How the climate crisis is driving violence against children – and what we can do about it

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The world’s largest conference on climate change, the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC is gathering this year in Egypt for its 27th session (COP 27) from 6 -18 November. 

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. While efforts to combat climate change are the focus of increasing attention and concern around the world, It is clear that a much more comprehensive approach is urgently needed across government, the private sector and civil society to respond to the United Nations Environment Programme’s warning that the world is not on track to protect people and planet. We are ‘far from limiting’ global warming to the goal of 2°C says UNEP’s latest report on global emissions.

COP 27 presents a call for greater ambition from countries to deliver action on issues critical to tackling the climate emergency – including children, whose present reality and futures are affected by climate change and must not be left behind.

Bess Herbert, Senior Advocacy Specialist at the End Violence Partnership has taken a deep-dive to explore how the climate emergency is affecting violence against children (VAC). Her recently completed thesis sought to review evidence on the associations between the climate crisis and VAC and explore emerging priorities for preventative and protective action. 

Below, she details how the climate crisis is intersecting with the global violence against children epidemic – driving up the threat and instances of many forms of violence across countries and contexts. Using the insights of her research and interviews with experts, she draws out what could be done to protect children in the rapidly unfolding reality of climate change. 

Key messages

  • The devastating impacts of violence affect over 1 billion children every year[1] – in every country and community.
  • There is mounting evidence that climate change is a powerful structural driver of violence against children, exacerbating the threat to children across multiple contexts.
  • More can and must urgently be done to identify links between these two defining and universal issues. These efforts are critical to inform a much-needed comprehensive and coordinated approach to simultaneously prevent and respond to the dual threats of climate change and violence against children – through policy, programmes and investment.

The climate crisis

The climate crisis is the defining human and child’s rights[2] challenge of our generation. It is also recognised as the greatest threat to health and wellbeing, particularly for children,[3] with impacts across all dimensions of society.

One billion children, including many of the most disadvantaged and those living on the climate frontline, are today at extreme risk from the impacts of climate change, while nearly every child worldwide is impacted by at least one climate hazard.[4] Their physical and physiological vulnerability and dependence on others to provide a protective and nurturing environment, means they suffer first and most. Without urgent action to tackle the climate crisis, children everywhere will experience the compounding and worsening effects for the rest of their lives.

Despite their huge stake in effective climate policies, so far, children are largely missing from climate plans and processes. Also missing are concrete measures to include their voices and address their interests, and in particular, to protect them from heightened risk of violence caused by climate change.[5] In most places children remain invisible to those developing policy and programmes. This is more than a missed opportunity. Their ideas and activism based on their lived experience is a critical part of a long-term, safe and sustainable solution.

The climate crisis is increasing violence against children

There is mounting evidence that climate impacts are exacerbating the risk of the many forms of violence that children face across many different contexts, threatening to undo hard-won progress.

A growing number of reports describe increased violence against children in and following fast and slow-onset climate disasters and humanitarian settings; in contexts of population displacement and migration, food scarcity and conflict, driving up levels of child labour, child marriage and FGM, parental violence, wider gender-based violence and emotional harm, among others.

The impacts last a lifetime, impair children’s resilience and ability to adapt to climate change, and undermine all other investments in their protection, health, education, wellbeing and livelihoods.

Read more about the ways that climate impacts are increasing violence against children in different contexts.

More can and must urgently be done to identify links between these two defining and universal issues, informing a comprehensive and coordinated approach to simultaneously prevent and respond to the dual threats of climate change and violence against children.

Turquoise line-01Sexual, domestic and family violence is especially high when families have lost everything and are forced to live in emergency accommodation.[6] Adolescent girls report high levels of sexual harassment and abuse in the aftermath of disasters, enabled by overcrowding in shelters, and lack of privacy, lighting and separate facilities for women and girls.[7] In this context families may be forced to make desperate decisions with long term negative impacts on children, such as withdrawing them from school so they can work or arranging an early marriage.[8]

Turquoise line-01In the Caribbean, 3.4 million people, including 761,000 children, were internally displaced between 2014 and 2018 by a series of catastrophic tropical cyclones - more than six times as many in the preceding five-year period. A review of the impacts found that girls were at heightened risk of dropping out of school and being forced into trafficking, marriages, sexual exploitation, and abuse.[9]

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How is the climate crisis driving violence against children?

Within any context, there are many factors that may increase or reduce children’s likelihood of neglect, mistreatment and violence. There is mounting evidence to suggest that climate change, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss may be powerful structural drivers of violence against children. Whilst the climate crisis does not appear to create new forms of violence, it does exacerbate pre-existing drivers, socioeconomic inequalities and harmful social norms. Without comprehensive and concrete action, the scale of violence against children will increase quickly.

The impacts of climate change place significant additional strains on households, and especially on the most vulnerable families. Stressors can include loss of livelihood, home, possessions, and resources; rising food prices and scarcity; increasing difficulty obtaining water; social upheaval and forced migration. These conditions push families beyond their capacity to cope and force them to make desperate decisions to survive that can have devastating impacts on children’s short- and long-term wellbeing, and significantly increasing the threat of violence children face in the home and community.

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Bangladesh is at extremely high risk from climate impacts, with high levels of severe poverty, and early marriage. Carrico et al report that when Bangladeshi families face environmental shocks, they cope by accelerating the marriage of daughters or accepting less desirable marriage proposals. In the context of scarcity, and underpinned by unequal gender norms, child marriage is seen as a way of securing the future of a daughter they can neither feed, educate nor protect.[10]

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In addition, the climate crisis is exposing more and more children to the high-risk contexts of conflict, displacement and natural disasters, and the situation is made worse as climate impacts erode family and community protective capacity, including social safety nets, protective services and other prevention and response measures.

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Child labour often increases after climate disasters. Flooding and landslides in Rautahat district, Nepal in 2017 affected 1.7 million people. As communities struggled to survive, local community workers noticed an increase in child labour, particularly in brick kilns and agriculture. Children had been offered high-interest loans in exchange for work but since they could not repay the money they became trapped in debt bondage.[11]

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Gaps in the evidence

Despite growing reports, there is little systematic research in this area. There is a pressing need for disaggregated data to improve understanding of children’s particular experiences in different contexts, to target interventions, and to help increase visibility of climate-exacerbated violence against children.

There is a lack of child protection information available for many of the countries most affected by the climate crisis, or for the most-affected communities in remote and marginalized areas.

There are also indications that violence against children may be increasing in ways that are so far poorly understood, such as following forest fires and in heatwaves; among child land defenders, climate activists, and Indigenous children; in relation to mining for ‘green’ industry and in localities surrounding extractive industries; and in levels of transactional sex and violent banditry, among others.

More and better data and evidence about the interconnections between the climate crisis and violence against children is needed. Evidence can help to make the case for inclusion of child protection in climate decision-making and policy development, strengthen advocacy efforts, and develop understanding of interventions that can be taken to scale. Nationally owned data and country-specific studies can be particularly effective in enhancing national leadership, understanding and action.

Worrying indications of scale

Despite evidence gaps, emerging reports indicate that the climate crisis may be powerfully driving a significant increase in violence against children. For example, global levels of child labour are increasing after a twenty-year decline[12], child marriage has doubled and FGM increased by 27 per cent in areas in the Horn of Africa[13], and risk-laden youth migration is a national emergency in Somaliland[15]. In each of these cases extreme climate impacts are contributing to the conditions where populations can no longer cope, with harmful consequences for children.

Climate impacts are predicted to dramatically worsen in the coming years, affecting hundreds of millions more children.[15] Experts are already witnessing the additional strain on already over-burdened child protection systems, and there is real fear that they will be overwhelmed by the growing scale of need, unless there is a substantial increase in available data to inform responses, scale up of programme implementation and much greater investment in protective strategies that address violence against children and climate change simultaneously.

Only by making visible the connection between violence against children and climate change, and addressing them together, in policies, planning and budgets, can we create safe environments for children, even as climate impacts worsen.

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UNICEF report that in the context of the drought and food crisis in the Horn of Africa, parents are marrying off girls as young as twelve with much older men to secure dowries to help support the rest of the family, to have one less mouth to feed, or to help the girl enter a more affluent household. Accurate data is difficult to obtain, but they estimate child marriage has doubled in the worst affected areas, accompanied by a 27% increase in FGM, seen as a pre-requisite for marriage. The crisis has also driven away community and social workers who were previously working to protect girls from child marriage and FGM.[16]

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Can we protect children in the climate crisis?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that nothing short of transformational change across societies in every sector and region of the world will be sufficient to avoid the worst climate impacts.

The only long-term solution to the climate crisis is a rapid decrease in greenhouse gas emissions to safe levels. Whilst global efforts to respond to the climate crisis are ongoing, for children on the front line already suffering the consequences, adaptation that strengthens resilience to climate impacts is as vital as mitigation. This must include preventative measures being put in place now to protect children from the heightened risk of climate-related violence.

A range of preventative and protective strategies have been identified and could be put into effect at scale to support children’s resilience and safety. These include strengthening protective systems and services and taking a localised, anticipatory, multi-sectoral and long-term approach.

Read more about the strategies to prevent violence and protect children in the context of the climate crisis. 

Governments and others have a responsibility to place children, their rights and voices at the centre of their climate planning and policies, and policies and must be held accountable for the protection of children. Children have done the least to create the climate crisis, but they carry the heaviest burden now and will do in the future. They are also well-placed and eager to play an active role in putting solutions into practice. Children must be at the centre of a transformative approach, that includes unprecedented investment in, prioritisation of and accountability to children. Strategies to protect and empower them must be urgently implemented at scale to enable children to play their full role in building a safe and sustainable future in a changing world.

Children have done the least to create the climate crisis, they carry the heaviest burden now and in the future.

More must be done to address the disconnect between the climate and child protection sectors – it remains a fundamental obstacle in protecting children. Climate partners, child protection, finance, education, health, and others must be brought together to achieve a comprehensive approach.

To achieve this, dramatically increased investment in child-focused climate adaptation that incorporates child protection measures as standard is vital.

Five things that need to happen right now:

1.  Dramatically increase investment in child-focused climate adaptation that includes child protection dimensions as standard practice

2. Accelerated, widespread implementation of strategies that prevent violence, protect children and support their resilience and empowerment in the climate crisis

3. Adopt a coordinated approach across all sectors to address the climate crisis and violence against children together – through policy, system strengthening , progammes and budgets

4. Empower and support child participation in shaping the climate and child protection agendas as a right and essential protective approach, ensuring involvement of the most affected and disadvantaged

5. Invest in research and data on the interconnections between violence against children and the climate crisis, effective preventative strategies, particularly addressing the worst affected countries and communities


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[1] Hillis, S., Mercy, J.A., Kress, H. and Butchart, A., 2017. Violence against children: Endemic, Detrimental, Preventable. In Violence Against Children (pp. 25-38). Routledge.

[2] The climate crisis represents a multi-dimensional children’s rights crisis, threatening most of the provisions in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, including children’s rights to protection from all forms of violence (article 19), life, survival, and development (article six), health (article 24), education (articles 28 and 29), and more.

[3] Watts, N., Amann, M., Arnell, N., Ayeb-Karlsson, S., Belesova, K., Boykoff, M., Byass, P., Cai, W., Campbell-Lendrum, D., Capstick, S. and Chambers, J., 2019. The 2019 report of The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: ensuring that the health of a child born today is not defined by a changing climate. The Lancet394(10211), pp.1836-1878.

[4] UNICEF, 2021. The Climate Crisis Is a Child Rights Crisis: Introducing the Children's Climate Risk Index. UNICEF.

[5] UNICEF, 2021. Making Climate and Environment Policies for & with Children and Young People, Climate and Environment Discussion Paper.

[6] Khan Foundation & ARROW, 2015. A Scoping Study. Women’s Sexual & Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) and Climate Change: What is the Connection? Dhaka, Bangladesh: Abdul Momen Khan Memorial Foundation (Khan Foundation)

[7] Bartlett, S., 2008. Climate change and urban children: impacts and implications for adaptation in low-and middle-income countries. Environment and Urbanization, 20(2), pp.501-519.

[8] Kousky, C., 2016. Impacts of natural disasters on children. The Future of children, pp.73-92.

[9] UNICEF, 2019. Children uprooted in the Caribbean. UNICEF Child Alert, UNICEF, New York.

[10]  Carrico, A.R., Donato, K.M., Best, K.B. and Gilligan, J., 2020. Extreme weather and marriage among girls and women in Bangladesh. Global Environmental Change, 65, p.102160.

[11] Islamic Relief Worldwide, 2020. Hidden in Plain Sight – A study of child labour and human trafficking in Rautahat, Nepal

[12]  International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UNICEF, 2021. Child Labour: Global Estimates 2020, Trends and the Road Forward. ILO and UNICEF.

[13] UNICEF, 2022. Child marriage on the rise in Horn of Africa as drought crisis intensifies 

[14] Bueno, O., 2019. “No Mother Wants Her Child to Migrate” Vulnerability of Children on the Move in the Horn of Africa.

[15] IPCC, 2022: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

[16] UNICEF, 2022. Child marriage on the rise in Horn of Africa as drought crisis intensifies 


Image: © UNICEF/UNI89986/Estey