sexual harassment and rape. Women and girls also face an even more serious risk with the onslaught of climate-induced disasters: organised trafficking.
Organised trafficking of women is emerging as a potentially serious risk associated with environmental problems. Climate-related disasters such as flood, drought or famine may disrupt local security safety nets, leaving women and children unaccompanied, separated or orphaned due to the erosion and breakdown of normal social controls and protections. This makes them especially vulnerable to the exploitation of human trafficking.
After a natural disaster, economic and security challenges may lead women who are in charge of households and livelihoods to seek temporary relief, shelter and amenable living conditions in acutely insecure contexts, making them potential targets for exploitation and human trafficking. Disasters that lead to increased physical, social and economic insecurity, and affect women and children, are among some of the push factors that give rise to trafficking. Therefore, insecure disaster regions must be considered as potential areas for such harmful activities.
In Nepal, an estimated 12,000–20,000 women and children – including some boys – are abducted or deceived into forced labour (ca. 30%) and brothel-based sex work (ca. 70%) every year. Economically impoverished mountain families are particularly vulnerable to being deceived with false offers of remunerated work and education for girls, ensnaring them into a well- established system of abuse, forced labour and sex work. Some of this trafficking occurs within national and regional spheres, but foreign destinations also include India, China and the Middle East. The negative impacts from disasters may be exacerbated by the probability of contracting HIV/AIDS. For instance, approximately 12–54% of women, boys and children trafficked under normal circumstances contract HIV/AIDS. They are aged typically from 7 years of age to 22 years and averaging 16 years. Trafficked children are at particular high risk and some surveys suggest that at least 15% of them experience other forms of violence on a weekly basis in addition to sexual abuse.
Great uncertainty exists regarding the possible elevated levels of exploitation during political conflicts or climate-related disasters. Estimates based on emerging data from anti- trafficking organisations such as Maiti Nepal suggest that trafficking may have increased from an estimated 3,000-5,000 in the 1990s to current levels of 12,000–20,000 per year. The data also suggests that trafficking may have increased by 20- 30% during disasters. Indeed, INTERPOL has also warned that disasters or conflict may increase the exposure of women to trafficking as families are disrupted and livelihoods are lost. Hence, targeted efforts to reduce exposure of women and children to exploitation and abuse must be supported and implemented due to increasingly extreme climatic events and rising populations and intensifying land use change, pressures and grabbing.
Women experience acute and differential impacts given the accelerated pace of climate change. These impacts exacerbate existing inequities in socially constructed gender roles, responsibilities, perceptions and skewed power relations that tend to disadvantage women. However, women also provide vital hope for successful adaptation through their
knowledge, experience, agency and unique role in agriculture, food security, livelihoods, income generation, management of households and natural resources in diverse eco-systems, and participation in a variety of socio-cultural, political-economic and environmental institutions.
Strategically placed for both dealing with impacts and adaptation, mountain women are at the front line in sustaining their environments. Learning from them and investing in them will provide a crucial stepping stone and catalyst for future adaptation efforts far beyond mountain regions. Imagine what is possible in terms of adaptation to climate change if women are given due recognition and are included in international development efforts and policy processes as strategically important development actors in their own right. Although women are among the frontline managers of the environment, often lacking equitable access to resources and disproportionately bear the risk of climate change, they simultaneously offer the greatest hope for the future.