Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Responding to gender-based violence in environmental projects

This blog is written by Meredith Perry, design lead for the Catalyst Project, part of the team implementing the RISE Challenge.

Research[1] demonstrates that when environmental conditions worsen, the treatment of women and girls worsens.  

Agriculture has significant impact on the environment that can increase environmental degradation. As communities in environmentally-precarious situations face stress, gender-based violence (GBV) is a negative coping strategy that perpetrators sometimes use to reassert control over women’s bodies and minds. GBV is often an effort to enforce gender norms and roles during unstable times. 

RISE Challenge: A call to action

To begin to address GBV in environmental projects, USAID recently launched Resilient & Inclusive Sustainable Environments (RISE): A Challenge to Address Gender-Based Violence in the Environment. With over $1 million available in challenge grant funding, the RISE Challenge calls attention to this problem and seeks to inspire organizations to propose promising or proven interventions that prevent and respond to gender-based violence in programs that address the access, use, control, and management of natural resources. 

Ultimately, the RISE Challenge’s goal is to test the success of interventions and policies that seek to reduce GBV in natural resource stewardship, and then to communicate evidence of the high-performing interventions and policies so that organizations across the development industry can incorporate them.

The RISE Challenge is one of USAID’s first steps to convene the environment and gender equality communities to address both concerns. 

Linkages between GBV and the environment

GBV remains a widespread, global problem with the same root cause: inequitable gender norms.

GBV in agriculture and environmental sectors does not respect professional status or follow class lines––women experience GBV whether they are trading sex for fish in the informal markets near Lake Malawi[2] or whether they are professional women fighting sexual harassment at leading environmental organizations.[3]

When young women are pressured into early marriage by their families as a result of failing harvests during a drought[4] or older widows lose their family homes to land grabs spurred by the same conditions,[5]  they are victims of gender-based violence.

Women on either side of conservation efforts suffer as well. For example, research published by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) noted "reports of women being beaten, verbally and sexually harassed, raped, and killed by forest guards or owners when collecting forest products from protected areas or private forests."[6]

Conversely, women environmental human rights defenders advocating for greater conservation and land preserves also experience specific gender-based threats. Before Honduran indigenous land rights activist Berta Cáceres was killed in 2016, Front Line Defenders, a human rights organization working to protect her and support her work, noted that she received threats of rape and violence to her family.[7]

Clearly, this problem is wide-ranging, pervasive, and complex. In other contexts, however, preventing and responding to GBV has unlocked opportunities for enhanced environmental action, as well as for women’s and community empowerment. The RISE Challenge is an opportunity to concertedly respond to GBV in environmental programs and to scale-up prevention efforts that address gender inequities.

GBV prevention in USAID programming 

The RISE Challenge is complemented by USAID’s efforts, within the U.S. government's Feed the Future initiative, to integrate GBV prevention and response into agricultural programming.

Other development and humanitarian sectors offer positive examples for the environment sector to adapt. Over the last decade, the global health sector––in addition to treating HIV/AIDS, maternal and child health, and neglected and tropical diseases––has developed strategies and practices to treat and intervene in GBV present alongside the initial health concern. USAID’s Passages Project, supported by the Bureau for Global Health and the Office of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, and its sister project, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Learning Collaborative to Advance Normative Change, both offer resources and models for how GBV and social norms programming might be adapted not only in new geographies, but in new sectors. 

The RISE Challenge will announce winners in December 2019. After selection, the winners will implement their solutions from 2020-2022. To learn more and apply, please visit: www.competitions4dev.org/risechallenge.


[1] Much of it commissioned by USAID and conducted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) under Advancing Gender in the Environment (AGENT), a program aimed at increasing the effectiveness of environmental programming through gender integration.

[2] Marc Silver, “The Dark Secret Of Lake Malawi: Trading Sex For Fish,” NPR, 28 June 2019 https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/06/28/736296041/the-dark-secret-of-lake-malawi-trading-sex-for-fish

[3] Genevieve Belmaker, “Calls for change in handling abuse allegations at top conservation group” 2 April 2018, https://news.mongabay.com/2018/04/calls-for-change-in-handling-abuse-allegations-at-top-conservation-group/.

[4] Julie Freccero and Audrey Whiting, Toward an End to Child Marriage, June 2018, Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley and Save the Children https://www.law.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Toward-an-End-to-Child_Marriage_Report_FINAL.pdf.

[5] Friends of the Earth Europe. (n.d.) Land & land grabbing. Available at http://www.foeeurope.org/land-grabbing.

[6] Meilinda Wan, Carol Colfer, and Bronwen Powell. (2011) Forests, women and heath: opportunities and challenges for conservation. Available at https://www.cifor.org/publications/pdf_files/articles/AWan1101.pdf

[7] “Indigenous Rights Defender Berta Cáceres Murdered” Frontline Defenders, published 3 March 2016, accessed 15 August 2019, https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/statement-report/indigenous-rights-defender-berta-caceres-murdered.

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