Malawi: Women reeling from effects of climate change

Malawi: Women reeling from effects of climate change

Date: October 29, 2012
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Blantyre, 29 October – There’s something strange about the weather in Malawi. September saw scorching, unrelenting heat normally associated with October. The days have been blurs of white hot sunlight, which make it almost impossible to do any laborious work outdoors and transform non-air conditioned offices into hot, sweaty horror cabins. The blistering nights are characterised by sleepless tossing and turning.

Climate change is surely behind these distorted seasons. A lot has been said on the subject but it has often relegated to the backburner. But now, the reality is hitting hard, its impact felt in different ways around the world.

Unfortunately, developing countries like Malawi – which largely depend on farming to survive – have been hardest hit because of changing rainfall patterns, floods, droughts and prolonged dry spells.

A 2009 Oxfam report points out that an increase in temperatures and intense rain in Malawi over the past 40 years has led to these problems. They have resulted in shorter growing seasons, poor crop yields, food shortages, hunger and the spread of disease in a country where almost a third already live in extreme poverty.

What’s worse, women are the most affected as problems due to climate change further exacerbate inequalities between the sexes.

True, to the educated urbanite who does not farm, has running water in her house and uses electricity (as opposed to charcoal or firewood) to cook, the impact of climate change is manageable. However, this situation has thrown the lives of the majority of women, in the rural or semi-urban areas of Malawi into disarray.

Malawian women play multiple roles. While husbands are out drinking local brew, playing bawo (a local board game played with seeds) or attending village council meetings, women are expected to cultivate the land, care for the children (and the entire family), provide food, water and firewood to ensure the home runs smoothly. If the family runs out of food or money, it is women who are tortured watching their children experience hunger pangs.

The harsh reality is that the unpredictable seasons have led to decreased crop yields, which means less food for both trade and consumption.

This means women must now cover longer distances in search of water and firewood. One woman in Mwanza district told me that previously rivers there flowed year round but today when the rains stop, rivers dry up, which means she walks further to collect the precious liquid of life.

Coupled with another long walk to fetch firewood and the time spent cultivating the fields, cleaning the home and preparing food for the family, this leaves very little time for women to engage in income-generating activities to bridge the gap.

Meanwhile, as the situation worsens, young girls are forced to stay out of school for longer periods each day. Even when they do make it to school on time, the amount of time and energy expended on vital household chores means they rarely have enough energy for their studies. Inevitably, this means more girls are dropping out of school and failing exams, thereby dragging them deeper into poverty and widening the gap between the girl and boy child.

Further, longer searches for firewood and water put women in danger of falling prey to men lurking in forests, ready to pounce and rape them. Far-fetched as this might seem, it is a reality for women in Malawi’s rural and semi-urban areas.

So real is this threat that when female condoms were first publicised, these women made headlines because many admitted to using the condoms to protect them from pregnancy and disease if they are raped by men while collecting wood and water.

There is yet another reason why the effects of climate change make women more vulnerable to HIV and AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Many women interviewed by media and non-governmental organisations admit to having extramarital affairs in order to bring in a bit more money for food, which is no longer as abundant or cheap.

This is all unquestionably devastating. Yet we can help mitigate these problems by introducing practical solutions, such as sinking boreholes in areas with little or no water supply or encouraging the use of solar panels, paper briquettes and stoves that use alternative sources of energy.
In addition, it is essential to train our people in modern farming techniques, provide funding for irrigation systems, grow drought resistant crops and think outside the box in terms of our husbandry.

It is also crucial to empower women, including through entrepreneurial training programmes and access to credit and lending. This is the only way forward for Malawi.

Lerato Manyozo is a freelance journalist based in Malawi. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.


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