The European Court of Human Rights’ Gendered Climate Docket: KlimaSeniorinnen and Duarte Agostinho

by | Apr 1, 2024

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About Angela Hefti

Angela Hefti is a Visiting Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program. She holds an LLM from Yale Law School and a PhD in Law on femicide as a human rights violation from the University of Lucerne in Switzerland. Her research interests include climate litigation in human rights courts, femicide, human rights and environmental law.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) just announced that the judgments in all three climate cases before the Grand Chamber will be issued on 9 April: Verein KlimaSeniorinnen v Switzerland, Carême v France, and Duarte Agostinho v Portugal and 32 Others. This is the first time the European Court of Human Rights has dealt with cases brought by people against European governments for their failure to stop global warming. It is also the first time that women and girls have played such a crucial role in fighting the climate crisis in a human rights court. These cases will shape the ways in which Europe deals with the climate crisis.

What’s more, the Court’s judgments will greatly affect the women and girl applicants on the basis of their gender. This underexplored aspect of their case should be considered by the Court. The KlimaSeniorinnen case is brought by four elderly women and an association composed of women above the age of 75. This makes them a group composed of people who are both women and elderly citizens. They argue that as elderly women they are particularly at risk of experiencing health related complications during heatwaves in Switzerland. The Duarte Agostinho case is brought by 6 children and young people, four of whom are young women or girls. They worry about the consequences of forest fires in Portugal on their health and future lives. In both cases, it is critical that the court takes account of the deeply intersectional, gendered and age-based impacts of climate change, as these closely interact with other social determinants of disadvantage.

Why does the applicants’ gender matter in the ECtHR’s human rights response to climate change? Girls in Portugal, like elderly women in Switzerland, experience climate change differently. Climate effects like forest fires and heatwaves can exacerbate the inequality women and girls already face in society. As UN Women’s new Feminist Climate Justice Framework posits, the climate crisis can affect women and girls both in terms of immediate impact, and in their ability to adapt to climate effects. For example, elderly women are likely to face sex-based biological differences in how extreme heat affects them. On top of that, they also experience gendered or socially constructed challenges, for example, when they face barriers in accessing healthcare, because they are stereotyped by medical patriarchy, leading to symptoms being dismissed or misdiagnosed. According to the CEDAW Committee’s General Recommendation No. 37 (2018) on gender-related dimensions of disaster risk reduction in a changing climate, heatwaves can also increase domestic violence rates, with elderly women being particularly at risk of such climate effects. Climate effects also disproportionately affect young women and girls. As the Duarte Agostinho children and young people argued, some of them also experience eco-anxiety. Girls with ecoanxiety may face particular stigma in receiving medical help, particularly those of Roma origin and girls with disabilities, as the CEDAW Committee pointed out in its 2022 Concluding Observations on Portugal.

The Court is now confronted with the fact that although climate change affects everyone, some people are more affected than others. Heatwaves and forest fires particularly affect women and girls. As women and girls have come forward to make their voices heard, the ECtHR should consider the gendered aspects of their case both in its procedural and substantive response to the climate crisis, alongside other intersectional forms of structural disadvantage that interact with gender.

See for more in Angela Hefti’s forthcoming paper, “Intersectional Victims as Agents of Change in Human Rights-Based Climate Litigation,” in Transnational Environmental Law.

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