How a focus on women’s empowerment is influencing community adjustment to climate change in Malawi
Gender inequality continues to be one of the major obstacles for human development worldwide. Women around the world continue to suffer the impacts of gender inequality in areas such as health, education and the labour market, despite their constant fight for progress. The Gender Inequality Index (GII) gives an illustration of how gender inequality is experienced in different countries by ranking them from lowest to highest. One of the countries near the bottom of this list is Malawi. Malawi is a small country in south-eastern Africa with a population of over 16 million. In 2015 Malawi ranked 145 out of 188 countries for gender inequality in the GII and at 170 of 188 for general human development.
In 2006 the Malawian government put forth a five-year plan to help ‘reduce poverty through sustained economic growth and infrastructure development’ with the official Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS). The plan included a newfound goal to increase women’s contributions to domains such as economic growth. However, this particular goal proved difficult to reach, due to the enduring lack of resources invested in educating women. The Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Educational Trust Malawi (WLSA – Malawi) summarize the challenges facing women in Malawi as follows:
Women lack knowledge about their rights therefore this diminishes their potential capabilities to become effective agents for change at the personal, household and community levels. Therefore women remain poor and observers of development rather than change agents.
Putting women at the centre of efforts to make progress is at the heart of the T-LEARNING network’s project in Malawi, which focuses on climate change issues in the country, and particularly on the recurrent droughts and environmental degradation of Lake Chilwa, Malawi’s second-largest lake. Lake Chilwa is a source of food and income security for the 2 million Malawians of the Lake Chilwa basin, so there is no question as to why climate adaptation around the lake is important. In order to tackle this ongoing issue, local researchers in the T-LEARNING network are working closely with local communities who are being forced to adapt to the ongoing drying-up of the lake.
The critical state of Lake Chilwa reached a crisis in 2012 when the lake was so dry that the local communities feared for their future. A speech made by the then Minister of Environment and Climate Change Management, Catherine Gotani Hara, at the 2012 United Nations Climate Conference in Doha (COP 18), had a stark message:
As I speak to you now, one of our precious lakes that supports many livelihoods is under the threat of drying due to impacts of climate change. The communities depending on this Lake Chilwa are currently being subjected to unprecedented risks and shocks for which they are not prepared to cope with.
Lake Chilwa has experienced similar situations in the past, with periodic droughts due to Malawi’s highly variable climate. In the 1930s drought lead to a collapse of the lake’s fish stocks, prompting colonial authorities to try to develop a cotton-planting scheme in the lake basin instead. The campaign for cotton farming was resisted by local fishermen, whose knowledge about the lake’s periodic droughts and subsequent re-filling was informed by several generations of local fishing experience.
However, droughts have been increasingly frequent in recent years due to climate change, with Malawi experiencing eight major droughts since 1980. The World Bank estimates that over 24 million people have been affected. Climate change and the risk of more frequent droughts and floods is a continuous threat to the community, forcing them to find ways to adapt to protect their livelihoods.
But where do women come into the picture? Women provide the majority of agricultural labour in Malawi, but their control over the means of production and their access to land and credit, as well as to extension and drought relief services, remain limited. Any loss of livelihoods impacts existing unbalanced gender roles, making women and girls especially vulnerable. Women also tend to bear responsibility for water collecting, not men. As described by Ruth Mwyene, a Malawian farmer speaking at the 2015 World Social Science Forum, men are the “providers” while women are the ones who do the household chores such as fetching water. Feedback from poor and marginalized communities also reveals a sense of helplessness and worthlessness, even a feeling of having been abandoned by society and deprived of government interest.
Given their central role in agriculture in Malawi, efforts to build resilience in local communities must include a strong focus on empowering women. ‘This will be the fore of our research – lifting women up to the sky’ says Gibson Mphepo, who is leading the T-LEARNING case study in Malawi.
According to his research, women from the rural community already use informal learning to find ways to manage the lake and maize production. For example, Mphepo describes how women decide on their planting time, seed selection and soil nutrient enrichment through informal learning practices.
As these women come into this case study with prior knowledge on how to manage their land, transgressive learning (t-learning) provides an opportunity for them to build on this learning process, increase their skills and find new, sustainable approaches to adapt to climate change. The t-learning activities focus on empowering women to be leaders in their community and change agents as opposed to observers of climate change. In this way, women are truly at the heart of efforts to adapt to the changing environment of Lake Chilwa for generations to come.