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Don’t ignore the one group that can make climate action happen

Women’s leadership can strengthen resilience to climate change

Ella Mubayiwa, 60, returned from England to claim a farm during Zimbabwe’s 2000 land redistribution programme Ish Mafundikwa/IRIN

Last year, the planet suffered the terrible impacts of one of the worst drought and hunger crises seen for decades. At the end of 2015, 30 percent of the global land area was in drought conditions, one of the highest figures since modern record keeping began.

As many in the humanitarian sector will already be aware, this deep and extended crisis was brought on by a disastrous combination of climate change and the 2015 to 2016 El Niño cycle. 

In Southern Africa, which was one of the hardest hit regions, countries faced their worst drought in 35 years. National emergencies were declared in Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe. In South Africa, eight out of nine of the country’s provinces, which collectively produce 90 percent of the country’s maize, were affected.

This time last year, 18 million people in Southern Africa were estimated to be food insecure.

While El Niño is a naturally occurring global weather cycle that takes place every three to seven years, many scientists conclude that it and climate change combined last year to create new and extreme impacts.

This was the year in which the Earth’s atmosphere experienced its highest ever level of greenhouse gases. It was also the hottest year on record, the third record year in a row. Last year’s El Niño was also one of the strongest events on record, as well as one of the longest lasting.

And as anyone working in the humanitarian sector will know, the effects of this drought have been devastating. The impacts of El Niño went beyond causing immediate hunger, jeopardising the longer-term prospects for farming and often wiping out livelihoods in the process. These long-term impacts of the crisis continue to affect many people today.

The most vulnerable

The drought felt across Southern Africa has had particularly damaging outcomes for women smallholder farmers, who make up 43 percent of developing countries’ agricultural labour force.

As with any kind of disaster, women are particularly vulnerable to the impacts. Being a woman will often mean additional work and social burdens, but lower status and fewer privileges when disaster strikes.

Negative “coping mechanisms” commonly employed by women and girls became much more widespread as a result of the El Niño drought. For example, women frequently put their children and husband’s nutrition first during disasters, and were often the last to eat, if there was any food left for them.

Women and girls reported needing to walk for several hours longer each day to find scarce water, thus missing out on education, income and rest opportunities.

In Malawi and Lesotho, reports from communities working with ActionAid, the anti-poverty NGO, indicated that some women were resorting to sex work to make ends meet, putting them at higher risk of violence and HIV & AIDS. Child marriages were also reported to be on the increase.

These trends threaten women and younger girls' well-being, and can further hold them back from taking part in activities that could improve their own status and human rights, their resilience – and that of their family and community – in the longer term.

Fortunately, Southern Africa is now in a recovery phase. This is a long and slow process, because the extended drought has taken a severe toll on communities’ incomes, livestock, land, savings, education, health, and more.

But with climate change worsening, we know that extreme weather events are becoming increasingly frequent and severe. Any recovery and rebuilding efforts must have an eye on the future, and the climate change impacts that will likely continue to affect the region. 

Recovery efforts as well as ongoing programmes in development and agriculture in the region must therefore prioritise adaptation, disaster prevention, and preparedness. Amid the crisis last year, a number of key initiatives can teach us important lessons on effective strategies to scale up resilience.

Women’s leadership

The critical importance of working with women in development as well as in crisis situations is becoming increasingly recognised in the sector, and ActionAid found this approach to be a key reason for success in both strengthening farmers’ resilience to drought, and in responding to the disaster.

"Women know what they want, what they need, and what can help them in times of disasters"

It is well recognised that those hardest hit during disasters are the most vulnerable sections of society, such as women, girls, and persons with disabilities.

The exclusion and disadvantages women and girls face long before disasters strike mean they often have unequal access to, and control over, productive resources such as land and services like education, health care, the ability to build assets and reduce risks, or to access post disaster relief. Disasters such as the El Niño crisis further entrench these inequalities.

But women are responsible for most of the food produced and eaten in many African countries, and are responsible for key household activities. Women often hold families and communities together, yet they are all too-often made invisible, regarded as dependent on males, and are left out of key decision-making processes. Sexual and gender based violence, which women already disproportionately experience across most societies, are often exacerbated and magnified during disasters.

Addressing chronic underlying vulnerabilities, including those faced by women, can therefore go a long way towards preventing recurrent and preventable crises.

Improved gender equality is proven to make humanitarian response outcomes more effective, in particular when recognising and promoting women’s leadership, so that they can address barriers within their communities as well as meeting women and girls’ collective needs and upholding their rights. Women know what they want, what they need, and what can help them in times of disasters. It is imperative that aid agencies talk to the women themselves and involve them throughout the programme cycles.

Furthermore, promoting and valuing women’s leadership is a profound way of fundamentally (and hopefully permanently) shifting the unequal power relations common across most communities.  

Women’s leadership should therefore be at the core of both community adaptation programmes, as well as disaster preparedness and risk reduction programmes. Programmes and policies must actively pursue the participation, empowerment, and leadership of women in addressing climate change impacts and future crises.


Agriculture plays a critical role in food security, livelihoods, and development in Southern Africa. Ensuring that agriculture is able to adapt to a changing climate is therefore a key component of ensuring rural communities’ resilience.

Agroecology” is a name for a set of agricultural techniques that apply ecological principles to agriculture, and which are proving to be one of the most effective resilience strategies available to smallholder farmers.

These techniques work with nature, increase biodiversity, and avoid harmful agro-chemicals that can impact the environment and human health. Agroecology is similar to “organic” farming, but specifically seeks to advance the interests of smallholder farmers, their rights over resources such as local seed diversity, and to strengthen their local economies.

In the face of erratic rainfall and weather patterns brought on by climate change, agroecology is proving to be a lifesaver.

The addition of organic materials improves soil structure, helping it to absorb more water and to retain it in times of low rainfall and drought, as well as to retain its structure in times of heavy rainfall and flooding. By increasing locally adapted crop diversity, farmers can also spread their risk and reduce the likelihood of crop failure.

With unpredictable and extreme weather events on the rise as a result of climate change, farmers, NGOs and policy-makers must open their eyes and minds to the importance of these approaches.

Joined-up policy needed

It’s clear that policies for adaptation, development, disaster risk reduction, and climate change must be more effectively integrated and coherent. As Southern African countries develop their National Adaptation Plans, ministries must reach out to a range of stakeholders and consider these cross-cutting lessons.

They must challenge their assumptions, break moulds, and adapt their policies to the new realities of climate change.

Women’s leadership and agroecology are two vital tools that are urgently needed in Southern Africa for strengthening resilience to the challenges of climate change.


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