A new report released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) December 6, indicates that women, particularly those living in mountain regions in developing countries, are experiencing increased incidents of human trafficking due to disasters connected to climate change.
Titled Women at the Frontline of Climate Change: Gender Risks and Hopes, the report highlights how organised human trafficking, especially that of women, is emerging as a potentially serious risk associated with climate-related disasters; as floods or landslides disrupt social safety nets, leaving more women isolated and vulnerable.
It reveals that in Nepal, estimates based on emerging data from anti-trafficking organisations, such as Maiti Nepal, suggests trafficking may have increased from an estimated 3,000-5,000 people (mostly women, as well as children and youth of both sexes between the ages of 7 and 21) in the 1990s to current levels of 12,000 – 20,000 per year, saying approximately 30 percent of these end up in forced labour, while 70 per cent are exploited in the sex industry.
According to a statement from UNEP announcing the report, the data suggests human trafficking increases by around 20 to30 per cent during disasters, while the International Criminal Police Organisation (INTERPOL), has also warned that climate disasters may increase the exposure of women to trafficking as families are disrupted and livelihoods are lost.
The report which was released at the ongoing UN Climate Change Conference (COP 17) in Durban, South Africa, also says women are disproportionately at high risks to their livelihoods and health from climate change because they are often ignored.
“Women in communities vulnerable to climate change are often more likely than men to lose their lives during natural disasters, due to poor access to coping strategies such as basic lifesaving skills or cultural factors that restrict the mobility of women,” it says.
The UNEP report however recommends adaptation methods such as investing in low carbon, resource efficient green technologies, water harvesting and fuel wood alternatives to improve women’s livelihoods.
Commenting on the findings of the report, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner said “Women often play a stronger role than men in the management of ecosystem services and food security. Hence, sustainable adaptation must focus on gender and the role of women if it is to become successful.”
“Women’s voices, responsibilities and knowledge on the environment and the challenges they face will need to be made a central part of Governments’ adaptive responses to a rapidly changing climate.” he added.
Role of Women in Boosting Food Security and Strengthening Adaptation
On the other hand, research conducted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has shown that providing women, who make up around 40 to 50 per cent of the work force in agriculture, with the same access as men to productive resources and technologies could increase yields on farms managed by women by between 20 and 30 per cent.
It is believed this could substantially improve food security by raising agricultural output in developing countries by up to 4 per cent.
However, several dynamics make adaptation more difficult for some women due to a lack of access to formal education, poverty, discrimination in food distribution, food insecurity, limited access to resources, exclusion from policy-and decision-making institutions and processes and other forms of social marginalisation.
The UNEP report focuses in particular on women in Asia’s mountain regions. With more than half of South Asia’s cereal production taking place downstream from the Hindu Kush Himalaya, the impacts of climate change, such as droughts or flooding, on food security and livelihoods are keenly felt – especially by women – in this region and beyond.
Adaptation focus on women
Successful climate change mitigation is thus dependent on designing adaptation programmes with a strong focus on gender equity, due to the key roles women play in agriculture, forest economies, biodiversity and other sectors, particularly in developing countries, according to the report.
It also recommends greater investments in green, labour-saving technologies such as irrigation systems or water harvesting, which can improve the quality of life and increase the productivity of female farm workers, while also benefiting the environment, through replacing fuel wood often collected by women with cleaner fuel alternatives, for example.
Available statistics show that from 1999–2008, floods affected almost one billion people in Asia, 28 million in the Americas, 22 million in Africa and four million in Europe.
In parts of Asia and Africa, where the majority of the agricultural workforce are female, the impacts of such disasters have had a major impact on women’s income, food security and health as they are responsible for about 6 per cent of household food production in Asia and 75 per cent in Africa.
By Edmund Smith-Asante