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Women carrying water in Baidoa, Somalia ;

Women, Climate, Conflict: Who carries the weight of war?

Forward Thinking series
Sakshi Chandrasekhar

MSc Global Affairs

20 July 2022

Throughout history, conflict has always remained a mainstay. While work is being done to reframe how we identify causes and mitigate the consequences of conflict, it's mostly still thought about in a vacuum of geopolitical tensions and the consequent shifting international order. It goes without saying that conflict is a multifaceted issue that produces irrevocable, environmental damage, lasting economic dysfunction, refugee crises and more.

The climate crisis is now a key contributor to the inflammation of tensions. Influential research conducted found that for every one degree increase in temperature, conflict increases between groups by 11.3% (Burke, Hsiang, and Miguel).

Climate change related droughts, floods, and other environmental disasters exacerbate resource scarcity that are often at the heart of these conflicts, especially if they involve agropastoral groups, where the probability of conflict increases by 54% with every one degree increase in temperature. Climate disasters wipe out whole sources of livelihood for families, who then become internally displaced in search for economic opportunities or have no other choice but to join armed groups for their protection.

On top of this, the impact of climate insecurity induced conflict for women is enormous, and the women who sit at the intersection of these issues are often an afterthought.

The unpaid care burden

Climate insecurity is inextricably linked with increased experiences of gender-based violence. It threatens women’s productive resources (such as farmland) and this causes their further subordination in society as they lose their sources of livelihood. Given failure of institutions caused by wartime and enduring patriarchal norms, women are not supported by state welfare provision to adapt to climate change.

Within this, one issue that receives even less attention is the impact of conflict on women and young girl’s unpaid care burdens. Unpaid care work is defined as “all unpaid services provided within a household to its members, including care of persons, households, and voluntary community work” (Elson, 2000). In short, unpaid care work is essentially chores, childcare, and other work related to the household.

Framing this work as labour counters enduring gender norms that constantly devalue domestic and reproductive work. It enables us to see how time spent doing unpaid care work is translating into actual inequalities by making women time-poor, forcing them to forego employment and education to keep up with this care burden.

As men are absorbed into the conflict as fighters or even casualties of the conflict, women’s unpaid care burdens can increase exponentially as they become forced to take on more roles- oftentimes becoming the sole breadwinner of the family.

Experiences of women in Puntland, Somalia

Puntland exemplifies the intersection between climate, conflict, and women’s unpaid care burdens.

Somalia is currently in a decades-long civil war that has completely fragmented its society. Puntland is a semi-arid region making up a third Somalia’s landmass and has a large population of agropastoralists who have been very impacted by harsh weather conditions, such as drought and floods, which have caused mass displacement and loss of livelihoods. As a result, it has become a site of further political upheaval and conflict.

Women in Puntland have disproportionate water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) responsibilities as part of their care burden. Some of these responsibilities include water collection, maintaining hygiene and cleanliness, and more. Within that, water collection is the most important - a physically demanding task requiring them to travel far distances to access water points. This can be complicated by other natural disasters that can contaminate water points, forcing them to travel even further to access sanitary water.

Water collection responsibility data from Oxfam and SAALO, in partnership with the German Federal Foreign Office

The time spent carrying out water collection is impacting women’s abilities to pursue jobs, further education, and other advancement opportunities. Ben Crow, from the University of Santa Cruz, highlighted the case of a woman in Kenya who found that she had more time to go to job interviews when she installed a tap in her home.

Due to water scarcity, water points have become points of conflict and are impacting women’s safety. Women are exposed to sexual violence and gender-based violence on their journey to access these water points, in some cases needing to negotiate sexual favours with armed men to fetch water. To avoid this, they are setting out at early hours which is not safe either.

Duration of water collection data from Oxfam and SAALO, in partnership with the German Federal Foreign Office.

Inclusive security visioning for adaptive and resilient governance structures 

A feminist human security approach highlights the need to include women in peacebuilding and security visioning. Including their experiences will allow us to critically approach “household work” and establish its link to women’s insecurity and how that is being further impacted by climate conflict. It will make women active stakeholders in the peacebuilding and climate adaption processes to ensure they have lasting stability

Aili Mari Tripp argues that conflict pushes women into socially valued masculine roles that has disruptive, egalitarian effects and can catalyze their inclusion into legislative processes. It’s important to capitalize on this element of insecurity to build adaptive and inclusive governance structures.

Rwanda’s post-genocide collective security visioning efforts is an excellent example of this, where the explicit inclusion of women contributed to many positive changes in raising awareness of gender-based violence and harassment. Consequently, there were efforts made to address gender-based violence through service provision, case handling and training for security organs.

There is an urgent need for us to broaden our understanding about how conflict functions. So much of its impacts on day-to-day life is ignored and causes sources of insecurity to fester, rendering any capacity-building efforts counterproductive. If we continue to leave women out, they will continue to carry the weight of war.

School of Global Affairs Student Conference

This article is based on Sakshi Chandrasekhar’s presentation at the School of Global Affairs Student Conference, which won the prize for Best Speaker at the conference.

The School of Global Affairs Student Conference took place on 16 March 2022. 

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