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Climate Change-Induced Mobility and its Impact on Women’s Rights

31 Mar 2023
By Betty Barkha
Kiribati supports the Pacific Climate Warriors. Source: 350/

Natural disasters in 2021 alone triggered internal displacements of over 23.7 million people (almost double those displaced by conflict).Of these, 13.7 million were in East Asia and the Pacific region, and approximately half of those displaced are women and girls.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report has iterated what scholars have been saying for decades, that climate change adversely impacts human security (including personal, environmental, economic, health, food, communal, and political security) and is contributing to significance changes in human mobility, particularly through displacement and involuntary migration. The impacts of climate crises on people include serious harm to people’s health, livelihoods, social networks, and cultural traditions. Changes in ecosystems, including rising salinity levels in soil, king tides, coral bleaching, tainted freshwater, and the increased frequency and severity of natural disasters, are only a few of the challenges future and even some contemporary people face.

As in most crisis, the impacts and experiences vary by individual characteristics and intersecting circumstances, such as age, ethnicity, socio-economic class, geographical location, disability, and gender.

What is Climate Change-Induced Mobility?

Climate change-induced mobility is an umbrella term used to describe any form of human mobility caused by environmental change, including displacement, evacuation, planned relocation or managed retreat and migration. The emergence of such concepts has questioned the dividing line between forced and voluntary migration. In the new global economy, climate mobility has become a central issue for governments to address. Fortunately, following the initial mention of climate mobility in the Cancun Agreements, governments do not have to start from scratch; frameworks such as the Nansen Initiative’s Protection Agenda, Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, and the Sydney Declaration provide critical pathways that can be adapted to guide state action.

Frameworks on Climate Mobility

Governments across the world are developing frameworks to guide consolidated action on climate mobility. For example, the East African Community (EAC) and the States of the East and Horn of Africa have finallised the Kampala Ministerial Declaration on Migration, Environment, and Climate Change. The Declaration provides a clear outline of commitments for state leaders and regional partners to take while working towards strengthening regional capacity and transfer of knowledge and technologies. The Declaration emphasises the differentiated impacts on specific groups, “noting with concern that groups including women, girls, youth, the elderly, persons with disabilities, migrants, displaced persons, pastoralists and minorities might be threatened with marginalisation in exercising their rights to access climate action opportunities.”

Pacific Island Leaders have also been working to develop a regional Framework on Climate Mobility through interagency support with the Pacific Climate Change Migration and Human Security (PCCMHS) program led by the International Organization for Migration. Recognising that climate mobilities are complicated and multi-causal, particularly in the case of Pacific Island Countries and Territories, the PCCMHS program is dedicated to developing a regional rights-based framework on climate change related displacement, migration, and planned relocation.

Impact on Women’s Rights

Women’s rights, even without the devastating impacts of climate change, are being challenged. A 2022 report on Women, Business, and the Law found that on average, women enjoy barely 77 percent of the legal rights that men do. Drawing on historical examples of the impacts of displacement from conflict and humanitarian crisis, the report found that women are much more at risk than other persons. This often entails higher mortality during disasters, increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence, growing social reproductive roles, and some engagement in precarious work to financially support families.

However, in the case of climate change induced mobility, this vulnerability does not have to be an ongoing norm. We have an opportunity to learn from the decades of data on human mobility, gender equality, and the climate crisis, and draw important lessons.

The case of the Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea offers a significant case study in this respect, being the first extensively broadcasted incident of climate change-induced, planned relocation in the Pacific. The move has been particularly problematic and traumatic for the Carteret Islanders as it was initially meant to be state led. However, due to insufficient technical and financial government resources, the Council of village elders decided to act independently and relocate approximately 1700 villagers on the outskirts of Buka Town. This move led to the loss of cultural connection with ancestral land (which followed matrilineal practices, such as land ownership, which has traditionally been passed down from mother to daughter for generations), increasing gender-based violence, poverty, inaccessible healthcare, and required adjustment in a new location, already burdened with challenges of violent conflict.

My own research examines the gendered impacts of climate change-induced, planned relocation and displacement in Fiji. The Fijian government was the first Pacific country to develop national guidelines for planned relocation and displacement. Fiji’s first-ever state-led, planned relocation, for instance noted that in many cases kitchens were missing in some homes, a place where women spend most of their time. Bathrooms were incomplete in other homes, a place where privacy for women is crucial. All were subsequently constructed with leftover materials, but the emphasis  here is how important it is to have women included across all stages of the planned relocation process. However, I also found promising alternatives which are contributing to shifting attitudes within households in embracing gender equitable practices. One of these is the use of information communication and technology tools that are contributing to shifting power dynamics within families.

These examples provide clear illustrations that without meaningful inclusion of women in the decision-making process, particularly when it comes to responding to issues of climate crisis and associated mobility, responses will reinforce existing inequalities.

Women are not a homogenous group, their experiences are influenced by factors such as gender identity, sexual orientation, race, nationality, religion, and disability. An intersectional lens that recognises the interrelationship of socially constructed categories, and how they interact to influence experiences, will be crucial as governments consider frameworks on climate mobility.

It is often the case that those who contribute the least to climate change are the most vulnerable to its impacts. Climate mobility frameworks and mechanisms currently being developed globally are an opportunity to address both gender and climate injustices in a meaningful way. Current global and regional mechanisms continue to take a siloed approach towards climate mobility, which will continue to reinforce existing inequalities. The best chance we have of ensuring that climate mobility improves the well-being of our population is to take a proactive and deliberate approach.

Betty Barkha is a PhD Candidate with Monash University, Centre for Gender, Peace and Security (Monash GPS). You can follow her work on Twitter @BettyBarkha

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.