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Joining the Dots: Lessons for peacebuilders navigating conflict, gender and climate change

A woman peacebuilder in the Bangsamoro © Zabra Siwa/Conciliation Resources

Climate breakdown is accelerating and its interaction with conflict and gender relations is evolving in complex and destructive ways. Drawing on the experiences of conflict-affected communities in Kashmir, the Philippines and Uganda, Alastair Carr and Amy Dwyer at peacebuilding NGO Conciliation Resources propose several ways in which peacebuilding programmes can respond. 

So far this decade, the planet’s temperature has reached record levels, pushback against women’s rights and gender equality has increased with drastic results in Afghanistan and Iran, while hugely destructive wars have erupted in Ukraine, Sudan and Israel/Palestine.

Peacebuilders around the world have watched these trends with concern, seeing how changes in conflict, gender and climate can interact in unpredictable and destructive ways, often across borders.

Drawing on work with its partners in Karamoja in northern Uganda, Bangsamoro in the southern Philippines and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Conciliation Resources’ new report: Gender, cultural identity, conflict and climate change shows how these connections work in practice, changing the lives of individuals, families and communities. It also shows how peacebuilders and their supporters can better understand, navigate and even harness the connections between conflict, climate change and gender to better address the challenges each presents.

Climate change disrupts gender relations but entrenches inequalities 

First off, we found that climate change has reinforced pre-existing inequalities, and made it more difficult for people to fulfil gender traditional roles. In Karamoja men’s ownership and exchange of cattle form a central part of cultural rites of passage and wedding ceremonies. Climate change has prolonged droughts and reduced livestock numbers and made it impossible for many men and women to marry. 

As a result, men and women face cultural stigma and even abuse. For one male pastoralist, it means that “in Karamoja, if you don’t have land or cattle, you’re not a man”. Meanwhile, women who cannot marry are ostracised and even made to wear necklaces signalling their lower social status. Lacking the option of marriage, these men and women often choose to engage in informal relationships which offer less protection for women involved. 

Secondly, gendered (usually high-risk, masculine) responses to climate change can exclude women and fuel violence in communities. In Karamoja and the Bangsamoro, younger men have responded to more frequent and sustained droughts by raiding cattle. In so doing, they uphold their roles as protectors and providers and reclaim lost manhood. Yet these cattle raids can cause lasting trauma and conflict. In Karamoja, pastoralist women described being beaten or sexually assaulted when they encountered raiders, or being forced to marry family members of their husband’s if the latter is killed in a raid. 

These kinds of competitive or conflictual responses to climate change can lead to cycles of retaliation and escalation. In the Bangsamoro, for example, prolonged scarcity of resources and competition among men to plant crops can lead to ‘rido’, a kind of clan/family feud that can quickly escalate, constituting one of the main causes of armed conflict across the region each year. 

Even where climate change has helped disrupt unequal gender norms or relations, it has often proved to be a double-edged sword. In the Bangsamoro, many men have migrated as livelihoods have been hit by the changing climate, leaving their wives able to take on new farming responsibilities and with it greater financial power. However,  in keeping with traditional gender roles and to maintain their social standing, many still have to look after large, extended families at the same time.

Masculine government responses sideline women

Government responses to climate change can be problematic. Male leaders on both sides of the Line of Control in  Kashmir, adopted ‘muscular’ and oppositional approaches to dialogue and negotiations over the Indus Water Treaty, emphasising strength, courage, assertiveness and control. This quickly led to tension between negotiators,  and created an environment where women and other marginalised groups struggle to be heard unless they adopt similar ‘tough’ demeanors. 

Similarly, the impacts of climate change have elicited ‘survival mode’ responses in Kashmir that tend to amplify masculine traits of physical strength and quick decision-making and therefore give men greater influence over the response. Women, as well as other marginalised groups, are often excluded from decision-making and consequently less informed about the climate change issues and responses.

It’s hardly surprising that leaders adopting such masculine approaches often fail to respond to the diverse, gendered needs, perspectives and values of their communities when confronting climate change. Following climate relocation programmes in the Bangsamoro, communities highlighted the  government’s ignorance of women and girls’ needs. Transitional and evacuation shelters frequently failed to provide adequate privacy for breastfeeding mothers and pregnant women or appropriate hygiene and sanitation facilities, fuelling mistrust within communities, between men who perceive it as their responsibility to protect female community members, and towards the state. 

Lessons for peacebuilders

All these connections paint a complicated and bleak picture showing how peace and gender equality are falling prey to both climate change and the responses to it. On the bright side, there’s lots that peacebuilders and climate organisations can do to harness these connections for the good. 

1. Adapt climate interventions to address underlying inequalities;

First off, we can orient climate change interventions to address the underlying inequalities and vulnerabilities that inhibit communities from fully mitigating and adapting to the pressures of climate change. This means working with peacebuilders and social protection initiatives to support and include marginalised people and communities through climate initiatives, ensuring they have what they need to combat climate change effectively, while exchanging indigenous, cultural and technical knowledge to inform approaches. 

2. Promote dialogue and inter-communal collaboration as part of climate responses 

Here, there are lots of entry points for peacebuilding and gender (and other) equality outcomes. Since climate change has no respect for borders, effective responses to it demand collaboration within and between communities and even countries. Peacebuilders are well placed to facilitate dialogue between conflict parties on transboundary natural resource issues, promote inclusive and climate-resilient governance and livelihood models, and de-escalate tensions directly linked to the environment. At the same time, they can open up safe spaces to reflect on and redefine more restrictive gender norms that pressure young men to engage in high-risk or violent coping strategies, or limit women’s agency in climate processes. 

3. Embrace intersectional analysis of conflicts to better inform climate-related interventions

But all of this relies on the development of collaborative and intersectional gender analysis of conflict in areas where climate change initiatives are taking place. This analysis is inherently participatory, pulling together individuals with wide-ranging experiences and expertise of conflict, climate change and gender inequality, but also the means to act on the analysis. Only then can we get a full picture of how the various expectations, relations and power dynamics that people experience shape responses to climate change at household, community and governmental levels. This is necessary if climate change initiatives are to identify and meet diverse community priorities, while influencing different actors’ response strategies in a way that is coordinated but also culturally sensitive. 

As the climate crisis worsens and our multipolar world struggles with geopolitical rivalries, proliferating violent conflicts and growing inequalities, collaborations between peacebuilders and campaigns to halt climate change can play an important role in identifying  connections, sharing expertise and working together to ensure interventions don’t work at cross purposes.

Alastair Carr is Policy Manager at Conciliation Resources, a UK-based peacebuilding NGO.

Amy Dwyer is Head of Gender and Peacebuilding at Conciliation Resources and co-author (with Gabriel Nuckhir) of the report Gender, Cultural Identity, Conflict and Climate Change: Understanding the Relationships (CR; Sept 2023).

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: © Zabra Siwa/Conciliation Resources. A woman peacebuilder in the Bangsamoro.

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