‘When Homes Turn into Rubble’: Advancing a Gender-Informed Approach to Post-Conflict Environmental Rehabilitation 

In light of recent declarations of war in several countries and the severe environmental impacts that accompany armed conflicts, it is imperative to recognize the disproportionate vulnerabilities faced by women and children. Despite their significant contributions, women’s roles often go unrecognized within a predominantly masculine legal framework. This article seeks to shed light on the overlooked vulnerabilities and resilience of women, exploring the intersection of gender dynamics with environmental concerns within the legal regulation of armed conflicts.

The Burden of Invisible Labour: Gender, Conflict, and Environmental Responsibilities

The interconnection between gender dynamics, environmental exploitation, and conflict often remains obscured, yet it profoundly shapes the landscape of conflicts in today’s world. Climate change and conflict exert differential impacts across gender lines, compounding vulnerabilities and exacerbating existing inequalities. Conflict zones often witness heightened violence against women and girls, including sexual violence used as a weapon of war against marginalized communities. This includes instances such as the persecution of Yazidi and Rohingya women in conflict-stricken regions like Northern Iraq and Myanmar. Disruptions caused by conflict extend beyond physical safety, impeding access to essential services such as water, sanitation, and healthcare, particularly affecting displaced women. Similarly, the intersection of climate change and conflict amplifies existing tensions, further straining natural resources and increasing food insecurity. This dynamic disproportionately affects marginalized groups, including women, who face added burdens due to unequal distribution of resources and caregiving responsibilities.

The gendered division of labour places women, especially low-income and rural women, at the forefront of resource procurement, making them more susceptible to shifts in resource availability induced by climate change. Additionally, women’s disproportionate involvement in unpaid caregiving, particularly in regions facing climate-related health challenges, further heightens their susceptibility to climate impacts. This vulnerability is worsened for marginalized groups like Indigenous women, ethnic minorities including women of African descent, individuals with disabilities or HIV, and members of the LGBTIQ+ community residing in developing nations and Small Island Developing States, who face both climate impacts and systemic marginalization. Thus, the confluence of environmental degradation and the escalating climate crisis exacerbates the prevailing global care crisis, exacerbating vulnerabilities for women who are often primary caregivers and reliant on natural resources for sustenance. In 2016, the UNEA-2 resolution on conflict and the environment recognized the ‘specific negative effects of environmental degradation on women and the need to apply a gender perspective with respect to the environment and armed conflicts’. This recognition is significant because, while a nuanced approach to addressing gender-specific vulnerabilities and resilience has gained traction in climate change mitigation efforts, a similar understanding remains absent in policies concerning the environment and conflict.

Voices from the Periphery: Promoting Women’s Contributions in Post-Conflict Peacebuilding and Environment Rehabilitation

Women’s pivotal roles in natural resource management and conflict mitigation are underscored by their inherent connection and proximity to environmental resources. Locally, women are recognized as key stakeholders in efforts to address climate change and preserve natural resources, contributing significantly to community adaptation and sustainability. Evidence from regions like India and Nepal demonstrates that the presence of women in community forest management leads to notable improvements in conservation outcomes, highlighting the effectiveness of their involvement. Particularly among Indigenous communities, where nearly 80% of the world’s biodiversity is safeguarded, women hold ancestral knowledge crucial for conservation efforts. However, despite their critical contributions, Indigenous women’s voices are often marginalized and overlooked, with their roles being relegated to ‘stakeholders, not rights holders’, even within international frameworks like the UNFCCC.

At the intersection of natural resource management, climate change, and conflict, women’s influence, particularly that of Indigenous women, faces systemic barriers limiting their participation and representation. The coexistence of customary and statutory resource-management systems often engenders discordance owing to their distinct operational frameworks. Customary mechanisms, administered by traditional authorities such as chiefs or village councils, rely on mediation or arbitration for dispute resolution, whereas statutory mechanisms entail the involvement of elected bodies like community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) groups. Nevertheless, pervasive male dominance characterizes both systems, posing impediments to women’s engagement. Sociocultural norms such as the perception of women’s skills and knowledge as inferior by male leaders and logistical exigencies such as meeting times that cater only to men’s schedules further impede female participation, culminating in their underrepresentation in local-level decision-making concerning natural resource governance and conflict mediation.

Lessons from the field: Indigenous Women’s Approaches to Local Natural Resource Conflict Resolution

Enhancing women’s presence in natural resource management and conflict resolution requires fundamental changes to challenge gender biases and ensure their meaningful participation. Integrating effective grassroots strategies into global policies is crucial for empowering women and advancing goals in conservation, sustainability, and peace. To illustrate, in Sudan’s North Kordofan region, decades of civil war and environmental conflict have led to pervasive insecurity and internal displacement, disproportionately impacting women through heightened levels of sexual violence. In response to women’s historical underrepresentation in peacebuilding efforts, Sudanese female civil society and political leaders formed the Taskforce on the Engagement of Women, crossing religious, ethnic, and regional divides to promote informal mediation and community consultations for local natural resource conflicts. In 2016, the UN launched a Joint Programme pilot project to study the “feminization” of communities, analysing its effects on livelihood strategies and the demographic makeup of villages, with significant ramifications for gender norms and socio-economic dynamics. Encouragingly, the project yielded positive outcomes as women formed new forums and committees, and engaged in various community initiatives. Notably, in Nawa, women organized the planting of 6,000 seedlings for soil conservation, showcasing their active involvement in environmental efforts.

In northwestern Colombia, where approximately 90% of land is traditionally collectively owned by rural Indigenous or Afro-Colombian communities, women lack decision-making authority over land transactions, exacerbating tensions between traditional sustainable practices led by women and commercial activities like mining and logging. Initiatives have emerged to support Colombian women peacebuilders in natural resources management, such as the Mercy Corps project in Chocó and Antioquia regions, which aimed to build trust among locals and provide training in Alternative Dispute Resolution methods and land titling procedures, empowering women to effectively mediate conflicts. Since 2008, Mercy Corps has successfully resolved disputes over 228,076 hectares of land, benefiting over 20,000 individuals. Additionally, the 2016 Peace Accord between the Colombian Government and FARC, though not explicitly addressing climate change, acknowledges natural resource access as a driver of civil unrest and integrates gender perspectives. The Colombian case underscores the importance of empowering women as environmental activists to advance gender equality and enhance community resilience in the post-conflict period.

In Nepal, the aftermath of a decade-long civil war left a legacy of political instability and structural inequality, compounded by the looming threat of climate change.
Nepal has experienced a loss of 25% of its forest cover between 1990 and 2010 due to exploitation and escalating fires from drought. Despite these challenges, organizations like Himalayan Grassroots Women’s Natural Resource Management Association (HIMAWANTI), comprising 50,000 female members across 31 districts, focus on enhancing women’s involvement in sustainable resource management through forestry projects and capacity-building initiatives. These serve as a crucial platform for empowering women in conflict prevention and resolution related to natural resources. Leveraging such organizations has not only reshaped perceptions of women’s roles but also fostered positive changes in discriminatory norms, thereby positioning women as catalysts for environmental peacebuilding and local conflict resolution efforts.

The Need for Gender-Informed Environment Policy within a Predominantly Masculine International Legal Framework

A previous article on CJIL underscores the entrenched dominance of masculinity within the international legal framework, tracing its roots in historical antecedents, bolstered by various factors including systemic gender disparities, prevalent gender biases in legal interpretation, perpetuated traditional gender roles, and existing power dynamics. Across time, perspectives and institutions centered around male-centric ideologies have exerted significant influence over the shaping of international law, often mirroring the preferences and priorities of male figures occupying positions of authority. Moreover, the longstanding marginalization of women within crucial international legal spheres, such as courts and diplomatic platforms, has contributed to the development of legal structures that may overlook or inadequately address issues pertinent to the rights and experiences of women. Moving forward, addressing the complex nexus of climate change, gender dynamics, and conflict requires a multifaceted approach that prioritizes the empowerment and inclusion of women.

Firstly, concerted efforts should be made to integrate gender considerations into climate change policies and disaster response strategies at all levels, bolstering women’s adaptive capacity through improved access to education, healthcare, and financial resources, as well as mainstreaming gender-responsive climate financing mechanisms. Moreover, collaboration with local women-led initiatives and civil society organizations is key to leveraging existing networks and promoting women in decision-making processes. Lastly, addressing knowledge gaps within this nexus requires prioritizing the collection of sex-disaggregated data, empowering local women’s voices through participatory research approaches, and leveraging expertise from scholars in affected contexts, particularly from marginalized communities. In essence, when women surmount entrenched barriers to their involvement in decision-making processes, they are uniquely positioned to contribute to sustainable natural resource management, resilient communities and peace agendas in the face of climate change.

Aparna Bhatnagar, Maharashtra National Law University, Mumbai

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