BLANTYRE, Malawi, Jun 12 (IPS) — “Cyclone Freddy was a terrible experience, and now many women who lost their homes and their livelihoods are at increased risk of sexual exploitation and abuse,” warns Caleb Ng’ombo, Director of People Serving Girls at Risk (PSGR), a frontline NGO in Malawi that supports vulnerable women whose lives have been devastated by the record-breaking tropical storm.
“The rains were heavy and continuous for three to four days,” recounts Caleb. “There was water everywhere, strong winds, mudslides, and trees falling onto houses, paths, and roads. Water was flooding into my house, and everything I owned was floating.
“There was nowhere to go because everyone was experiencing the same thing, and there was nothing you could do apart from wait for the water to recede.”
When Cyclone Freddy hit Malawi in March 2023, six months of rain fell in just six days, flooding over 170 square miles (430 km2). Over 1400 people died in the country, and UNICEF estimates that 3.8 million are facing acute food insecurity.
Around 659,000 people have been displaced, with women in poverty disproportionately affected. Caleb explains, “Many women who’ve been badly impacted were already vulnerable. They were living in makeshift buildings in locations such as river banks and hillsides because they could not afford better housing. The extreme weather dislodged big rocks that rolled down the slopes, killing people and destroying houses. It was very traumatizing.”
Sexual harassment, exploitation, and domestic abuse
Camps have been set up for those who have lost their homes, and PSGR is creating safe spaces for women to discuss challenges and find solutions. Of particular concern are the multiple reports of sexual exploitation and gender-based violence.
Women are complaining that they are being sexually harassed in the camps, and including being asked to perform sexual acts in exchange for aid. Most women are reticent about reporting incidents to the police because they know it takes a lot of time for cases to be prosecuted, and victims frequently face skepticism and stigmatization. Some married women also fear their husbands will blame them, which could trigger domestic violence.
Such fears are well founded. A comprehensive global review has found extensive data revealing that during or after extreme weather events, there is a rise in gender-based violence, including domestic and intimate partner violence.
“With justice so hard to access, women think, why bother reporting?” Caleb relays. “Judges and magistrates are mainly men, and they don’t give priority to the needs of women, so such cases are never prioritized. This is especially when the perpetrator is in a position of power, has access to money and an image to protect, and is up against a vulnerable woman.”
Another apprehension is that with so many women and girls being pushed further into poverty, there will be a rise in commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. Malawi is already a trafficking source, transit, and destination country, and the socio-economic repercussions of the climate crisis, coupled with discriminatory gender roles and social norms, create a fertile ground for the abuse of vulnerable women and girls.
Compounding problems is the lack of access to justice for victims. Few trafficking cases make it to court and those that do face multiple delays, with wrongdoers rarely punished.
To address this, PSGR and international women’s rights organization Equality Now have submitted a joint complaint to the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC), highlighting how girls, who are especially vulnerable to trafficking for sexual exploitation, are being left unprotected by the Malawian government’s failure to implement existing anti-trafficking legislation effectively.
Women are holding the sharpest end of the knife
Cyclones are typical in Southern Africa between November and April, but climate change is making them more frequent and intense. With Freddy, the ferocity and longevity were unprecedented — hitting land multiple times over five weeks. Scientists have declared it the longest-lasting tropical cyclone ever recorded anywhere.
Over the past decade, Malawi has experienced multiple extreme weather events, including droughts, floods, rising temperatures, and unpredictable rainfall patterns, leaving people dependent on agriculture and pastoralism struggling to adapt.
At this time of year, farmers should be harvesting their crops to sell and store, but Cyclone Freddy has washed away farmland and livestock, and ruined crops and buildings, with 547 schools damaged or destroyed.
Women make up 65% of smallholder farmers in Malawi, and traditional gender roles allocate women the responsibility for household food production and farming, while men often control access to land, credit, and agricultural inputs.
Malawi’s Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act grants some protection ‘against emotional or physical violence or abuse within marriage, sexual relations, and the family. The law also recognizes women’s non-monetary contribution regarding marital property rights. However, inequalities within the family continue to limit women’s decision-making power, control over resources, and access to credit, all of which hampers their ability to adapt to climate change.
Women are also more likely to shoulder the burden of unpaid care work and household responsibilities, which intensify during climate-related emergencies.
“Women play a central role in managing the aftermath of climate emergencies,” Caleb explains, “They are the caregivers and the providers of food, and while the impacts of extreme weather are felt by everyone in the community, it is women and girls who are holding the sharpest end of the knife. For example, you can see with floods that it is mostly women who die because they cannot swim, whereas men have had time to learn.”
Women’s interests and input must be central to climate responses
Extreme weather is being fuelled by rising global temperatures resulting from burning fossil fuels and the emission of greenhouse gases, primarily by wealthy industrialized nations. Meanwhile, women in Global South countries like Malawi — which has one of the lowest incomes in the world — are suffering disproportionately from the climate crisis while being least able to adapt.
“The climate crisis is getting worse, and the international community must not neglect the specific vulnerabilities and needs of women and girls,” Caleb says. “Most of the strategies are dominated by men. Women are voicing their issues, but their voices are not being heard, and the result is the problems we are seeing today.”
“This emergency is manmade, and there isn’t an overnight solution. But if the world shuts its eyes and does nothing, we will fail to deliver on our commitments to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.”
The World Bank warns that without climate financing to assist Malawi in building a climate-resilient economy, climate change could push an additional two million people into poverty during the coming decade and reduce the country’s GDP 6% to 20% by 2040. The repercussions for women and girls would be catastrophic.
“People here understand that the extreme weather we are suffering is the result of climate change. It is countries like ours that are having to pay the price for big economies that are polluting the environment,” laments Caleb.
“Women and girls must be at the discussion table when strategies are being developed to mitigate against disasters so that when emergencies happen, we understand how they can be supported. Women should have the opportunity to present their side of the story, bring solutions, and be incorporated into responses. This has to be central to climate change policy at all levels.”
Tara Carey is the Global Head of Media at Equality Now, an international human rights organisation that focuses on using the law to protect and promote the rights of women and girls around the world.
IPS UN Bureau