International Women’s Day: The Disproportionate Impact of Environmental Crime on Women

8 March 2024

For International Women’s Day, we’re looking at how environmental crime disproportionately affects women across the world – and the injustice of this, given it is a crime predominantly undertaken by men.


Gender inequality is still undeniably apparent in all countries across the world (even those that rank the highest for gender equality come up short when you delve a little deeper). It affects women in an untold number of ways, but environmental crime serves as a particularly stark lens through which to examine and understand the extent to which gender disparity continues to pervade society and impact women on a global scale.

To begin with, environmental crime correlates strongly with gender-based violence. For example, the illegal logging, charcoal and mining industries across countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia and Peru are also strongly associated with sex trafficking, with women and girls brought into mining and logging camps for the benefit of labourers. Women who act as environmental defenders and activists against the destruction or degradation of their land, natural resources and communities are also often targeted with sexual violence as a means to suppress them.

Environmental crime also drives the climate crisis. Illegal deforestation, for example, removes important carbon sinks, contributing to increased carbon in the atmosphere and global warming. It's widely agreed that climate change is not gender neutral, instead, exacerbating and amplifying existing gender inequalities. There are physiological as well as sociological reasons for this: in many regions of the world, women depend more on natural resources, which environmental crime depletes (women represent roughly 70% of the agricultural labour force in developing countries, for example).

What’s more, in many low- and lower-middle income countries, women bear a disproportionate responsibility for securing natural resources to support their families. This includes things like water, fuel and food, and when these resources are jeopardised by environmental crime, climate change or extreme weather conditions caused and driven by environmental crime, it is women who are put under greater pressure to secure them.

This includes requiring them to walk longer distances to fetch water when local sources dry up, often putting them at greater risk of sexual violence en route; requiring girls to drop out of school to help their mothers – or be married off early to reduce the number of mouths that need to be fed (child marriage is considered an act of gender-based violence) – even inducing them to sell organs to organ traffickers in a desperate attempt to support their families, as has been observed in refugee camps following extreme weather events. A potent example is the sexual abuse has been observed in the illegal fishing industry across southeast Asia and southern and eastern Africa, including “fish for sex” arrangements whereby fishermen withholding the sale of fish to women (who are largely responsible for securing food for their families) if they refuse to engage in sex.

Physiologically, women also suffer the effects of climate change and extreme weather conditions more than men. More women than men die from extreme heat, for reasons including differences in how they sweat, their ratio of body surface area to mass, their cardiovascular systems, and – sociologically – their greater propensity to be physically active in the home and to live alone. Extreme heat is also linked to the increased incidence of stillbirth and diseases like the Zika virus, malaria and dengue fever, which can cause poor maternal and neonatal outcomes.

The relatively higher amount of body fat on women as opposed to men also means that they retain toxic chemicals (stored in fat deposits) in their bodies for longer, so chemical run off and air and water pollution from environmental crime activities like illegal mining, waste dumping or the use of illegal pesticides affects them to a greater extent than it does men. Furthermore, the rapid physiological changes that women may undergo at certain stages of their lives, like pregnancy, lactation and menopause, tend to increase their vulnerability to health damage from toxic chemicals.

It seems even more unjust, then, that women are less likely to be the perpetrators of environmental crime than men are (consider activities such as poaching, illegal mining and illicit logging). Furthermore, despite being disproportionately affected by environmental crime and climate change, women are severely underrepresented when it comes to environmental policy and protection (in line with a general lack of representation in - or active exclusion from - policy-making and decision-making processes globally). This is despite the role of women in environmental management and conservation having long been recognised by experts, thanks to their, often, deep knowledge of local ecosystems.

In fact, that they are so impacted by environmental degradation speaks to their unique perspective and expertise that they have to offer when it comes to being part of the solution. Women can and should play a pivotal role in protecting the environment; of the world’s remaining biodiversity, for example, 80% is within Indigenous lands, whose peoples have a unique relationship with the land, protecting and respecting it, and in which women play a key role (many Indigenous Peoples even have matriarchal structures).

Indeed, this is recognised by the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in the context of the importance of gender parity and women’s empowerment for the achievement of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, stating that "gender equality is not only a fundamental human right but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable world."

Written by Olivia Dakeyne, Associate Director of Insight, Themis

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