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‘No Help Is Coming.’ How Devastating Floods Are Fueling Sexual Violence and the Spread of HIV in Malawi

6 minute read

When Eliza Jasi saw enormous floods sweeping their way through her village in southern Malawi on March 8th, she had one thought: not again.

Malawi, a small, landlocked country in south-east Africa, home to 18.6 million people, has been hit by devastating floods in recent weeks. In early March, following unusually heavy rains, the Shire river in southern Malawi overflowed, sweeping away crops, homes—and people. More than 800,000 people have been affected and at least 59 people have died. (The toll is expected to rise.) On March 9, Malawian President Mutharika declared a state of disaster. On March 15, Cyclone Idai hit Malawi along with Zimbabwe and Mozambique, one of the worst climate-related disasters to hit the southern hemisphere.

Villages are now completely submerged under water and Nsanje, the most southern district of Malawi has been the most severely affected. Although the government deployed its Defense Force, roads are flooded—preventing aid and rescue vehicles from getting to the worst-affected areas.

This is the third major flood that 35-year-old Jasi has endured. In Malawi, violent floods are becoming increasingly frequent and volatile, exacerbated by the effects of climate change. Rising temperatures and atmospheric moisture are thought to increase the frequency and severity of floods. According to the United States Agency for International Development, Malawians are particularly affected by climate change because of their reliance on subsistence farming; 80% of Malawians work as farmers. According to the International Monetary Fund, Malawi is the fourth poorest country in the world with 50.7 % of people live under the poverty line and 25% live in extreme poverty.

Women in Malawi are disportionately affected by climate change. Because women are expected to provide food, water, and firewood for their families, droughts have resulted in women walking longer distances to get these resources, increasing the time spent on unpaid household work. The Guardian reports that climate change is also resulting in increased poverty, which is exacerbating the prevalence of early marriages.

Malawi floods
Sofia Thom sitting with her children in front of her collapsing home. She realizes she is living in a flash flood prone area but says she does not have the money to move to higher grounds.William Martin

During environmental disasters — when people are sent to live in camps — women tend to suffer most, in part because of high rates of sexual violence in the camps.

Jasi is one of them. During the 2012 floods, one of her six children died. When Jasi sought refuge in an aid camp, there was no shelter and little food. Scared of losing another child, she was forced into prostitution to provide for her family and ended up contracting HIV. According to UNAIDS, one million people in Malawi were living with HIV in 2016, increasing the likelihood of women contracting HIV through these transactions.

After the water levels went down, Jasi had to rebuild her home and started regrowing crops that had been swept away. Three years later, another flood hit, displacing more than 230,000 people. Once again, she lost her crops and her home was destroyed. Her husband died shortly after. Now, in 2019, Jasi finds herself in the same predicament: her home and crops have been destroyed and she is once more living in a camp that is unable to provide basic necessities.

Christina Wholy, 45, agrees. Her home was destroyed on March 8 and when she arrived at the Ngabu evacuation camp in Nsanje with her husband and children, she discovered there was not enough food, no soap or sanitary products, few toilets and no place for people to sleep. “I’m worried no help is coming,” she says. According to Relief Web, Ngabu camp is overcrowded, housing over 1000 families.

Women are especially affected by the lack of food as they are expected to provide and care for their children. “We do not have freedom,” Wholy says.

The poor living conditions means many men choose to leave the camp. As Winard Ngano, a man living in the Bangula camp puts it: “Men are so desperate. They do not have food to feed the family.” According to Ngano, many men start relationships with women in nearby communities in the hopes of finding food and shelter.

Some women, however, say their husbands are leaving the camp over frustrations with the sleeping arrangements in the camp. Families do not have their own individual tents to share, because of a lack of supplies. Instead, men and women are separated, sleeping in different parts of the camp. Aid organizations use this model around the world in the hope of preventing sexual violence. Esther Moyo, a Program Officer for the international NGO ActionAid says this model often results in men leaving their wives.

During the floods in 2015, for instance, “the men were complaining that their conjugal rights were being violated,” Moyo says. Men subsequently abandoned their wives, embarking on relationships with women in nearby communities.

“Things turned sour when he noticed that the tents could not accommodate a family,” says one woman affected by the 2015 floods who asked to stay anonymous for fear of retaliation from her husband. “My husband fled. To date, he is nowhere to be found. So that’s where the marriage ended. He couldn’t stand to see his wife sleeping separately from him.”

As a result of the difficult conditions within the camp, many displaced people say they wish they have sought shelter elsewhere. “I wish I had just stayed back at home,” Wholy says. “There is no food here and the situation is more tense. I do not know what the future holds.”

But returning home is not an option for those whose homes have been swept away. For years, the government has been encouraging citizens to settle away from the Shire River, the countries largest river running out of Lake Malawi to Mozambique, that is prone to flooding. Yet according to Moyo from ActionAid, the government has not provided adequate land for people to move to nor have they ensured that land rights are secured. As a result, many families will likely return to the disaster prone areas once the flooding has dissipated.

Jasi will be among them, a lack of money giving her few options to move elsewhere. And so, she has no other choice but to await the next cycle of flooding.

Reporting for this story was made possible with support from The GroundTruth Project where Melissa Godin and William Martin are Film Fellows.

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