Climate change is affecting people across the planet, however, it disproportionately impacts women, particularly those living in poor countries who are traditionally tasked with gathering food, water and fuel for the family. 

As climate change dries up streams and lakes, women are walking longer distances to fetch water, firewood and other domestic necessities that are vital for every day life. Farming, an activity often carried out by women in African societies, has also been affected.

Under searing temperatures and reduced rainfall, crops are smaller and sometimes do not grow at all. In many of these traditionally patriarchal societies, women have little influence over social and political issues. This is especially the case in northern Malawi, where women are often constrained by laws and cultural norms that limit their economic opportunities.

Though communities here depend on this agricultural production for both income and food, women’s access to land and ownership of land is heavily restricted. In the northern region districts of Karonga and Mzimba, for example, women are generally not allowed to own enough land for large-scale agricultural production that could promote their economic independence. Instead productive land is primarily controlled by male family members.

But as crops continue to struggle under the effects of climate, many women farmers have begun to lead in the practice of something known as conservation agriculture. This technology enables growers to yield much more from small pockets of land, despite warmer temperatures and erratic rains. It is, however, labor intensive and requires long hours that are often difficult to meet under the pressures of other gender-related roles.

“I always wake up early in the morning searching for food for my children and I don’t find time to concentrate in the garden let alone to take part in the new ways of farming. I am aware of conservation agriculture and I know women who take part, but it’s difficult and so involving I can’t do it alone,” said Jenipher Tchongwe, who is a mother of four. She added that if she had a husband to take care of some of the family’s needs, she would have taken part in conservation agriculture.

Some women have started growing crops that don’t need much water, such as hybrid maize instead of local varieties They are also using manure, soil and water management, pit growing, soil cover and minimum tillage among other methods.Despite being a widow with seven children, Jessica Kaluwa, is a farmer who is leading in the practice of conservation agriculture. She began to experiment with these methods in 2012 to see if they would work.

“I saw others around my area doing it. I then told myself to give it a try and it really worked for me,” Kaluwa said. She added that since conservation agriculture requires so much time, one must commit. “As a woman, it’s a challenge to concentrate since there are so many other duties I have to fulfill since I have no husband to take up other challenges,” she added. But she was quick to point out that women could make more of an impact in the agricultural sector if only they had the same land ownership rights as men.

Winnie Ngulube is a mother of four, who is taking part in irrigation farming. She manages to harvest twice a year and she gets all her financial needs from the activity.

“Irrigation farming is another way of farming which Malawians need to focus on. I have managed to raise my kids alone through this way of farming. I harvest twice a year crops like maize, sweet potatoes and Irish potatoes and I mostly sell the produce,” she said.

One advocate for women’s land rights is Chief Kyungu, a prominent leader in Karonga who is working hard to change views on land ownership. Kyungu mandated that under his jurisdiction, women could inherit their husbands’ lands.

“Land distribution culturally favors men since it is believed that they are bread winners. People forget that women are more responsible when it comes to family matters,” he said. “We are taking advantage of the current gender sensitization to change people’s mindsets.”

The Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security has been working on leveling the playing field for both men and women by taking legal action against those who refuse to pass land to women land through the introduction of property grabbing laws. These laws are designed to protect women, but are often subverted due to fear and intimidation in rural regions.

The Malawian government has also introduced so-called “50:50 campaigns” where all farmers, male or female, are given the same opportunity in taking farming roles and sponsorship. Gordon Yiwombe from the Ministry of Agriculture emphasized that things are now changing in order to help women farmers overcome long-held restrictions to land ownership.

“In my experience in the field of agriculture and gender,” said Yiwombe, who works as the principal gender roles and extension support services officer for the ministry, “I have observed that women farmers produce more than men if they are given the same support despite facing challenges connected to gender roles.”

Gordon Yiwombe, Nigeria’s Ministry of Agriculture

Evidence on the ground shows that women are feeding Malawi despite the challenges of traditional societal roles and gender-based restrictions. Despite this progress, women remain vulnerable to rigid societal roles, which limits their ability to practice climate-resilient agriculture. Without these important changes, it will become more difficult for them to produce enough food to feed their families.
If Malawi wants to seek solutions to changing climatic conditions, it should empower its women to lead the way.