—to identify gaps and shortcomings but also potentially promising areas for integration.

First, with regards to the literature on environment and conflict, the authors identify four broad schools of thought. Major differences among these schools include whether population pressures necessarily result in resource scarcity and violent conflict, as well as whether “scarcity” is a physical/natural phenomenon or always to some extent a socially constructed one. The so-called constructivist school is seen as having the most potential to include gender as a consideration, as its emphasis on questions of distribution and power—as opposed to simply “natural” scarcity—creates room to consider how people of different identities have greater or lesser access to resources.  

Second, in the literature on gender and environment, the authors highlight the different approaches taken by eco-feminists and feminist political ecologists. Whereas the former see women as inherently closer to nature and therefore as “natural” caretakers of the environment, the latter understand gender as a social identity that shapes women and men’s experiences and access to resources, thereby creating different types of knowledge about and relationships with their ecosystems. Further, other scholars have resisted the impulse to equate gender with “women” or to assert the existence of a monolithic category of “women,” instead highlighting the way gender identity intersects in different ways with other (class, racial, national, and so on) identities and is also “performed” differently within different contexts.

Turning to the third literature on gender and conflict, amid broader interest in the integration of gender in conflict resolution and peacebuilding, the authors note a special focus on sexual and gender-based violence, including its use as a tool for feminizing (read: weakening) male actors in war. With time, scholars have also begun to focus on masculinity and war and to question the “female victim”/“male perpetrator” stereotype.

Although these distinct literatures provide useful insights into the relationships between gender, environment, and conflict, as noted above, there is little work that explicitly examines the three dimensions all together. The authors call, therefore, for “a more holistic approach that simultaneously looks at the macro, meso, and micro levels and their interrelations in order to uncover the role of gender for escalation and de-escalation of resource-related conflicts.” They see some methodological and conceptual challenges, however, in developing such an approach, including the persistence of gender hierarchies despite their fluctuation during conflict, a gap between legal developments and everyday practice with regards to gender relations, the prevalence of weak states in areas where there are resource conflicts, and the broader marginalization of gender concerns—requiring scholars to adopt a long-term view in their research design, as well as to engage in field research focusing on gender practices and non-state/informal actors rather than simply examining a country’s laws or formal state institutions.

The final—and most important—barrier to overcome to open the way for “gender-sensitive research on environmental conflicts” is the existence of the following five persistent gender myths:

  1. the equation of gender with “women”
  2. the assumption that women naturally possess so-called “feminine” characteristics
  3. the simplistic view of women as a neo-liberal investment opportunity
  4. the assumption that “women” constitute a homogenous group
  5. the perception of women as mainly victims

According to the authors, it is only by “debunking” these five myths that we can begin to better grasp “how conflict processes, global environmental change, and gender intersect,” as well as understand “the implications of gender for peacebuilding and conflict resolution processes in environmental conflicts.”

Contemporary Relevance

The civil war in Yemen represents a convergence of conflict, gender inequality, and climate change-induced resource scarcity. Prior to the outbreak of conflict in 2015, Yemen, a country with no rivers, suffered from water scarcity. Deep water well drilling, which began in the 1970s, coupled with a lack of regulation, has rapidly depleted Yemen’s groundwater resources. In the meantime, climate change is making the country drier, shortening the growing season for food. And the recent conflict has only exacerbated the country’s water crises. Additionally, the country has experienced a regression in gender equality, especially in the area of women’s rights, since its unification in 1990. Between 1967 and 1990, South Yemen was its own sovereign country and was a haven for empowered and educated women, while North Yemen had more repressive policies toward women. Upon unification, the customs and laws of the North overtook the norms of the South. Perhaps unsurprisingly, recent UN-led peace talks between the major conflict parties, though a hopeful development, have failed to include women. This, despite the fact that women’s groups have helped prevent fighting over resources at the local level, in addition to bridging divides in other ways.

An integrated framework for understanding the relationships between gender, conflict, and environment would help scholars, policy-makers, and activists alike connect the dots and arrive at more compelling conclusions about the sources of insecurity—and the prospects for conflict transformation—in Yemen.  

Practical Implications

This research reminds us that resource distribution on the basis of various social identities—and as a function of power—is just as relevant to individuals’ security as is absolute scarcity as a “natural” phenomenon. How one is positioned in social hierarchies matters for one’s level of vulnerability to climate-induced resource scarcity. Furthermore, this research urges us to be more critical of received wisdom with regards to gender that may impede our ability to think clearly or fully about the intersections of gender, conflict, and environment.

Talking Points:

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