When researchers began looking at efforts by a development charity to improve resilience to climate change among rural communities in eastern Chad, they found something they hadn’t anticipated.
Many of the women they interviewed talked not about drought or failed crops as their biggest worry but instead about the widespread violence they and other women faced.
Child marriage and female genital mutilation was common, they said, and about 35 percent of women reported being beaten, raped or psychologically abused by their husbands. Other women saw their daughters who refused forced marriage have their throats cut.
In that part of Chad, “violence is the status quo for every woman,” said Colette Benoudji, who helps gather lessons from the Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) programme in Chad and who also coordinates Lead Tchad, a sustainable development group in the country.
But when Benoudji, and Virginie Le Masson, a BRACED co-worker and researcher with the London-based Overseas Development Institute, took what they had discovered to the development charity working in the area, workers were hesitant to address it.
“The NGO said this subject is very taboo. You can’t talk about this in Chad,” Benoudji remembers.
But after interviews with about 140 women, “we had this huge amount of horrific information,” Le Masson said. The question became: “What is your mandate to do anything about violence against women?”
The problem, Le Masson said, is that the violence against women “reinforces people’s vulnerability to other risks” including climate change – a problem other researchers at the Adaptation Futures conference this week in Cape Town said they also see in their work.
In South Africa, for instance, fear of crime and sexual violence keeps some women from leaving their homes to find work or to sell products they make, said Sheona Shackleton, a rural development expert and deputy director of the African Climate and Development Institute.
Threats to women are “not raised enough as a barrier to building resilience,” she said.
Deborah O’Connell, an Australian researcher on climate risks and resilience at CSIRO – the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation – said the threat of violence holds many women back as they struggle to find ways to deal with ever-changing climate threats.
“You can’t access your creativity when you’re living in fear,” she noted.
So what did the Chad researchers do with the personal stories they had gathered on violence against women? They worked to shift the parameters of what counts as resilience in their work, to take into account the risks women face, Le Masson said.
But they also took their findings to Chad’s minister of women, someone they had already alerted to their research efforts on the subject.
In a country where violence against women officially is illegal, the minister then invited representatives of other government ministries, as well as other high-ranking women in government, to a workshop, where she shared the findings.
Journalists in Chad picked up the story and the country’s Prime Minister reported he was shocked to hear the personal tales of women in his country who had suffered such violence.
Not everyone was impressed by the researchers’ work, of course. One police commissioner called the data lies, Le Masson remembers, and said the next time the researchers went to the field one of his guards would have to accompany them to keep an eye on them.
Like many resilience-building efforts, the story doesn’t have a clear outcome. A month after she presented the data, the women’s minister left her job, and a successor lasted only a brief period in the position, leaving no clear champion to take the issue forward.
If the minister had stayed in office, “I am sure we would change many things,” Benoudji said. But for now, in Chad, there remains “a gap between the legal frameworks (prohibiting violence against women) and what we see in reality,” she said.