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As Mothers, Wives and Farmers, Women Feel the Strain of Climate Change

With Uganda suffering through climate change-related drought, flooding and unpredictable weather, women take on most of the work to keep their families fed. But lack of land rights means they reap few benefits.

Written by Sally Nyakanyanga Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
A government adviser who teaches smallholder farmers how to adapt to climate change inspects coffee beans in Kasese, in western Uganda. Over half of Uganda's farmers are women, many struggling to feed and support their families in the face of the country's unpredictable extreme weather. AP/Stephen Wandera

LAGAJI VILLAGE, Uganda – In Nwoya district, families face a daily struggle to grow the crops they rely on for food and income. Extreme weather leaves the ground either too wet or too dry to grow anything. Drought and deforestation mean villagers – usually women – have to spend most of the day traveling long distances for water and firewood. And then there are the elephants.

“We have to grapple with elephants ravaging our crops, resulting in us being unable to fend for our families,” says Stella Ojara, a peasant farmer and mother of 10 who needs her crops to feed her family and the surplus to sell for school fees. A government conservation scheme in nearby Murchison Falls National Park has had success in increasing the area’s elephant population. But when the massive animals go in search of something to eat, they can devastate local crops, sinking Lagaji’s farmers deeper into poverty and hunger.

Even without rampaging wildlife, the effects of climate change – unseasonably high temperatures, perennial droughts, extreme and unpredictable weather – put enormous strain on farmers across Uganda. Making up more than half of the country’s farmers, women bear the brunt of the fight to survive from one planting season to the next. “When the rains come and we plant our crops, the rains vanish, leaving our crops to wilt and die due to inadequate rainfall,” says Jane Ochira, a farmer in the village of Lagaji.

But with limited land rights, few can reap the benefits of their work.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the agricultural sector remains the backbone of Uganda’s economy, contributing over 70 percent of the country’s export earnings. Women constitute 56 percent of Ugandan farmers and make up more than 70 percent of agricultural production, nutrition and food security, at the household level, according to the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET). But while women do most of the farm work, they only own 16 percent of the arable land in the country.

Edidah Ampaire, coordinator for Uganda’s Policy Action for Climate Change Adaptation project, says that women’s rights and roles are severely restricted, particularly in rural areas, and that government policies don’t do enough to address the imbalance. “Gender inequality in agricultural practices demonstrates how men have an advantage over women,” he says. “Women from rural areas are highly dependent on land, yet they are less likely to own land.”

WOUGNET says making land available to women gives them the chance to sustain themselves and their households as climate change forces them to spend most of their time cultivating fields and collecting firewood and water, leaving little time to make an income.

But even women who own land can find themselves unable to grow enough to feed their families, let alone surplus to sell on. “The poor and rural communities, mainly women, are greatly affected by climate change as they depend on extracting resources from the land for their daily survival,” said Paul Mukwaya from Makerere University, speaking to the press last year. As farmers and family caregivers, women have to deal with a slew of consequences resulting from drought and flooding, not just food and water shortages, but also high incidences of malaria and other water-borne diseases. “Food has been rotting in the garden due to floods, and diseases like malaria have caused deaths in families,” says Lagaji farmer Jane Ochira.

Struggling to provide for their families, constantly on the search for food and water, and often battling illness or caring for sick family members, women also suffer from the impact that climate change has on their husbands. According to George Onen, the parish chief for Patira and Pabit in Nwoya district, many women in rural Uganda are subjected to domestic violence due to tensions at home over food shortages and mainly during harvest time. “Poverty and food shortages create fertile ground for conflicts and domestic violence in the home,” he says. “It’s saddening that some men during harvest time, instead of saving the money and preparing for the next farming season, will decide to waste the money on drinking and marrying more women.”

And when the situation becomes too dire to bear, women can find themselves completely alone in the struggle to keep their families fed. When a crop fails due to extreme weather conditions, men will often become “migrants,” leaving for the city to find work and sometimes not returning, according to Maria Mutagamba, minister of water and environment. “They abandon the family when the land is no longer productive to search for work in the city, leaving behind the women suffering with the children.”

This story was reported with the support of an African Great Lakes Fellowship from the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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