El Nino: “The drought is a catastrophe for women and girls”

Johanna Mitscherlich
Artimiza, aged 9, and her younger sister in a drought-ravaged village in Inhambane Province, Mozambique

Mozambique has been hit by its worst drought for 35 years.

A severe food shortage is taking a heavy toll, especially on women and their children. Two million people in the central and southern parts of the country are in need of assistance to see them through the next months, with some 100,000 children facing acute malnutrition.

Even before the drought, life was particularly hard for women and girls.

Every second girl is married before her 18th birthday and 14 percent are already married by the age of 15. In one of the poorest countries on earth, half of the girls drop out of school by fifth grade. Roughly one in seven women die each year during pregnancy or because of childbirth complications. According to the Interior Ministry, more than 50 percent of women have suffered some form of physical, sexual or psychological violence.

In the face of drought and food shortages, what is life like now for women and girls?

Florentine carrying a sack of emergency food

Florentine (above), aged 18: “I got married when I was 13 years old. My son Alfredo is now one year old. A few months after he was born we could no longer harvest anything in our fields.”

I worry a lot because I cannot provide my child with enough food and I am afraid he will not grow to be as healthy as he should.

“We eat as little as possible so he can get more. We cannot even find work on other people’s fields as other farmers are in the same situation. Without rain our crops do not grow and we have no food or any source of income.”

In the past months we have received food assistance from CARE. Without that help I do not know how we would be able to survive.

Davida and her sister in Mozambique

Davida (above), aged 10: Davida and her two sisters, Nerma (3) and Gilda (4), live with their grandmother. In recent months, she has had to miss school on some days to support her grandmother in finding food and water for the family.

Sometimes my sister Nerma cries because she is very hungry.

“I take the water canister to school with me and on my way back I fill it up and bring back as much water as I can. My grandmother gave me a little cart, because otherwise it is too heavy for me to carry. With the drought my grandmother does not have time to get the water herself, because she needs to find food for us.”

CARE volunteer Magdalena with a group of children

Magdalena (above) is one of over 300 CARE volunteers in Mozambique. She has attended workshops about hygiene, health and wellbeing of women and children, and now passes on her knowledge to other families in her village. Each day, she and other volunteers also take care of around 50 children between the ages of one and five, on a playground set up by CARE.

The children are the ones who suffer most from the current drought.

“Some of them do not have the strength to play anymore. They come here without breakfast and sometimes they have to go without food and water for an entire day.

“We advise the parents to collect certain wild fruits and leaves which provide nutrition. But the drought has been so harsh that sometimes we cannot even find these anymore. Unfortunately, more and more children are falling sick and we are finding new cases of malnourished children every other week.

It breaks my heart when one of the children cry because they are hungry and there is so little I can do for them.

“The least we can do is help them forget their sorrows for some time and give their parents more time to find food and fetch water.”

Almarinda, a farmer in Mozambique, holding drought-affected plants

Almarinda (above) is a farmer: “I have been a farmer all my life. I can hardly remember a day when I did not work on my family’s field.”

I have experienced difficult times, but never before have I seen a drought like this one.

“Many of the farmers could not harvest anything since last year. I am part of CARE’s Farmer Field School and through it have learnt techniques to help me protect the soil and received drought-resistant seeds to plant. With this support I managed to grow at least some maize where others had none. Before the drought my harvests were so good I had to pull a cart to carry all the crops and vegetables.

“I joined CARE’s village savings group a few years ago and started growing cashew nuts as an alternative income to feed my six children. I am very thankful that CARE helps us fight the drought and survive.”

When I compare myself with other farmers who do not receive any support, I know how lucky I am.

“But when I remember that the crops during this time of year are usually taller than me and look at this diminished field now, I feel very sad.”

A family in Mozambique

Artimiza (above left), aged 9, lives with her parents and two younger sisters in a little village near Funhalouro in Inhambane Province.

“Usually my parents could get us cassava and maize from the fields. But now it has not rained and sometimes we are so hungry we cannot sleep.

“I always hoped that someday I might be able to go to school. But now I have to help my mother get water and food.”

The drought has ruined all my plans.

Artimiza's youngest sister Admira, who is only two years old, has been sick since the end of last year. Her mother Mariana explains: “She is too weak as I can only provide my children with two meals every day.”

Without CARE’s food assistance we would not be able to survive.

CARE gender specialist Graca

Graca (above) is a CARE gender specialist.

“Everyone has been affected by the drought, but the situation is particularly difficult for women and girls. For years, we have been working closely with the communities and informed women about their rights.”

Real change takes time, but the drought makes a lot of our work more difficult. In many ways the drought is a true catastrophe for women and girls.

“We have some anecdotal evidence of women resorting to survival sex to get food and many mothers are putting their own needs last. They are eating less so their children can eat more, but at the same time they have to walk hours and hours in search of food and water.

“What makes me happy is that I increasingly see men and women come together to the food fairs to decide as a team what they need most.”

We work as hard as we can to make sure that the current drought and food insecurity does not unravel the important gains we have achieved for gender equality and to make sure that we can continue to improve the lives of women and girls.

CARE's response

Working as part of an international consortium with Save the Children, Oxfam and Concern International, CARE is aiming to support 500,000 people in seven provinces with food, repairing broken water systems and establishing new ones. CARE Mozambique is also working with families in drought-affected areas to increase the productivity and profitability of crops. CARE-supported village saving groups help people set up alternative sources of income and become more resilient to climate change and natural disasters.

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Johanna Mitscherlich's picture

Johanna Mitscherlich is Media and Communications Officer for CARE Germany-Luxembourg.