Gender justice: A prerequisite for mitigating the impacts of climate crises in Africa

People wait for help at a bridge damaged by Cyclone Freddy in Mandimba, Mozambique. Credit: Roy Gilham / iStock

It is not news that climate change phenomena, such as cyclones, floods, droughts, and extreme temperatures, have far-reaching impacts on womn’s* lives. In Africa, social norms, traditional beliefs, and patriarchal structures have imposed subordinate influence, roles, and responsibilities on womn in all aspects of life. Womn bear an unequal responsibility for securing vital and scarce resources, including food, water, and energy, and for caring for the young and elderly—all of which place them at risk of experiencing unique and more severe climate impacts. 

For instance, Cyclone Freddy has been described as the third deadliest cyclone in the Southern Hemisphere, causing over 1,400 deaths. In Malawi alone, it is estimated that 65% of the displaced people are women. When Cyclone Freddy swept through Madagascar, Mozambique, and Malawi in early 2023, womn bore the burden of travelling farther to collect scarce food, water, and firewood, in addition to the responsibility of caring for their families. Womn are especially vulnerable to gender-based violence during periods of instability, including those following natural disasters. Due to a shortage of food and shelter, womn exchanged sex for food and other supplies. In Malawi, most womn who escaped the cyclone faced sexual harassment and a lack of health facilities to support their health needs at the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps.

Womn also face dire economic consequences in the context of natural disasters. In Mozambique, for example, the flood swept womn’s crops and livestock away, leaving them vulnerable to hunger and heightened poverty. Similar hardships were faced by womn in Madagascar who lost their livelihoods, derived from fishing and farming, when Cyclone Freddy hit. 

To mitigate the impact of the climate crisis on African womn’s lives, advocates must take a holistic approach to climate crisis mitigation, with affected communities leading the way. Funders must consider identifying grossly underfunded womn’s rights groups at the grassroots level and support them in leading climate justice interventions. Funders need to prioritize gendered funding in climate justice interventions that involve womn in decision-making and project designs and boost access to gendered finance that supports community-based action against the impacts of climate change.

Urgent Action Fund-Africa (UAF-Africa), for example, supported an organization to identify climate-affected womn and linked them with insurance for low-income earners that could secure their businesses and compensate them during climate crises. UAF-Africa’s Rapid Response Grantmaking supported womn-led organisations in Malawi, Mozambique, and Madagascar, mitigating the impact of Cyclone Freddy. The program provided funding and valuable information to underserved womn to prolong their investments despite the devastating crisis they faced. 

Often occupying jobs in the informal sector, womn are vulnerable to sudden shifts in context. This situation affected womn in the informal sector in Malawi, most of whom lost their sources of livelihood overnight. In Mozambique, Associacao Nosso Futuro-APROFIT received support to assist the government in drawing up a strategy for climate finance and carbon markets and a campaign to promote womn’s rights to economic inclusion in climate finance and climate change mitigation. They further advocated for creating more economic opportunities for womn affected by climate change and assessed the impact of climate change on womn. They recommended that womn be included in decision-making positions in climate crisis mitigation work. 

The Federation pour la Promotion Feminine et Enfantine (FPFE) in Madagascar received support to identify the needs of affected womn and develop partnerships with the Ministry of Population, including key local stakeholders. The organization also trained womn’s rights groups on the impacts of climate change, discussing the provision of psychosocial support, the delivery of sexual and reproductive health services, how to respond to hikes in incidents of gender-based violence, and how to develop strategies to remain resilient in times of crisis—supporting the resumption of income-generating activities. In Malawi, the National Association of Business Women (NABW) received support to research and dialogue with insurance agencies to determine which company would provide womn with insurance to secure their businesses against future natural hazards.

The trend of devastating natural disasters may likely continue and worsen, meaning urgent action towards gender justice and gender-responsive solutions to climate change must be prioritized. No meaningful action toward mitigating the impact of climate change can occur without gender justice. However, womn-led climate change work in Africa is severely underfunded, with only 0.01% of funding going to womn-led climate justice work. There is also disaster risk reduction and resilience work where the funding is marginal at 0.003%, with some of this international funding going to womn-led disaster risk reduction. Most funding goes to classic adaptation initiatives, such as womn farmers taking tangible climate action. The more considerable systemic changes that womn advocate for, such as land rights and energy transition, are underfunded. 

Climate crisis mitigation must be implemented through an intersectional lens that challenges unequal power relations based on gender and other characteristics, such as socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, nationality, ability, sexual orientation, and age. This type of analysis allows for mitigation and funding strategies—such as womn-led decision-making and gendered finance for community-based action against climate change—that address the root causes of inequality, transform power relations, and promote womn’s rights. Mitigating the climate crisis in Africa is thus not merely an environmental problem but a complex social justice problem that requires progress towards gender justice and the protection and recognition of human rights.

*At UAF-Africa, the use of the term “womn” is a simple act of challenging and replacing traditional ideas of what and who a womn is and can be and the connection between women and a system of patriarchy where womn are, in effect, subject to men or a sub-category of men. For us, womn includes lesbian womn, bisexual womn, transwomn, and those who are non-binary, identifying with neither gender.