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The ‘Future We Want’ – On the Importance of Recognising Women Refugees in the Sahel at the Rio +20 Summit

Today is ‘World Refugee Day’. It is also the day when world leaders, NGOs, and other groups gather in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to discuss how sustainable development can be achieved by joint efforts. The meeting runs with the slogan ‘the future we want’. One of the challenges faced by Rio +20 is the situation of environmental refugees and migrants as well as increased conflicts due to environmental degradation. The Sahel is an example of a region facing a combination of the effects of climate change, political unrest and human insecurity.


Source: the BBC
The Sahel stretches across Africa from the West coast to the East.

The Sahel region is currently facing a humanitarian crisis. About 18 million people are at risk of food and nutrition insecurity. The environmental crisis in the region also carries the risk of violent conflict resulting from among other things scare resources. This in combination with social and economic factors are driving forces behind conflicts between populations. In the Sahel region farmers from the northern parts of the region are ‘forced’ towards more southern parts that are already populated. This in turn leads to competition over land and can in the worst-case lead to violent conflict. [1]. Women and children are especially vulnerable to these conditions and face high levels of insecurity both due to lack of nutrition and food and from conflict related causes.

The Sahel is the semi-arid area south of the Sahara desert in Africa. During the last years rainfalls have become less frequent and this together with human activities such as over-cultivation and collection of firewood is slowly turning the area into desert. The situation has been difficult over the last half century where increased population growth, together with the desertification, land degradation and misplaced development policies have enforced the deterioration of the soil and water resources. Estimates say that about 60 percent of the population are employed within the agricultural sector and their situation is difficult in the circumstances. This has caused people to come up with solutions and innovations to make their life work. These include diversification of crop production and harvesting of wild fruits, but also turn to alternative occupations such as raising cattle and doing business. Some of these solutions demand migration to areas where the situation is more beneficial, often to urban areas or even other countries. [2]. To migrate to other areas where the conditions are a bit better will improve the situation temporarily but with time there is risk that the new area reaches the state of the previous and so the circle of degradation begin again. [3]. In the West African parts of the Sahel women are known to migrate to larger extents than men. Women therefore make up the majority of national as well as international refugees and migrants in the area. [4]. In the Sahel area it is common that women travel long distances daily to collect water from the scarce resources that are available [5].

Mali is a country in the Sahel where the northern areas are facing political instability and conflict and the southern parts are affected by the drought of the Sahel region. People from both areas are searching for safer places to settle, both within the country and in neighbouring states – Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, Togo, Algeria and Guinea. The receiving countries are struggling with water shortages and food insecurity resulting from the drought and from the intake of climate refugees. [6]. The conflict in the northern part of the country has during the last year forced almost 300,000 people to seek refuge; a majority of these persons are women and children [7]. Margot Wallström, the United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict has stressed the importance of women’s participation in the solution of the conflict and that the crimes of rape must be taken to court. However, the situation for Malian refugees, and for environmental refugees across the Sahel is urgent. Women are facing increasing risk of sexual violence and rape when they are travelling to refugee camps. In the camps the regulation is often poor and the situation of women is also insecure with regards to gender-based and sexual violence [8].

Environmental changes and its impact on food security are intensifying existing political conflicts in the Sahel and placing women’s particular needs at the forefront of those challenges. Organisations representative of the international community are beginning to address the implications of the rising number of displaced and vulnerable people and some are recognizing how to tailor responses that account for needs of both men and women. One meeting in Rio will not solve the situation. A strong signed and ratified document can have positive effect for the future situation in the Sahel region as well as in other areas across the world that are challenged by environmental degradation. However, the situation for the people in the Sahel is urgent. There is no time to wait as climate change is on a quick course. As women and men have very gendered experiences of climate change, displacement and insecurity. It is thus important that meetings such as the Rio +20 summit take these gendered experiences into account. The suggestions should have the perspective of environmental refugees in light and most importantly take a holistic gender perspective, and also consider what can be done today to better support migrants in finding safe refuge and ways back peaceful homes now. The future must begin now!

“Climate change, global warming and the resulting environmental pressures are among the defining challenges of our times. Climate change interacts with other global mega-trends that are conditioning the future of our planet, including population growth, urbanization, water scarcity, food and energy insecurity, and volatile commodity prices. This is adding to the scale and complexity of human mobility and displacement, and changing their patterns.

Owing to this interaction, conflict and competition over scarcer natural resources will push more and more people to flee their homes or relocate to other areas. They will become displaced within their countries or across national borders. Environmentally induced migration and displacement could reach epic dimensions: predictions about the scale of such movements range from 25 million to one billion people by 2050″. [9]


Source: UN Photo/John Isaac
Many women in this country are working hard to stop the encroaching desert. During the dry seasons for example, they prepare the ground pounding it and terracing it to control erosion and to catch the water when the rains finally come. Then they have good crop to sell in the towns for cash, which they use for their families and invest in other activities for their communities.

By Lisa Eriksson – Make Every Woman Count



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