Through the eyes of an African woman – the Climate Crisis

Newbold March Diversity Lectures

Through the eyes of an African woman – the Climate Crisis

Helen Pearson, Newbold College of Higher Education

“Are all women celebrating International Women’s Day as we are celebrating?” wondered Dr Zivayi Nengomasha, Programmes and Planning Director for ADRA Africa. Her significant question went to the heart of the March Diversity Lecture at Newbold College on the evening of Tuesday, 8 March. The question focused minds on the topic for the evening – ‘The Environmental Crisis – Through the Eyes of a Christian woman in Africa’. Looking at the crisis from a gender perspective, Nengomasha demonstrated graphically that the burden of climate change is far more likely to be borne by women and girl children than their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons.

Nengomasha began recognising that scientific facts about the ozone layer and carbon footprints are now fairly commonplace. Justice and gender issues may be less well-known. A significant geographical injustice is that while Africa contributes only 2-3% of emissions, the poorer classes in Africa are disproportionately affected by climate change – and among poorer groups, the effects on women are, once again, disproportionately high. Their human stories as they take on the challenges of climate change are less well known. By the end of the evening, the audience learned a great deal more about the experience of women and girl children.

Nengomasha began with an overview of the African situation. In most African countries, the economy is driven by rain-fed agriculture – and rain is in shorter and shorter supply. The period between one drought and another is shortening over the decades, meaning increased poverty and hunger among the poorest people. Sadly, some of the most impoverished and most desperate subsistence farmers contribute further to climate change by cutting down trees as fuel for cooking – 90% of the continent’s population use wood for cooking. Sometimes they open up forest areas to expand agricultural land for themselves. All this deforestation and reduction of the catchment areas further worsens the water crisis.

Africa is the second driest continent. Desertification in about 45% of African land further contributes to environmental problems, which are intensified as the erosion of the soil and its nutrients means reduced bio-diversity, reduced crop yields, and the loss of species and habitats. There are fears that in another 20 years, 50% of species will have been destroyed.

Like the land, the air is also negatively affected by pollution. In the three decades between 1990 and 2017, deaths from outdoor air pollution in Africa have increased by 57%. Sometimes it is because facilities are inadequate, but generally, waste management is not being done.

These factors are more likely to increase the burden of work carried by women and girl children. As climate change reduces water supplies, more time is needed to collect the precious liquid. “Some women won’t be celebrating International Women’s Day,” said Nengomasha, “they will be getting up early to walk 10km to collect water for their families.” Many women spend 2 hours a day cooking and 5 hours collecting fuel. It is hardly surprising that they have far fewer educational opportunities, smaller salaries, and almost no access to bank accounts. Although women work most of the land, they comprise only 15% of landowners. Studies have shown that women are 60% less well-nourished than the rest of the family because they feed their families first. Ongoing water reduction is only likely to increase all these pressures and the vulnerability of women – especially the risk of girl children to violence, child marriage, sexual abuse. “When resources are limited, child marriage can be viewed as a ticket out of poverty, children become burdens to be ‘off loaded’,” said Nengomasha. Children’s human rights to childhood and becoming adults who can make choices are constantly threatened.

Aware of the harrowing picture she had created, Nengomasha concluded, “This is not just propaganda and scares tactics!” She offered some hope by looking at what can be done, what ADRA is doing and what each of us might do.

In asking the question, ‘How does climate change affect women?’, ADRA in Africa sets an example by thinking differently about climate change. Recognising that creating educational, social and economic empowerment for women empowers whole families, ADRA now mainstreams a gender perspective. “We view all our activities through gender lenses,” said Nengomasha. Projects to educate girls and increase literacy among young women, develop and train women in other skills where agriculture is not viable, and build women’s capacities to engage with the market through loans and banking – all these create economic empowerment for women. ADRA’s projects to train women leaders give them the chance to build change in their communities. As women develop their asset bases to have fallback mechanisms under challenging times, their vulnerability is reduced.

Solving climate problems is not only about helping women. “We believe in complementarity, engaging both men and women so they can grow together,” said Nengomasha. In conclusion, she mentioned an ADRA partnership closer to home for some international Diversity audiences. She described an initiative of ADRA-UK with young Adventist women and men in Scotland who are partnering with five ADRA country offices, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, Zambia, and Mozambique, to get involved in environmental care reforestation and clean-up operations in their communities.

The Q&A session explored Nengomasha’s vocation for the work, the challenges she faces, the needs of urban and nomadic women in Africa, politics, COP26 and cynical views about funding. With her 20-year career in research and humanitarian work on climate change, Nengomasha herself offers an inspiring example of what educated African women and men can achieve on their continent. With similar commitments from all of us, how much reduction might there be to the challenges of climate change for Africans and all of us?

The lecture and the Q&A which followed can be seen in full here.