Climate change puts women and girls in Malawi at greater risk of sexual violence


Credit: UNICEF/Norania
  • Opinion by Tsitsi Matekaire, Tara Carey (London)
  • Inter Press Service

Climate change exacerbates sexual and gender-based violence in many ways, pushes people further into poverty, fuels conflict over resource depletion, forces migration and exacerbates pre-existing gender discrimination. All these and many other forces are working together to put vulnerable women and girls at greater risk of sexual abuse and exploitation.

A recent Cambridge University study analyzing scientific literature on extreme weather events found that gender-based violence — such as sexual assault, intimate partner violence or human trafficking, both during and after disasters — are recurring issues in studies around the world.

In Malawi, the climate crisis is already causing more erratic and extreme weather, causing chronic water, food and financial insecurity for millions. Over the past twenty years, droughts and floods have increased in intensity, frequency and magnitude, causing devastating environmental, social and economic damage.

About 9 out of 10 people in Malawi depend on rainfed agriculture, and more than half of the population is food insecure. Rising temperatures, unreliable rains and extreme weather events such as cyclones affect food production and costs.

The economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war against Ukraine, which has disrupted global supplies of grains and fertilizers, have pushed prices up further.

According to World Bank data, 82% of Malawi’s population lives in rural areas, and women account for 65% of smallholder farmers, leaving them particularly exposed to food insecurity. Women are often dependent on natural resources and many earn their living in the informal sector, which makes them less resilient to economic and environmental shocks.

Climate change is a threat multiplier

Climate change isn’t just an environmental problem — it acts as a “threat multiplier” interacting with social systems to increase systemic inequalities. So while everyone is being affected by the ravages of the climate crisis, the vulnerability of individuals varies according to their gender, geography, class, ethnicity and age.

Global warming and environmental damage are gender-related as women’s adaptability is hampered by their social status and limited income, education and resources. Women are more likely to live in poverty than men and generally have less education, decision-making power and access to finance.

When the yields of the crops are reduced, the subsistence farmers have little or no surplus produce to sell to earn money for the purchase of basic necessities such as medicines, clothing, sanitary products, schooling and agricultural inputs to strengthen agricultural production.

The inability to produce enough food to feed their families or pay for other essentials puts great pressure on women to find alternative sources of income. This makes them more susceptible to sexual exploitation, which can take various forms, such as transactional sex in exchange for goods, and being trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation.

Financial problems in the family also disproportionately affect girls, who are often pressured to drop out of school to do housework and find paid work. This in turn increases their susceptibility to exploitation, including false promises from traffickers about jobs and education abroad.

In addition, girls are more likely to experience child and forced marriages, as parents may view marriage as a coping strategy to reduce money problems and protect daughters from sexual violence. It is estimated that approximately 1.5 million girls in Malawi are at risk of becoming child brides as a direct result of climate change.

There are other ways existing gender roles interact with climate change and sexual violence. In Malawi and in sub-Saharan Africa, collecting water and firewood is generally regarded as the responsibility of women and girls. Due to a lack of clean water and depletion of natural resources due to environmental degradation, they often have to travel further afield to acquire scarce resources.

Not only does this consume precious unpaid time that could be spent on useful activities such as monetization or schooling, but it also increases their exposure to rape and assault. And in some cases, women and girls face sexual exploitation and abuse by those who control access to limited natural resources, such as at water collection points.

The system abandons victims of sexual and gender-based violence

For the vast majority of victims of human trafficking, sexual violence and exploitation, justice is not served. Caleb Ng’ombo leads People Serving Girls at Risk (PSGR), a frontline organization in Malawi working to end trafficking for sexual exploitation, prostitution and child marriage.

Caleb explains: “Victims are being abandoned by Malawi’s criminal justice system. Few cases go to court. Those who do are plagued by multiple delays and perpetrators are rarely punished.”

“Child marriage, sexual exploitation and human trafficking have devastated the lives of thousands of women and girls across Malawi, and the worsening climate crisis poses more risk. The government should not turn a blind eye to gender-based human rights violations. Addressing these issues must be at the heart of climate response, including disaster and adaptation planning.”

Malawi is a country of origin, transit and destination for sex trafficking, and the climate crisis is fueling it. PSGR and international women’s rights organization Equality Now have filed a joint complaint with the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) highlighting that the Malawi government’s poor implementation of anti-trafficking laws is preventing girls from be protected from sex trafficking.

Malawi’s criminal justice system needs to be more responsive to the realities and needs of survivors, including protecting them from further exploitation and ensuring that support services are readily available.

Addressing this crisis effectively requires a gender-sensitive, human rights-based approach to the state, one that addresses the root causes of gender discrimination.

Climate change also requires action from rich industrialized countries that are most responsible for global warming due to their high emissions, both historical and current.

Across the world, a growing climate justice movement is calling for the governments of the North to provide countries like Malawi with international financing for climate adaptation, reparation of damage already done and forgiveness of national debts, so that money can be funneled to support especially those in need. women and girls and other marginalized groups.

As global temperatures continue to rise, it is vital that laws, policies and funding address the specific vulnerabilities and needs of women and girls so that they are protected from gender-based violence and better able to cope with future climate shocks.

Tsitsi Matekaire is the global leader on sexual exploitation at Equality Now and Tara Carey Head of Media.

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© Inter Press Service (2022) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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