Opinion: How to promote peace, gender equality through climate action

A Rohingya refugee woman uses a clean cooking stove to cook food in Teknaf, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo by: Ravesh Chitrakar / Reuters

Climate change and fragility are inextricably linked. The impacts of climate change aggravate underlying political, social, and economic conditions, and, in some cases, drive forced displacement or provoke violent conflict. This is true in fragile states, where climate shocks can overwhelm and destabilize governments without the resources or capacity to absorb them.

Interrelated and layered crises are unfolding across the world: Today, nearly all of the top 20 countries most exposed to climate change are also experiencing violence, instability, or armed conflict — and 13 of them host a U.N. humanitarian response.

In Yemen, for example, drought and desertification are layered on top of armed conflict, a protracted humanitarian crisis, and an economy near collapse. Evidence also shows that the weaponization of water in Yemen has prolonged conflict and exacerbated acute famine.

Impacts of climate change and conflict multiply risks for populations already in crisis, especially for women and girls. In Tigray, Ethiopia, climate change is exacerbating the humanitarian crisis, and the outbreak of conflict further exposes women and girls to risk, as evidenced in the alarming rise in sexual and gender-based violence.

Given their localized knowledge and perspectives, women are uniquely positioned to contribute to climate-resilient communities and enhanced peace and stability.

Research from the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security shows how climate change and conflict risks around the world worsen gender inequalities and pre-existing patterns of discrimination — across income and wealth, social and human capital, land rights, and gendered divisions of labor. This constrains women’s capacity to absorb and recover from climate-conflict shocks.

Overlapping and mutually reinforcing risks mean that it is insufficient to address these challenges separately. In fact, doing so can create unintended harm and reinforce negative feedback loops.

For example, in Sudan, humanitarian agencies cut trees to accommodate and provide fuel for internally displaced people. The ensuing deforestation further destabilized an already fragile environment and generated tension with the local community. It also forced women to trek upwards for eight hours per day to forage for increasingly scarce firewood, magnifying their exposure to sexual violence.

This case and others illustrate that understanding the amplified and interlinking threats facing fragile states is critical to avoid doing harm. An intersectional analysis can also present opportunities to do good. Although the vulnerabilities are mutually reinforcing, the solutions can be, too.

Thoughtful and well-designed climate action can serve to promote peace and stability, while strategic investments in peacebuilding can shore up climate resilience.

Here are 5 key areas of action to support crisis preparedness and response, as well as development interventions:

1. Climate-proof humanitarian work

Humanitarian agencies should scale-up efforts to reduce their impact on environmental degradation and move towards net-zero operations. In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, for example, organizations have facilitated a transition to clean cooking stoves for Rohingya refugees. This reduces environmental degradation, promotes better health outcomes, and reduces security risks for women collecting firewood.

2. Promote climate-resilient preparedness and recovery in fragile states

Implementing and scaling up early action before disasters strike is essential to minimizing their uneven impacts. Factoring in gender-differentiated access to information and ability to migrate into gender-responsive early warning systems can further ensure warnings reach and protect the most vulnerable.

Post-disaster recovery should be leveraged to brace communities against future climate shocks. This includes constructing resilient infrastructure and housing, especially in informal settlements that house a disproportionate share of women and are often hardest hit.

3. Make development gender-responsive to build community resilience

Building back better not only encompasses physical infrastructure, but also livelihoods, education, healthcare, and other fundamental components of adaptive capacity.

Short-term crisis management should harmonize with longer-term development planning. Investing in women through these efforts — for example, ensuring work promoting climate-smart agriculture and livelihoods includes rural women on the front lines of climate change — can move the needle on gender inequalities and build women’s climate resilience. This can also translate to better outcomes for entire communities.

4. Transcend the humanitarian-development divide

Efforts to address climate change, gender inequality, and conflict rarely fit neatly into a project cycle or standalone policy. Humanitarian and development workers should bridge silos between fields to more effectively reduce risks and build resilience.

Synergizing agendas, financing, and systems of monitoring and evaluation will serve this end, as pushed forth by initiatives like EHA Connect. Further, each project must fully account for how the gendered implications of climate change and fragility map onto their agendas.

5. Prioritize intersectional and inclusive interventions

The most vulnerable are not only victims but also potential agents of change. Given their localized knowledge and perspectives, women are uniquely positioned to contribute to climate-resilient communities and enhanced peace and stability.

The meaningful participation of women — especially those from marginalized economic, cultural, or ethnic groups — should be promoted in humanitarian responses, disaster risk reduction, and development planning and implementation. This will require dismantling institutional barriers and addressing the persistence of discriminatory gender norms.

These efforts must be backed with scaled-up funding for gender-targeted programs, which remain severely under-resourced. Flexible funding mechanisms, like the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund, are also crucial for ensuring women leading local-level response efforts have access to necessary support.

Committing a greater share of resources to curbing violence against women, supporting women-led efforts, and, more broadly, enhancing women’s well-being, is essential for effective action at the climate-gender-conflict nexus.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Dr. Jessica Smith

    Dr. Jessica Smith is the research and policy manager at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. She completed her PhD at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.
  • Lauren Olosky

    Lauren Olosky is a researcher at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. Her research focus is primarily on climate change, conflict, and gender issues. She is a senior at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.