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Desertification hits women hard

Monica Maleta, 57, of Balaka, used to walk five kilometres (km) from her home to cut grass for thatching his house.

Maleta and her sisters used to wake up around 4am, and by 6am, they were in the green valley where grass grow abundantly. They found tall and proud grass.

Now the grass is short and no longer grows in the whole valley. Monica now has to walk almost 10 kilometres to get the thatching grass. It has become a rare commodity.

The distance over the past 10 years has mysteriously increased as grass no longer grows where it used to be found.

But Maleta and her sisters have no choice but walk this long distance to get grass. Failure to do that means they will suffer during the rainy season. Their house will leak and they will sleep on wet floors.

Decent iron sheet-roofed houses are still not affordable in most parts of Africa. The demand for grass to thatch houses is still high. Though grass is usually found at long distances, in some parts of the country, it is women who are tasked with the responsibility to look for thatching grass.

In such areas, men argue that they already did their part in constructing the house. If anything, they only assist in thatching the house. The cutting of thatching grass is usually done in winter, during which time the grass is considered mature and fresh.

So every morning, Maleta reaches for her sickle which she keeps in the grass-thatched roof over the veranda. She wears neither shoes nor slippers to cover her feet from the biting cold winters.

So on her bare feet, she travels on the cragged harsh tracks to the hills and valleys where grass grows. Sometimes, on a bad day, the darkness of the dawn makes her bump into sharp rocks that cuts her feet.

“I walk a distance of about 10 kilometres every day for two months, even when I am pregnant. I walk every day to the valleys except on Sunday, the day I go to church. My husband does not care, and if I miss a day without going to mow grass, he calls me a lazy woman,” Maleta says.

Women in African rural areas are travelling long distances to find grass for the thatching of their houses. But if their men do not care, who else cares? African governments do not care.

The combined effects of climate change and desertification are really a burden on women. Very few African families have decent housing. Which means grass is still a precious commodity in Africa.

If it is not thatching a house, the grass is also used to thatch kraals for livestock. But hectares and hectares of land where grass grows are slowly being lost to deserts.

In every minute, almost 24 hectares turn into deserts and the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that two-thirds of Africa’s arable land will become deserts by 2030 if the current trend of desertification is not stopped. This trend, to the poor African women, means increased distance, for them to trek, to find thatching grass for their houses.

In Malawi, poverty is prevalent and few families afford decent houses.

For example, four out of five families live in substandard homes with no hope of being ever able to afford a decent house. A typical village hut is made of mud bricks with a dirty floor and grass-thatched roof which requires frequent repairs. These conditions put the families at high risk of all kinds of diseases with leaky roofs, making the house damp and mud floors attracting insects.

In Malawi, organisations such as Habitat for Humanity do thier part in trying to save the situation where women are the victims in their attempt to find grass. Habitat, for example, fully subsidises homes for orphans and vulnerable groups. It also provides Housing Support Services to low-income people in partnership with housing micro-finance institutions.

The Malawi government in 2015 also introduced Decent and Affordable Housing Subsidy Programme which aims to help rural and peri-urban families to build decent houses. But the 18.5 million population, with not less than 52 percent, living below the poverty line, the number of indecent grass-thatched houses is still high.

And it is women that bear the brunt of such situations as they have to look for grass and make sure the mud floor is always repaired.

Women in Africa are the main victims of climate change and desertification. It is women who struggle with farming and unstable rains have contributed to poor harvest. And this new phenomenon in which grass no longer grows in short distances is attributed to the combined effects of climate change and desertification. So under this phenomenon, women have been condemned to find all basic materials at long distances and something should be done to bail them out of these burdens.

During the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which was adopted in December 2015, Africa strike a deal with rich countries, to allocate huge sums of money to the adaptation and mitigation of the effects of climate change.

At this climate change deal, almost all the African countries submitted their national climate change mitigation and management plans but how many remembered the African woman such as Maleta, who walks long distances to find grass? Very few, if not none, remembered.

And Maleta with her sisters, now, would be wondering of what will happen to them if thatching grass becomes extinct. Who will care?

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