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Africa: Climate change and gender
NewsNotes, May-June 2009

This recent essay by Anene Ejikeme highlights two interconnected aspects of climate change that have gendered consequences: conflict and water scarcity. The following is excerpted from this longer article in AfricaFiles, April 2009.

While scholars and commentators disagree on whether Darfur is a genocide or not, almost all agree that a critical element in the struggle is access to resources. ... In a report issued in June 2007 the UN Environment Program declared desertification Sudan’s greatest challenge. Desertification was blamed on climate change and human activities. [Furthermore, between 1990 and 2005,] the loss of forest cover ... in Darfur was an astounding 33 percent. ...

In his classic 1989 work Famine that kills, Alex de Waal argued that while “experts” believed that Darfur had excellent access to water and that it was this oversupply that led to “overfarming” and “overgrazing,” the Darfuri themselves felt that they were undersupplied with water. De Waal noted that “[d]uring the drought [of 1984/5] many hand-dug wells ran dry, often for the first time ever….” It was no doubt the women who undertook the task of procuring water….

An increased and onerous work load is not the only challenge women face in conflict situations. The reports about the widespread use of rape as a weapon of war in Darfur are well-known. According to some relief workers most of the women who managed to make it to refugee camps have been victims of rape….

In her autobiography, the young Sudanese medical doctor Halima Bashir recounts the horror of having to operate on young girls who had been gang-raped in a rural clinic without adequate painkillers and other medical supplies. She writes, “At no stage in my years of study had I been taught how to deal with eight-year-old victims of gang rape in a rural clinic without enough sutures to go around.” Dr. Bashir herself was subject to gang-rape by the Janjaweed.

Even when women escape from the conflict and arrive at a refugee camp, the hardships are far from over. As refugees, women face some burdens which are unique to them. In the context of refugee camps, which are often fragile environments themselves – politically, ecologically, economically, and socially – women find themselves facing new challenges as well as all the old ones. It is women who again take up the lion’s share of looking after the young, the elderly and the sick. It is women who must provide the food, water and fuel for the family. Even when there are international peacekeepers, this may offer little or no protection, as the rape trials of UN peacekeepers in Congo should remind us….

Climate change brings droughts and floods, heat waves and cold fronts, more frequent and powerful tropical storms, and loss of permafrost. Floods and rising temperatures bring disease, from the diarrheal diseases which attend floods to the spread of malaria-bearing mosquitoes into new areas. Although desertification is the most severe challenge confronting Sudan, floods are common. The cycle of drought (or severe aridity) and floods is one we seem to be seeing more frequently all across the continent. In 2008, large parts of Africa – from Ghana and other parts of West Africa to large swathes of southern Africa - suffered debilitating floods after long droughts. This year, the pattern appears to be repeating in parts of southern Africa.

While experts forecast that Bangladesh could have as many as 30 million climate refugees by 2030, one can only wonder what the numbers for Africa may be. Africa, with a significantly smaller population than Asia, has almost as many refugees as Asia and the Pacific region combined. It is unclear how many of Africa’s refugees are climate refugees….

When a woman is forced to spend five to six hours a day procuring water for the use of her family it means that she will have to cut down on other obligations and pursuits. A girl child who spends hours each day gathering water for the family has little or no time left to go to school or train for an occupation. The same is true if a girl must spend countless hours procuring firewood. In the conflict situations, as in Darfur, we have seen that women face especial burdens, namely, the increased difficulties of procuring basic necessities, and (the threat of) rape. If climate change brings greater resource scarcity and more conflicts, it is not hard to see that this spells more hardships for millions of African women, already struggling to provide basic necessities for themselves and their families.

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