Malawi’s Women Face Risk, Find Resilience Amid Flooding
On January 13th, 2015, the President of Malawi declared a third of the country a disaster zone. Heavy rains that fell over a couple of weeks led to severe flooding, and an estimated 170,000 people have been displaced and 79 killed.
Malawi is among the world’s least-developed and most-densely populated countries. While Malawi’s economy is heavily reliant on agricultural exports and subsistence farming, the country is highly vulnerable to climate change. Climate-related hazards such as prolonged dry spells, droughts, erratic rains, and floods have become more frequent, intense, and unpredictable, thereby undermining food security and poverty eradication efforts.
The most recent floods have caused extensive damage to crops, livestock and infrastructure, mostly in the southern region of the country. In response, the President of the Republic of Malawi declared a State of Emergency and called to its citizens, well-wishers and the international community for relief support.
A widespread disaster like this surely affects everyone, so why focus specifically on women?
While women and men may go through the same disaster, women are more vulnerable than men. WHO research says that women and children are particularly affected by disasters, accounting for more than 75 percent of displaced persons.
Disasters such as floods often create conditions conducive to outbreaks of infectious diseases; heavy rains like the ones being experienced in Malawi produce insect breeding grounds, and contaminate clean water sources. Women, especially expectant mothers, are highly vulnerable to water-borne diseases. Furthermore, women are more likely to suffer from malnutrition because they have specific nutritional needs when they are pregnant or breastfeeding. In addition to the general effects of natural disasters on health, women are vulnerable to reproductive and sexual health problems, and increased rates of sexual and domestic violence. In a recent report from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), two women displaced by the floods talk about their difficulties living in a relief camp:
“The toilets are far away from where we are sleeping,” said a woman from the Bangula camp. “We are afraid to walk to the toilets at night for fear of being raped. If toilets could be located close by, this could assist.”
“I lost everything during the floods. My biggest challenge is how to manage my menstrual cycle.”
“I lost everything during the floods. My biggest challenge is how to manage my menstrual cycle,” said a teen from the Tchereni camp.
In addition to these health risks, we often forget that gender roles often dictate that women become the primary caretakers for those affected by disasters—including children, the injured and sick, and the elderly. This increases their burden of work and responsibility in an already unmanageable, resource-scarce situation. And this responsibility does not end when the disaster has passed, as women also bear the burden of rebuilding social networks and community support systems in the aftermath of disasters.
While women are more vulnerable to disasters, they are also an untapped resource to disaster prevention and management. Women in disaster-prone areas like Malawi form complex social networks which may provide them with information and warnings about disasters sooner than men’s contacts. Research shows that women are quicker to seek out information about hazards and to help their family and communities to prepare for disasters. They are also more likely to respond quickly to evacuation orders. Furthermore, women have been found to be more likely to warn others of imminent disaster and to assist in long-term recovery.
Therefore, if we are to seek more sustainable ways of managing disasters, relief agencies and national governments should put women and gender at the center of disaster management—not only because women are vulnerable, but because they are resilient and engaging them would make their communities more resilient as well.