London — It is often those least responsible for causing climate change that suffer the most from the impacts. And such is the case with women and girls in Malawi - one of the world's poorest and lowest carbon-emitting countries but ranked fifth in the Global Climate Index 2021 list of nations worst affected by climate-related extreme weather.
Climate change exacerbates sexual and gender-based violence in numerous ways, pushing people further into poverty, enflaming conflict over depleting natural resources, forcing migration, and compounding pre-existing gender discrimination. All these and many other forces conspire to put vulnerable women and girls in greater danger of sexual abuse and exploitation.
A recent study by Cambridge University analyzing scientific literature on extreme weather events found that gender-based violence - such as sexual assault, intimate partner violence, or trafficking, both during and after disasters - are recurring issues in studies worldwide.
In Malawi, the climate crisis is already triggering more erratic and extreme weather, resulting in chronic water, food, and financial insecurity for millions. Over the past twenty years, droughts and floods have increased in intensity, frequency, and scale, causing devasting environmental, social, and economic damage.
Around 9 out of 10 people in Malawi depend on rain-fed agriculture, and over half the population is food insecure. Rising temperatures, unreliable rains, and extreme weather events like cyclones influence food production and costs.
The economic downturn triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia's war against Ukraine, which has disrupted global supplies of cereals and fertilizers, have pushed prices up further.
According to World Bank data, 82% of Malawi's population live in rural areas, and women account for 65% of smallholder farmers, making them particularly exposed to food insecurity. Women are often dependent on natural resources, and many earn a living in the informal sector, leaving them less able to withstand economic and environmental shocks.
Climate change is a threat multiplier
Climate change is not just an environmental problem - it acts as a "threat multiplier" interacting with social systems to exacerbate systemic inequalities. So, although everyone is affected by the ravages of the climate crisis, the vulnerability of individuals varies depending on their gender, geography, class, ethnicity, and age.
Global warming and environmental damage are gendered because the ability of women to adapt is hampered by their social status and limited income, education, and resources. Women are more likely to live in poverty than men and commonly have less schooling, decision-making power, and access to finance.
When yields from harvests are reduced, this leaves subsistence farmers with little or no surplus produce to sell to earn money for purchasing basics like medicine, clothes, sanitary products, schooling, and agricultural inputs for bolstering farming production.
Being unable to produce enough food to feed their families or pay for other essentials puts women under intense pressure to find alternative sources of income. This renders them more susceptible to sexual exploitation, which can take various forms such as transactional sex in exchange for goods, and being trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation.
Family financial hardship also disproportionately affects girls, who are frequently pressured to drop out of school to do domestic work and find paid employment. This, in turn, increases their susceptibility to exploitation, including false promises made by traffickers about jobs and education further afield.
In addition, girls experience higher rates of child and forced marriage, as parents may view marriage as a coping strategy to elevate monetary difficulties and shield daughters from sexual violence. It is estimated that around 1.5 million girls in Malawi are at risk of becoming child brides as a direct result of climate change.
There are other ways that existing gender roles interplay with climate change and sexual violence. In Malawi and across sub-Saharan Africa, gathering water and firewood is widely deemed the responsibility of women and girls. A lack of clean water and depletion of natural resources caused by environmental degradation means they often have to travel further to acquire scarce resources.
Not only does this use up precious unpaid time that could be spent on beneficial activities such as income generation or schooling, but it also heightens their exposure to rape and sexual assault. And in some instances, women and girls must contend with sexual exploitation and abuse by those who control access to limited natural resources, such as at water collection points.
The system is failing victims of sexual and gender-based violence
For the vast majority of victims of trafficking, sexual violence, and exploitation, justice goes unserved. Caleb Ng'ombo runs People Serving Girls at Risk (PSGR), a frontline organization in Malawi that works to end human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, prostitution, and child marriages.
Caleb explains, "Victims are being failed by Malawi's criminal justice system. Few cases make it to court. Those that do are plagued by multiple delays, and perpetrators are rarely punished."
"Child marriage, sexual exploitation, and trafficking have blighted the lives of thousands of women and girls across Malawi, and the worsening climate crisis is putting more at greater risk. The government should not turn a blind eye to gender-based human rights violations. Addressing these problems must be central to climate response, including disaster and adaption planning."
Malawi is a source, transit, and destination country for sex trafficking, and climate crisis is fueling it. 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 the poor implementation of anti-trafficking legislation by the Government of Malawi is leaving girls unprotected against sex trafficking.
Malawi's criminal justice system needs to respond better to the realities and needs of survivors, including safeguarding them against further exploitation and ensuring support services are readily available.
Effectively addressing this crisis requires a gender-responsive, human rights-based approach from the state, one that targets the root causes of gender discrimination.
Climate change also demands action from wealthy industrialized nations that bare the largest responsible for global warming due to their high emissions, both historical and current.
Around the world, a growing climate justice movement is calling for Global North governments to provide countries like Malawi with international finance for climate adaption, restitution for damages already caused, and national debt cancellation so money can be redirected towards supporting those in need, in particular women and girls and other marginalized groups.
With global temperatures continuing to rise, it is vital that laws, policies, and funding deliver on the distinct vulnerabilities and requirements of women and girls so they are protected against gender-based violence and better able to cope with future climate shocks.
Tsitsi Matekaire is the Global Lead on End Sexual Exploitation at Equality Now and Tara Carey Head of Media.
IPS UN Bureau