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The female face of the climate crisis impact in southern Africa

Monday April 05 2021
female pic

Around the world, women and girls are on the front line of changing weather patterns. PHOTO | FILE

By MATT LOWCOCK

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?

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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.

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. 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.”