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Updated Mar 4, 2020

In southern Africa, natural disasters have become more frequent and intense, devastating the economies of the region. Agriculture in these countries has suffered setbacks after each flood and drought. This has arguably led to the worsening of inequalities in the past few years, as women and children are reported to be the most affected by these disasters.

According to Action Aid, an international charity that works with women and girls affected by poverty, more than nine million people in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe are facing severe food shortages following the worst drought the region has seen in thirty-five years in the aftermath of two major cyclones and flooding.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported in November 2019 that nearly twelve million people in Southern Africa, most of whom are women and girls, are food insecure as a result of below-average rains, cyclones, and extreme heat.


“Climate disasters are exacerbating existing inequalities and pushing developing countries further into debt and poverty,” says Mike Noyes, head of Humanitarian Response at Action Aid. “And women and girls are bearing the brunt of these disasters.”


“Climate disasters are exacerbating existing inequalities and pushing developing countries further into debt and poverty,” says Mike Noyes, head of Humanitarian Response at Action Aid. “And women and girls are bearing the brunt of these disasters.”

Somarelang Tikologo (Environment Watch Botswana), an environmental nongovernmental organization in Gaborone, Botswana says they are currently trying to educate women on ways to mitigate the effects of climate change. Boniface Olubayo, waste resource management officer at Somarelang Tikologo, says because women are mostly responsible for domestic farming in southern African countries like Botswana, they are heavily affected by climate change.

“Since southern Africa has been experiencing so much drought in recent years, most families have turned away from ploughing crops, because it has become less cost-effective, and this affects their economic status,” he says. “In Botswana, you will find that these are mostly single-mother-headed families that rely on agriculture.

“We want them to be in a position to harvest rainwater and store it for drier days to help save their crops, because if they lose their harvest there is little else to sustain them.”

In a case study on gender and climate change, Dr Agnes Babuguru writes, “Gender-differentiated impacts of climate variability are manifested in the unequal distribution of roles and responsibilities of men and women… Through socially constructed roles and responsibilities, women seem to bear the most burdens resulting from climate variability impacts.”

For example women were found to be responsible for more of the household chores than men, including fetching water and collecting thatching grass. Women’s burdens were more evident in their response to the impacts of climate variability. Women were found to have extra workloads when faced with climatic stressors, as they made efforts to cope with them. In attempting to increase household economic security, women turned to other sources of income such as selling fruit and second-hand clothing. This work was carried out in addition to normal household duties. The case study also revealed that working longer hours than the men affected them not only physically but also emotionally drained them, as they constantly had to worry about the well-being of their household members, especially children who depend on them.



Line of people fetching water in South Africa
People stand in a line holding plastic containers to get water during a water distribution by a humanitarian organization, Gift of the Givers, in the Bezuidenhoutville informal settlement, Adelaide on November 26, 2019. The Eastern Cape Province of South Africa is far from being the only South African province affected by this very long drought. The crisis is almost national, with dramatic consequences, for farmers of course, but also for schoolchildren and businesses. Guillem Sartorio/AFP


Safety and protection of women compromised

In developing countries, women are more likely than men to be living in poverty because they lack access to land, despite dominating food production and being mostly responsible for caring for their families. Women’s basic right to safety and protection is also being eroded as the climate crisis worsens gender inequality, leading to an increased risk of violence against women and girls.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has warned that the school drop-out rate is rising in Zimbabwe as the humanitarian situation is deteriorating, because children have to help their families find food, care for their siblings, and earn money. Natural disasters such as drought are known to lead to declines in school attendance, and school-age girls are particularly at risk of being pulled out of school to help support their families.

Women and girls are reported to increasingly resort to extreme coping mechanisms such as exchanging sex for food or money to support their families, and some families have resorted to marrying their daughters off in exchange for money, assets, or food. This has increased fear that these desperate measures risk reversing the significant gains made in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa.


The face of the crisis

“Efforts to tackle the climate crisis must place women and girls at the center,” argue Mark Lowcock and Natalia Kanem of the United Nations in an opinion piece published in The New Humanitarian on January 14, 2020. “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.”

Because women and girls are disproportionately affected by climate change, they say, “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.”

Despite recognizing the problem, it is barely acknowledged in key frameworks related to climate change, including the Paris Agreement. This oversight is a violation of the guiding principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, notably that the best interest of the child should be a primary consideration in any decision that affects them.


Leaders and their decisions will determine the impact to climate change

A UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report released in 2019 shows increasing evidence that climate change is contributing to higher temperatures in the Southern African region, and that these temperatures are exacerbating the impacts of drought and flooding.

The report details how climate shocks have destroyed livelihoods, leaving families desperate for food and putting children in mortal danger, as they now require urgent treatment for malnutrition. Children reportedly also bear close to 90 percent of the burden of disease attributable to climate change.

“The findings of this analysis are grim, and show that the climate crisis is further entrenching inequality, poverty and displacement across East and Southern Africa,” says Ian Vale, regional director for East and Southern Africa at Save the Children. “The climate crisis is happening here, it’s killing people, it’s forcing them from their homes, and it’s ruining children’s chance of a future.

“With these overlapping, unrelenting emergencies, the humanitarian system is also being stretched to breaking point. Repeated cycles of food insecurity from climate-related shocks are resulting in significant funding shortfalls and unmet humanitarian needs. We are reaching a crisis point in this region.”

Vale called on world leaders attending the UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) to take strong decisions to reduce the impact of climate change and ensure the lives and futures of children are protected. He also called on donors to increase and sustain funding for humanitarian assistance across East and Southern Africa, with initiatives linked to existing measures to increase children’s protection, access to health and education, and livelihood support. Most importantly, he said, children need to be actively involved in international, national, and local efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Save the Children also urged the international community to take greater steps to tackle the climate crisis and its impact on children around the world, “which is vital for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, the 2030 Agenda Pledge to Leave No One Behind, and ultimately the rights of all children as outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. As part of this, the international community needs to work with governments in East and Southern Africa and across the globe to support the development and implementation of national action plans on climate change.”


 “Southern Africa is warming at twice the global rate.”

— IPCC Special Report: “Global Warming of 1.5°C”


Our children will bear the burden

UNICEF reports that children are the most vulnerable to diseases that will become more widespread as a result of climate change, such as malaria and dengue fever. Close to 90 percent of the burden of disease attributable to climate change is borne by children under the age of five. As extreme weather events such as cyclones and heatwaves increase in frequency and ferocity, they threaten children’s lives and destroy infrastructure critical to their well-being. Floods compromise water and sanitation facilities, leading to the outbreak of diseases such as cholera, to which children are particularly vulnerable.

“Children are the least responsible for climate change, yet they will bear the greatest burden of its impact,” says UNICEF. “Droughts and changing global rainfall patterns are leading to crop failures and rising food prices, which for the poor mean food insecurity and nutritional deprivations that can have lifelong impacts. These also have the potential to destroy livelihoods, drive migration and conflict, and cripple opportunities for children and young people.”

Mithika Mwenda, executive director of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA), said at the eighth Climate Change and Development in Africa Conference (CCDA-VIII) in 2019 that, “As the most vulnerable region and communities at the frontline of climate crisis, we should not wait for others to shape the logic and narrative on climate change, as they will do it to shape their geopolitical interests.

“The governments and African citizens should be at the frontline of the evolving discourse on climate justice, which embodies us as a people.”

Climate change threatens sustainable development, especially in Africa, the continent most vulnerable to the impacts of this crisis. According to experts, no continent will be struck as severely by its impacts as Africa, thus African governments must work together to strengthen their response to climate change.

And for effective policies to be formulated, it is imperative that they are informed by the voices of women who deal with the consequences of climate change, and that policy makers take cognizance of existing gender imbalances and vulnerabilities.


Kago Komane is an investigative journalist based in Botswana. She specializes in health, environment, and human rights issues affecting southern Africa. Twitter: @kago09

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