In Malawi, women bear the brunt of climate change


It’s eight in the morning in Neno, southern Malawi, and Agnes Jumbe, a 30-year-old mother-of-four has been waiting for three hours to draw water from the village borehole. As well as the long queue, Agnes has other things on her mind.

As a widow, she has sole responsibility for running the household. After fetching the water, she will still need to collect firewood so that she can cook – even though she has no idea what her children will eat today.

“The erratic rains have resulted into bad crop yields and every day I wonder how I am going to get food for my four children as piecework has become scarce,” she tells Equal Times.

Unpredictable weather patterns have, in recent years, resulted into prolonged dry spells and severe floods in Malawi, making it difficult for Agnes to access the most basic necessities for her family.

According to World Bank data, 84 per cent of Malawi’s 16 million-strong population live in rural areas. As a result, millions of subsistence farmers are at the frontline of climate change.

Unreliable rains – either too heavy or none at all – stunt growth, ruin crops and result in poor crop yields. Food insecurity is rising and Malawi’s agricultural based economy – tobacco, tea, sugar and cotton are amongst its biggest export earners – is suffering.

But while no sector of society is unaffected, it is women like Agnes who are bearing the brunt of climate change.

“I travel long distances in search of water and firewood. Food has now become scarce and expensive,” says Agnes.

She said the drought which Malawi experienced late last year, and the floods that followed early this year resulting in over 200 deaths and displacing almost 110,000 people, have disrupted the livelihood of her family. On the small patch of land that she owns, Agnes is currently unable to produce enough food to see her family through the year, nor is she able to harvest any cotton, the crop she used to grow to earn some money.

A 2009 Oxfam report titled, The winds of change: Climate Change, Poverty and the Environment in Malawi warns that in the absence of food or an ability to sell crops, vulnerable women are resorting to sex-work and sexual favours to help feed their families, leading to an increased vulnerability to HIV/AIDS.

Dr Mary Shawa, the Principal Secretary for Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare in the Malawi government says: “The effects of climate change have increased poverty and reduced crop productivity and as a result many women now risk going into extramarital affairs in order to get food for their families.”

Emanuel Ngwangwa, the district forestry officer for Neno says that while the dynamics of climate change affect everyone, women usually suffer the worst consequences.

“Women have to travel longer distances in search of food, water and firewood, and this affects the agricultural productivity of their families as well as their health,” he says.

An ActionAid Malawi report titled Climate Change and Smallholder Farmers in Malawi reveals that changing rainfall patterns and higher temperatures have forced farmers to curtail their growing season and switch to hybrid crops such as genetically-modified maize, hybrid potatoes and cassava. However, some experts say this approach has done little to reverse the effects of climate change.

Lawrence Phiri, a project coordinator at the Community Partnership for Relief and Development (COPRED), a local NGO training people on sustainable land use, told Equal Times that poverty is the main challenge as its short-term effects force people to degrade the environment to survive.

“In the wake of climate change people have resorted to burning charcoal to survive, however, these ventures further degrade the environment and make vulnerable communities even poorer,” said Phiri.

Zeferia Banda, 35, is one of the women that has tried to cope with the affects of climate change over the past few years by planting hybrid seeds.

“I have tried to plant hybrid maize which matures earlier than our local breeds, but it doesn’t withstand the hostile weather,” she laments.


Girl children

Climate change is also having a negative impact on the future of young girls in Malawi. Many girls are being forced out of school for longer periods each day to help with vital household chores.

In addition food insecurity is having a significant impact on their health and growth, with many young girls from the poorest families having neither the nutrition nor the time to concentrate on their studies – that’s assuming they are lucky enough to be able to afford to go to school in the first place.

This is threatening to drag a whole generation of girl children into poverty, while widening the gender gap.

“Issues of climate change are cross cutting and should also deal with gender as women suffer the effects of climate change from childhood,” says Fred Simwaka, Principal Gender Development Officer in the Ministry of Gender, Women, Children Disability and Social Welfare.

Meanwhile, Malawi developed its National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPA) in 2006 relation to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the international treaty on reducing global warming and cope with altered weather patterns.

However, according to ActionAid Malawi the implementation of NAPA faces capacity constraints at a local level, and a lack of coordination amongst sectors.

"In addressing adaptation challenges, it is imperative that a multisectoral approach is taken, beginning at the community level with the smallholder farmers who are directly affected by climate change,” said the ActionAid Malawi climate change report. “These farmers need skills, knowledge and access to credit for the addressing short- and long-term needs of diversifying from maize into other crops".

Currently, aid agencies and the Malawian government are considering providing drought insurance to smallholder farmers. The Commodity Risk Management Group (CRMG) of the World Bank developed an objective indicator that could be used as a proxy measure of the exposure of Malawi’s maize production to drought, but it was poorly linked to crop yields, according to the Food Agriculture Organisation, which is now working on the idea.

Meanwhile Malawi is yet to ratify its climate change policy, however civil society organisations in the country are campaigning for a fair and binding deal in Paris this December. Whether this is achieved remains to be seen.