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The female face of Southern Africa’s climate crisis

Women and girls are disproportionately affected by climate change. We must be relentless in our collective fight against inequality and patriarchy.

Schoolgirls in Harare, Zimbabwe, protest over child marriages. Aaron Ufumeli/TNH
Schoolgirls in Harare, Zimbabwe, protest over child marriages.

The global climate crisis is not gender neutral. Around the world, women and girls are on the front line of changing weather patterns – disproportionately shouldering the costs and burdens.

In Southern Africa, some 12 million people currently face severe food insecurity across nine countries as a result of drought, cyclones, and floods.

But it is women and girls who are particularly affected. They are more likely than men to be already living in poverty; they lack access to land despite dominating food production; and they carry the weight of caring for their ailing families.

This climate crisis is also eroding their basic right to safety and protection. It heightens problematic – and dangerous – gender norms that generate increased risks of violence for women and girls.

What to do?

As a start, all humanitarian action must reflect the specific needs and priorities of women and girls. We need to see more resources targeting prevention and response to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. At the same time, investments in climate change mitigation and adaptation must include a gender lens to ensure they are inclusive.

Futures threatened

Across the region girls have been dropping out of school to help their families find food, care for their siblings, or earn money. School drop-out rates are so high in drought-affected districts of Zambia that dozens of primary schools have closed.

Women and girls are also increasingly resorting to extreme coping mechanisms, including transactional sex, to support their families. And if families cannot find any other way to cope, they may resort to marrying their daughters off, in exchange for money, assets, or food.

OCHA, the UN’s emergency aid coordinating body, recently met with women in southern Angola on the border with Namibia to see how they were coping with the drought conditions.

One woman, Maria do Ceu, whose husband is a herder, said the drought was the worst she has ever seen. Most of her family’s livestock died before they could reach water and her girls have dropped out of school. They were too weak and hungry to attend, and spend all day collecting water and wild fruits to survive. They travel so far each day Maria fears for their safety, and that includes the threat of sexual violence.

In Mozambique, following Cyclones Idai and Kenneth, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) led assessments that showed increased protection risks for women and girls, including gender-based violence. Many women were separated from family and community networks and had lost their livelihoods and support systems. In a food security assessment by the NGO Plan International involving consultations with 140 women in Zambia’s Eastern Province, all of them said sexual abuse levels had risen in the current crisis.

“Whenever hunger strikes, girls are often seen as a burden by some communities.”

Sitengi Namuchi, a police officer in the child protection unit in Shangombo district in western Zambia, said reports of early marriage have been rampant since the drought set in late last year.

As Namuchi put it: “Parents are given cows and mealie-meal in exchange for their daughters, whom they consider an asset. The common age group is 13-16 years old… The main challenge is hunger. If hunger is catered for, desperation by parents will be reduced and more girls can go to school instead of being married off early.”

Early marriage is closely linked with early pregnancy, which can have severe and lifelong health consequences. Human trafficking is also increasing, according to assessments, including for prostitution.

Those who are fighting to protect girls face an uphill battle. Namuchi told OCHA that “whenever hunger strikes, girls are often seen as a burden by some communities. During rescue operations [to retrieve married children], the families argue with the officers, claiming that it is better to marry off the girls, so that the burden can be relieved from their side and the daughter can start providing for herself.”

The rapid rise in food insecurity, and desperate measures being taken by families, also risks reversing the significant gains made in the fight against HIV.

In several countries, women and girls report being paid more to have sex without condoms. Adolescent girls are already at greatest risk of contracting the virus, representing more than half of the people living with HIV in Southern Africa.

At the same time, rising hunger prevents many women and girls who are HIV-positive from keeping up with their treatment regimens. In Mozambique, the Ministry of Health reports that half of the HIV patients in areas affected by cyclones Idai and Kenneth, which battered the country in 2019, have stopped their follow-up routine with their doctors.

Florinda, who lives in one of the Cyclone Idai-affected areas of Mozambique explained: “Sometimes when I have nothing to eat, I do not take the medication because the next day I feel like I will pass out. My whole body starts to shake, my bones, dizziness, everything.”

Taking action

Amid this crisis, there is also hope. With their voices often ignored in global debates and policymaking, women and girls in some of the regions hardest hit by climate change are forming networks to support and inform each other of the best ways to advocate for their causes.

They are also protecting each other, as best they can, against the risks they are facing.

For instance, the NGO GenderLinks brings together women’s groups across southern Africa to advocate with policymakers and the media on preventing gender violence, as well as for climate justice and economic equality.

“Efforts to tackle the climate crisis must place women and girls at the centre.”

We are also doing our part. In recent allocations from the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), we have prioritised the protection of women and girls, and invested in emergency education to keep children in the hardest-hit countries in southern Africa in safe spaces to learn, grow, and hope. CERF has allocated $81 million to seven countries across southern Africa this year.

But we all must do more, and we must do it quickly.

Efforts to tackle the climate crisis must place women and girls at the centre. We must invest more in preventing gender-based violence and take a gendered approach to women and girls’ healthcare. Decision-makers taking on climate change mitigation – at family, community, national, and global levels – need to listen to the voices of women and girls and, most importantly, to invest in their futures.

And we must be relentless in our collective fight against the inequality and patriarchy that continue to enable women to be raped on their way to collect water, girls to be sold across borders into prostitution, and families to offer their daughters into marriage to survive when crisis strikes.

Without these actions, the devastation wrought by the climate crisis will be magnified. And the face of the crisis will be definitively female.

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