Among the many countries in southern Africa suffering through the El Niño-induced drought, Mozambique is one of the hardest hit. A severe food shortage is taking its toll on the rural population. With 2 million people in the central and southern parts of the country in need of aid, the government has declared a national emergency.
It’s well documented that drought disproportionately affects women and girls. As families try to cope with the effects of water shortages and barren farmland, rates of school dropout, sexual assault and child marriage all increase. Girls are forced to tend to crops instead of getting an education; women risk their safety every day walking long distances for water; and desperate parents offer their young daughters up for marriage instead of watching the girls starve to death.
But activists in Mozambique are now seeing a new casualty of drought. The issues that affect women and girls during severe dry spells are impacting the moves the country has made toward gender equality, they say. All the good done by empowerment projects could unravel, as communities in rural Mozambique fall back on traditional gender roles simply to survive.
“We have several food security programs running in Mozambique into which we have integrated the issue of gender equality,” says Cathy Riley, assistant country director for CARE International Mozambique which, since 1992, has been focused on encouraging dialogue around prevailing gender norms, asking communities to consider why and how those norms affect society and what can be done to change them. “For instance, in one of our food security projects funded by Irish Aid, we work with a local partner organization, HOPEM, to challenge gender stereotypes around who cooks food by doing cooking demonstrations for men so that they too can help prepare the household meal.”
And they were beginning to see the results. “We have seen signs of change in the communities where we work, including shifts in attitudes and behaviors of both men and women towards each other and their children.” Riley points to a CARE program in the south of the country that involves talking to parents about ways to discipline their children without resorting to violence. “It has had the added bonus of reducing gender-based violence in the home,” she says.
But that progress is now under threat, Riley adds, as the drought puts greater stress on families, leading many to resort to traditional gender norms and customs.
“Women and girls have added pressure to complete the domestic tasks associated with their gender, while men and boys also experience problems such as the challenge to masculinity caused by not being able to provide for the family because of social expectations about being the breadwinner,” she says.
In its report “Hope Dries Up,” released in November 2016, CARE states that several other organizations in Mozambique also believe the substantial inroads that have been made to address key gender-related issues such as early marriage, school attendance and delayed pregnancy have been lost as a result of the drought.
The report underscores how families in the Inhambane province, in southern Mozambique, are using child marriage to raise income – through payment of a bride price – or to reduce the number of dependents in the household. According to CARE, prior to the drought, 52 percent of girls in Inhambane province were married before the age of 18. In 2015, when there were 631,000 child brides in the country, it was estimated that by 2020, Mozambique would have 732,000 child brides, many aged below 15 years. But that was before the drought set in. As families increasingly turn to child marriage to see them through food shortages, those projected figures are expected to rise.
The report also highlights the growing number of girls dropping out of formal schooling to take up household duties such as water collection. Prior to the drought, women in the region spent up to two hours per day collecting water for household consumption. Now they have to spend six hours or more searching for water. Younger girls and adolescents are being pulled from school to help their parents or other family members with the hunt for water.
And that means girls are also at increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence. In 2003, the median age for first sexual intercourse for girls in Inhambane was 16, but since the current drought began, anecdotal evidence suggests that has lowered to 11 or 12 years. Talking to CARE researchers, people spoke of older men befriending young girls as they collect water. After several weeks of seemingly innocent friendship, the men lure the girls away for a few days to engage in unprotected sex. The girls then return home with money or food. Oftentimes, these young women later discover they are pregnant but cannot identify their sexual partners and can be stigmatized by their community and family members because they can no longer get married.
Projects aimed at empowering women through nutrition and food production are also proving vulnerable to the demands of drought. Rita, 43, a CARE volunteer in a small village in southern Mozambique, has been unable to provide meals for her family despite having been trained in nutrition. “I have all the knowledge about wild fruits and leaves, how to prepare them and what a diet for young children should look like,” she says in a blog post. “But the ideal of having three meals a day is unfortunately only useful in theory right now. My own granddaughter cries because she is hungry and we simply cannot provide her with enough food.”
But CARE country director Marc Nosbach warns that while the drought is making work harder for the people and groups trying to move Mozambique closer to gender equality, it’s far from the only obstacle. “There are issues of social norms, societal expectations, legal outcomes and customary practices, all of which have a role in creating the gender inequality that we see in Mozambique,” he says. “Tackling these goes beyond a drought response.”