Climate Change as a Human Rights Issue: Commemorating International Human Rights Day

As the world and Zimbabwe in particular commemorates this year’s International Human Rights Day and concluding 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence, it must be noted that a new scourge on the rights of people has been climate change. Local and national governance systems have been key in exacerbating climate change which have resulted in exposing communities to human rights abuses. The link between climate change as a human rights issue with both climate and rights knowledge must be a new narrative worthy pursuing for any developmental State, hence the Government of Zimbabwe, Civil Society, Labour and the Church if serious about human rights issues, then climate change must be part of that conversation.

In Zimbabwe, as in many other countries, the stresses of climate change on basic human rights of people are already being felt. Cyclone Idai (loss and damage), forced displacements due to flooded Tugwi Mukosi Dam (climate migrations/refugees), heavier rainfalls, prolonged droughts, higher temperatures, increased crop failure, livestock loss and increasing food insecurity for their livelihoods are some of the immediate examples that comes to mind. The impact of climate change also exacerbates the risk of GBV as in periods of prolonged drought, women and girls make more frequent and longer journeys to obtain food or water, which makes them vulnerable to sexual assault. Some food vendors, farmers, borehole marshals or landowners at times insist on trading sex with women in exchange for food, water or rent; even attempts by women to negotiate providing labour in exchange for food are sometimes rejected, and these men with power insist on sex.

Some families resorted to marrying off their daughters to better cope with food scarcity. In families where men left home to seek a living elsewhere, women and children were left to fend for themselves, which made them vulnerable to violence and sexual exploitation. Poor harvests, livestock loss, lower earnings and food insecurity put pressure on men’s traditional role as providers. They often turned to alcohol to cope and can become more violent, especially in disagreements with their wives.

Zimbabwe is located in the sub tropics, which makes rainfall the most important climate parameter resulting in it having one of the most vulnerable rainfall patterns in terms of distribution across time and space. Dry spells and droughts are part of a normal cycle. Climate related hazards such as tropical cyclones, heat waves, flooding and extended droughts mainly affect vulnerable communities (rural) that have limited knowledge nor capacity to adapt to climate change challenges .

This climate reality is taking place in a young republic which has been struggling in ensuring that citizens especially woman and youths are safe and fully enjoy their rights. In Zimbabwe 70% of its population rely on rain fed agriculture which is dominated by women who struggle to ensure that household economies are sustained. With a diverse population of 67% living in rural areas whose livelihoods heavily depend on natural resources for energy or sanitation, the exposure of women to Gender Based Violence (GBV) has been witnessed and increased as these sources become depleted due to climate change. Both urban and rural have found themselves with limited choices and agency against GBV in a patriarchal and environmentally unfriendly communities as climate change effects becomes a base of survival of the fittest.

Climate Change and Human Rights

The fight against climate change is not only a struggle to keep our planet liveable. For many, it can be a direct cause of human rights abuses especially by an unresponsive political leadership. The high dependence on natural resources by citizens, added to social and economic inequalities results in lower levels of access to and control of key productive assets such as land, information and technology has made their battle again climate change and safe from abuse by both patriarchal and political systems a huge challenge.

As a result women are particularity worse affected by human rights abuses worsened by the effects of climate change due to them having lower adaptive capacity or safety nets in many cases and face greater barriers than men in responding and adapting to both climate. Women and youths may be less able to select climate change adaptation options in either agriculture or social service0 delivery such as water or energy in urban areas which expose them to vices such as Gender Based Violence with men being better placed. Lack of financial and resources amongst women are also another cause for increased rights abuses at household level as they battle to fight the effects of climate change such as protection and ensuring household food security or economy. Because of the labour intensiveness of agriculture, collapse of urban social services, it means that female headed households are most vulnerable as their rights are infringed as they compete with men to access the much needed resources such as borehole water in towns or firewood in both urban and rural areas. The effects on human rights within climate vulnerable communities has seen citizens suffering from the triple burden of poverty, violence and injustices both at household and local levels.


It is against this background that Reyna Trust as we commemorate this year’s International Human Rights Day, believes that not only does fighting climate change helps and contribute the mitigation efforts against human rights abuses, but also builds a sustainable foundation for economic empowerment and transformation of both citizens’ lives and communities. The involvement and capacity building of mainly women and youths in both climate change adaptation, good resource governance and mitigation strategies will create green and just communities whose outputs will reduce human rights abuses and improve their livelihoods and safety. Locating human rights within the climate change, justice and inclusion matrix should inform State and non-State actors on the relationships that makes climate change a human rights issue

Source: Reyna Trust

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