An incoming hurricane engulfs the Florida skyline behind a couple of palm trees being blown by strong wind

Because of climate change, the frequency of severe storms and the wind speeds of tropical cyclones are set to increase.Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty

As extreme weather events occur more frequently — something that climate scientists say is inevitable — so, too, will violence towards women and people from gender minorities. That’s the conclusion of a review examining events in the aftermath of floods, droughts, cyclones and heatwaves, among other weather disasters, over the past two decades1.

The review found that extreme weather events often catalyse episodes of gender-based violence — particularly physical, sexual and domestic abuse. It is “the most comprehensive and timely analysis of gender-based violence related to extreme weather and climate events that are expected to increase under anthropogenic climate change”, according to lead author Kim van Daalen, who studies global public health at the University of Cambridge, UK.

One difference from most previous reviews and studies dealing with the issue, van Daalen says, was a focus on research that included people from sexual and gender minorities such as transgender or gender non-binary individuals and those who identify as LGBTQ+. These groups, she says, “are often neglected within research on gender-based violence”.

Unequal impacts

Research has highlighted the connection between anthropogenic climate change and extreme weather for almost two decades. In 2012, a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessed the role of a changing climate on extreme events. It concluded that because of human-induced environmental change, the frequency of heatwaves and heavy storms and the wind speeds of tropical cyclones are set to increase in the coming years.

Some of these events exacerbate poor economic and social conditions, and this can create circumstances that result in violent behaviour, the latest review found. The authors searched through ten literature databases for studies focusing on the link between gender-based violence and natural disasters thought to be linked to climate change.

This initial search yielded more than 26,000 titles, including papers, conference proceedings and other literature. After excluding duplicates and studies that did not meet the selection criteria — such as those focusing on violence against cisgender heterosexual men and boys, or ones that concerned natural disasters unrelated to climate change — the team ended up with a sample of 41 studies.

The studies include research describing mental stress, substance abuse, economic hardship, food insecurity and poor social infrastructure after the onset of extreme weather. These weather events were linked to various forms of gender-based violence, from physical and sexual assault to forced marriage, trafficking and psychological abuse.

The reasons that extreme weather events lead to gender-based violence vary across locations. In Bangladesh, for example, young girls have been forced to marry in the aftermath of extreme floods in some cases, because “it means one less mouth to feed”, says Niaz Asadullah, an economist at Monash University Malaysia in Sunway City. “The loss of crops and households due to extreme weather events puts girls under further pressure and vulnerability,” he adds.

“The review is quite consistent with what we know about disasters,” says Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards Vulnerability and Resilience Institute at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, who was not involved in the study. “Any kind of disaster, whether it is climate-related or not, disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable.”

The researchers found only one document that explicitly focused on people from gender minorities: a report that described how people in Fiji thought that Cyclone Winston, which hit the country in 2016, was a sign of divine rage against LGBTQ+ people. The review’s authors also pointed out that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in Louisiana in 2005, there was a backlash against gay communities because others blamed them for the disaster. In other cases, transgender people have been threatened in relief shelters or barred from access to them. “Sexual and gender minorities face specific and increased risks of gender-based violence, which are important to consider in gender-based-violence policies, interventions and services,” van Daalen says.

Geographical imbalance

Although the sample of studies in the analysis includes research from all continents, the majority focus on the United States (9 studies), Bangladesh (7 studies) and India (5 studies).

“We recognize that most of the databases we searched have a bias towards the English language and global north research. We tried to compensate for this … in the databases we searched, and by not limiting our inclusion criteria to the English language,” says van Daalen.

Tobias Ide, who studies politics and international relations at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, says that, despite the geographical imbalance, “the review is really significant”. Many studies on extreme events and security have a broader focus, and are concerned with issues such as civil wars, riots and terrorism. “This review focuses on what happens at the micro-level. As gender violence affects millions of women and gender minorities around the world, it is really crucial to talk about violence at a smaller scale,” he says.

He argues, however, that the concept of gender-based violence is too broad to inform policy solutions. “The causes for each of these problems differ greatly, and each one needs specific interventions,” he says.

Even among the most vulnerable groups of people, the effects of extreme weather differ between cultures, Asadullah points out. “What a drought does to women in India is very different from what it does to women in sub-Saharan Africa,” he says.

To Cutter, the broad definition of gender-based violence in the review is a good thing. “There is a lot of specific literature on the different issues involving gender-based violence. What this review does is to explicitly set down a marker of what can be considered as gender-based violence as a consequence of extreme weather events and show what we know until now,” she says. “This is a great place to start.”