Women environmental defenders in conflict-affected areas are overlooked in both human rights and peace and security agendas.
Female environmental defenders protect the environment and natural resources in conflict settings, and safeguard women’s participation in environmental management. However, key international human rights, gender and conflict governance instruments are failing to recognise them as agents of change. In this International Women’s Day blog, Peixuan Xie argues that changes are needed in policy and practice to protect women environmental defenders and support their crucial sustainability and peacebuilding work.
Environmental defenders, or environmental human rights defenders, are individuals and groups who strive to protect and promote human rights relating to the environment, by protecting the environment itself. They are the frontline in the non-violent defence of nature for community and indigenous living. Confronting invasive, extractive and polluting practices, they employ varied ways of engagement, including resistance, lobbying, litigation, documentation and journalism. In areas affected by insecurity or armed conflict, where the environment and its resources are under heightened pressure, and where governance structures may be absent, their work is all the more important.
Environmental defenders, gender and conflict
Environmental defenders are often confronted with violence, harassment and reprisals for their activities, especially in societies affected by conflict or where natural resources are central to insecurity.
In 2021, Global Witness released a chilling report on the murder and pervasive violence against environmental defenders around the world. Colombia, Mexico and the Philippines had the most documented killings, followed by Nicaragua, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Thailand, Indonesia and Nepal. Their findings revealed a marked overlap with countries currently experiencing or emerging from armed conflict. The correlation between the existence of conflict and the violent repression of environmental defenders is equally pronounced in the Environmental Justice Atlas, which documents ecological conflicts and community struggles for environmental justice globally.
Although the numbers do not speak of gender directly, a closer look reveals widespread female participation in environmental defending. Indeed, the gender-specific experiences of women’s engagement in non-violent protest against deforestation, to leadership in natural resources management, is increasingly well-documented by civil society and empirical researchers in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Such women-led activism has gendered roots and impacts. In conflict-affected regions, contested access to natural resources demonstrates causal links to gender-based violence. As women tend to shoulder more domestic responsibilities reliant on water, land, forest and other environmental services, heightened risks of violence occur when performing these tasks, or when they fail to meet these subsistence needs.
While a higher death rate is observed for male environmental defenders, violence against women defenders often has its origin in discriminatory or misogynistic norms, manifesting as defamation and stigmatisation, trivialisation, sexual abuse, threats of family separation and undermined access to justice. Evidence also points to the structural exclusion of female defenders in negotiations and decision-making, which further reinforces an often vicious cycle of silencing women’s voices.
In spite of their vital contributions, and the specific barriers they face, women environmental defenders in conflict-affected areas are remarkably overlooked in global agendas. Exacerbating the barriers they face is a lack of gender-sensitive recognition in international legal instruments and, consequently, the absence of stronger coordinated international efforts to support women’s environmental peacebuilding activism.
Recognition and protection: missed opportunities
There is, to be sure, a robust growth in the awareness around environmental defenders in human rights policy-making. In 2022, a special procedure on environmental defenders was created under the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). Most relevantly, the UN Human Rights Council Special Procedure on Human Rights Defenders (HRD mandate) has made references to environmental defenders, upholding their rights to be protected, associate, assemble, express opinions, protest, and access communications, remedy and funding. This echoed a 2016 UN Secretary-General’s report that took note of environmental defenders’ exceptional vulnerabilities.
The HRD mandate issued a thematic report on women human rights defenders in 2019. Groups in conflict settings, and those defending land and environmental rights are highlighted as two categories facing specific challenges and risks of surveillance, intimidation, violence and murder. Albeit scattered, these UN-level references can be considered as encouraging preliminary discussions around the intersections of defending the environment, gender equality and inclusive peace. However, protecting women defenders in conflict is not just about human rights mechanisms, but also about how we address gender in conflict management and resolution.
Under the HRD mandate, environment, gender and conflict are unevenly recognised as critical intersecting issues. In general, women human rights defenders and gender-specific risks are mentioned in all mandate reports and statements, while environment and conflict are acknowledged on a more ad-hoc basis. However, concrete provisions addressing their interlinked character are absent. For example, in the 2020 report on defenders in conflict-affected situations, environmental defenders and their potential to facilitate post-conflict recovery was ignored. The report also assigns women defenders a generic profile, without differentiating the various causes they come from or the specific risks they face, such as in post-conflict environmental activism.
Environmental management could serve as an entry point for women’s participation in post-conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding. As such, the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, which kickstarted the global gender mainstreaming movement for peace and security governance, is well placed to cover women defending the environment in conflict contexts. Unfortunately, to date the WPS agenda has been largely blind to gendered environmental (in)security.
The WPS agenda has no provision on human rights defenders, despite their critical importance to upholding a range of WPS issues under its protection, participation, relief and recovery, and prevention pillars. Nor does the WPS framework touch on the nexus of gender, conflict and the environment. Feminist security scholars such as Keina Yoshida have argued that the omission of environmental justice from the WPS architecture prevents its operational connection with environmental peacebuilding. Yet the overall response of the Security Council to these increasing calls is limited and at best rhetorical, concentrated in a 2015 preambular mention in resolution 2242, which merely stated that climate change is relevant to women, peace and security. Similarly, scrutiny of current WPS National Action Plans reveals a failure or reluctance of State Parties to integrate environmental degradation into their WPS concerns.
How did we get here?
The flaws in relevant international laws and norms give little room for optimism for meaningful international progress on women environmental defenders in conflict. But how did we get here? Part of the problem lies in narrow understandings of fundamental concepts around human rights (liberal), peace (as absence of war), conflict (armed) and security (militarised). Meanwhile, weak connections between the dominant conflict resolution paradigms and human rights frameworks have also played a role.
For many studying conflict, the environment is often seen as a mere variable, while environmental defending is only peripheral to armed violence, despite emerging evidence of the militarisation and securitisation of extractive activities, and its interactions with local actors. These interactions have become an increasingly prominent but overlooked conflict risk factor, with their gendered dimensions receiving scant attention. Consequently, the lived experiences of conflict for women defenders are left out of policy-making and discussions, together with their visions of environmental human, economic and cultural security.
The fragmentation of environment, human rights and conflict mechanisms further abets the absence of women environmental defenders in political agenda-setting and governance schemes. Beyond the flaws outlined above, the WPS agenda has long been criticised for its reservations on connections to human rights, while human rights treaty bodies make rare and rhetorical references to gendered peace and security. Together, these limited procedures are a far cry from the foundation needed to address intersectional themes, such as women-led environmental defending.
What are the implications and what’s needed?
When international mechanisms overlook women defending the environment in conflict settings, it undermines their participation while also placing them at greater risk of harm. The work of women environmental defenders safeguards access to ecoservices and natural resources. This access is critical to women’s economic livelihoods, in turn helping to prevent and mitigate conflict-related sexual violence. It therefore follows that excluding them from decision-making leaves the resource-violence cycle unaddressed in programmes designed to mitigate gender-based violence.
Justice and accountability processes play an important role in reporting and documenting rights violations in times of conflict and instability. If these same processes are not attuned to the experiences of environmental defenders, opportunities are lost to hold the perpetrators of environmental harms accountable, and to establish remedies for those affected. Women defenders, when supported by strong civil society, are well-positioned to leverage gendered needs, connect community and region-level activism and push for strengthened accountability in environmental protection and peacebuilding.
Beyond services, women also defend the equal female participation in resolving environmental conflicts. For environmental peacebuilding to be inclusive, the gendered and grassroots knowledge of women defenders and other community members must be taken into account in peace processes and resource management. Empirical data from a 2016 joint programme on Women, Natural Resources, and Peace, initiated by UN Women and UNEP, demonstrated a positive connection between female participation in conflict resolution through water management and sustainable peace and economic recovery. This echoed the findings of a 2013 UNEP study on the potential of women-inclusive environmental peacebuilding.
Advocacy for including women environmental defenders in major human rights and peacebuilding agendas calls for genuine change in both discourse and practice. At the UN level, environmental conflict needs to be recognised as a distinctive type of conflict that could have gendered impacts, while women environment defenders and activists must be recognised as agents of change in peacebuilding.
Stronger synergies should be nurtured, among others, between the Human Rights Defenders mandate, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the WPS agenda. Synergistic environment protection procedures should link women’s rights, environmental protection and conflict management, and ground the protection for women defenders in legally-binding treaty bodies.
As importantly, specific provisions on environmental defenders must be established on the national level, with dedicated accountability and complaints channels. In academic and activist spheres, public debates and discussions should include environmental defenders to help localise the framing and implementation of rights-based and gender-sensitive environmental peacebuilding.
Peixuan Xie is a German Chancellor Fellow at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt. Her research interest lies in the issues of gender, peace and security and their intersection with other critical dimensions of peace and conflict, such as business, human rights and humanity. Twitter: @peixuan_x