OPINION | Thandile Chinyavanhu: KZN floods - Climate change IS a gender issue

A part of a road that was washed away in Pinetown during the floods.(Photo by Gallo Images/Darren Stewart)
A part of a road that was washed away in Pinetown during the floods.(Photo by Gallo Images/Darren Stewart)

Following the recent floods in KwaZulu-Natal, Thandile Chinyavanhu writes that climate change is a gender issue and unless our government can mitigate its impacts, more women will be plunged into poverty.

The early lockdown measures imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19 at the beginning of 2020 led to a spike in domestic gender-based violence incidence. South

Africa saw a 37% spike in GBV reports during the first week of lockdown. This was a consequence of the South African government's siloed approach to crisis management, leading to multiple deficits and blind spots that can only be rectified retrospectively. 

In KwaZulu-Natal, it is essential that the government re-establishes stability while prioritising an intersectional approach, which centres on women's rights in its solutions.

Disrupted education

Extreme weather events have already disrupted education and vital health services and threaten to derail development outcomes for adolescent girls, particularly; gender equality, quality education and no poverty. Climate change is a gender issue and unless our government can mitigate its impacts, more women will be plunged into poverty.

Extreme weather events in Southern Africa will only become more intense in the 21st century, but data shows the odds are stacked against adolescent girls.

When it comes to education, girls are faced with a variety of obstacles, including period poverty, teenage pregnancy and now disasters that interrupt schooling.

READ | ANALYSIS: How Covid is affecting school attendance in South Africa - Piecing together the puzzle

The National Income Dynamics Study - Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM) survey found that 750 000 learners dropped out of school during the Covid-19 pandemic. This value is about three times the pre-pandemic level.

From the onset of the pandemic, children have been at a greater risk of dropping out due to a variety of issues, including lagging behind and losing learning, food insecurity, and emotional and mental health deterioration. 

After nearly two years of lost learning as a result of the pandemic, children in KZN now face school closures due to flood damage. The Department of Education in the province reported that 248 schools had sustained damage during the floods. The psychological distress of being displaced and experiencing food insecurity may drive more children to leave school early.

Damaged clinics 

Due to traditional gender roles, adolescent girls traditionally shoulder the burden of household work or care-taking; in periods of disaster, this only increases their likelihood of dropping out. Driven by desperation to provide for themselves and their families, these girls may be driven into sex work, they may find themselves being groomed by older men and in some instances, forced into early marriages; or ukhuthwala, which remains a prevalent practice in rural part of South Africa, driving the incidence of teenage pregnancy, HIV incidence and gender-based violence. This is all the more challenging considering the disruption to health services as a result of extreme weather events.

READ | ANALYSIS: Richard Meissner - Green policies are in place in Durban but a key piece is missing

The Department of Health has reported that 84 clinics have been damaged as a result of the floods; among them, Kwangcolosi Clinic in Hillcrest, Durban has sustained serious damage. The floods have disrupted the clinic's water supply, and nurses fear the clinic may need to be temporarily closed. Much like the Covid pandemic before it, the extreme weather events occurring rapidly and with increased intensity across the country are disrupting access to vital healthcare services on a wide scale. 

Women and young adolescent girls are the most impacted by these disruptions. Women and girls are unable to access sexual reproductive health services such as HIV testing/screening, STI screenings, pregnancy prevention, and antenatal or abortion services.

Research shows that gender-based violence increases significantly in periods of scarcity or disaster. The condition these communities have been left in in the wake of these disasters, coupled with existing poverty and inequality, only further exposes these girls to physical and sexual abuse at the hands of men, which makes access to these health services a greater priority.

Intersectional approach 

Considering that 76% of police stations in South Africa do not have rape kits, the only places these girls could potentially access these crucial services have been decimated by floods. Adolescent girls and young women aged 15-24 remain the most vulnerable demographic when it comes to HIV incidence, according to UNAIDS, representing 63% of all new HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa in 2020. This fact was further reiterated by the eThekwini Municipality in October 2021, when it reported "an alarming rate of new HIV infections among girls aged 13-19 years old". The Department of Basic Education reported that 1300 adolescent girls are infected with HIV every week.

READ | OPINION: Livhuwani Nemakonde - KZN floods - Focus should be on disaster risk reduction

If our government is serious about tackling gender-based violence (GBV) it must take an intersectional approach to climate change and address the climate degradation that is fueling violence against women and interrupting access to quality education.

Our government needs to recognise the socio-economic imperative of tackling the climate crisis. Climate change will cause disruptions to education and vital health services, derail our development outcomes and make adolescent girls more vulnerable to climate shocks, thus trapping girls into an inescapable cycle of poverty.

The climate crisis is driving inequality and deepening poverty. Climate change is a gender issue.

- Thandile Chinyavanhu is a Climate and Energy Campaigner with Greenpeace Africa

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