The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that approximately 80% of the farmland in the Sahel is degraded. With soaring temperatures rising 1.5 times faster than the global average, land available to farmers is shrinking, and they are reeling from food crisis. This multifaceted issue-area gains a macabre dimension as marginalized farmers and herdsmen, due to minimized livelihood options, are susceptible to recruitment as foot solders for the multiplicity of violent conflict raging in the Sahel region.
The intersection between desertification, food-insecurity, and the experience of the African woman results in horrific gender-based violence. Currently in the Sahel, 33 million women, children, and men are food insecure, while 4.7 million children under the age of 5 suffer from acute malnutrition. In such dire situations, girls in these regions, still children that fall within the aforementioned categories themselves, are forced into child marriages to help their families avoid food insecurity.
Take the story of Ntoya Sande, a 13-year-old Malawian girl who was forced into marriage against her will. “I was sent to be married because of a shortage of food in the house…” she said. “I tried to negotiate, to tell my parents that I wasn't ready, that I didn't want to get married, but they told me that I had to because that would mean one mouth less at the table.” Ntoya’s is just one of the hundreds of stories highlighted in a recent study by the IUCN on the effects of climate change and environmental degradation on gender based violence. Concurrently, women in coastal regions near bodies of water face the growing threat of violence as fish has become increasingly scarce. Thus, fishermen in these areas are now not only expecting money as payment for fish, they are also demanding sex. As such, women are exposed to various kinds of sexual violence in their endeavors to secure a meal on their table. These intersections of violence go to show the multifaceted experiences of women in various regions of Africa due to climate change; climate change compounds existing vulnerabilities.
Nonetheless, in a rapidly changing and increasingly violent world, women remain on the forefront of combating the brutal ramifications of climate change and desertification. Reasons include the fact that tending to the land and growing necessary crops for sustenance is a task that is often relegated to the domestic realm in which women and their experiences exist. As such, women across the continent spend a considerable amount of time and emerging using and preserving the land. This relationship between women and the land have made them an important source of knowledge with regard to environmental management for food, water, and medicine. Their valuable knowledge about environmental sustainability and survival mechanisms, especially in critical areas of desertification, make them the primary growers of food. Yet, they lack access to land, skills, financial resources.
However, these vulnerabilities, though great, pale in comparison to the resolve of proactive, innovative women like Judith Ncube. Living in one of the ecological regions in Zimbabwe at risk of land degradation due to deforestation, Judith founded the Vusanani Cooperative to empower women farmers while protecting their forests. The Cooperative, comprised of youths, widows, as well as elderly women, decided to tap into an abundant source of wealth housed in their forests: the Marula fruit. Ncube formed the Vusanani Cooperative in 2010, and through a host of training programs geared at making people realize the importance of natural resources, they have been able to meet with and mobilize women farmers in the region of southern Africa who have established thriving businesses by adding value to naturally available, non-timber forest products.
Our world and its climate is rapidly changing, and efforts to reduce poverty while encouraging sustainable use of land and water resources have benefited greatly from women’s unique capabilities and their role as growers and providers of food for their communities. Thus, it is important to uplift the role played by women like Judith in regions affected by desertification and ensure full participation of men and women at all levels to combat desertification. Judith and thousands of women like her worldwide are stepping up to the challenge, healing the land, promoting gender equality, and empowering each other. What a sight. Happy Women’s History Month y’all.