Human Rights

Disasters as an Opportunity for Addressing Gender Inequality in Malawi

Current Climate Change Situation

Climate change continues to take a toll on the lives of people across the globe. According to UN Women, the effects of it are so dire and increasingly detrimental to the lives of people, especially women and children living in already affected societies in developing countries.[1] This is despite their limited contribution to the emission of greenhouse gases that are implicated as causes of global warming and, subsequently, climate change. The 2023 IPCC report indicates that extreme climate change events have rendered communities to acute food and water insecurity.[2] The report further indicates that climate change has caused widespread losses and damage through the destruction of homes and infrastructure and loss of property and income, with adverse effects on gender and social equity.[3] A typical example of a region acutely affected by both climate change and the subsequent disasters it triggers is Malawi.

Cyclone Freddy, which mainly hit the southern region of Malawi early this year, attests to the findings of the IPCCC above. The cyclone affected nearly 883,000 houses, forcing 659,278 people to leave their homes and shelter in 747 displacement sites, including schools, churches, and community facilities.[4] Additionally, the cyclone affected, damaged, destroyed, or rendered schools as displacement sites leading to disruption of learning for over 738,200 children (724,811 in primary schools and 13,458 in secondary schools).[5] While government calls for support to normalise the situation in the affected districts, specific reflection also has to be made on how these disasters offer an opportunity for addressing gender inequalities within the communities.

Gender Equality Legal Frameworks

Firstly, Malawi has put in place measures meant to promote gender equality and empower women through projects and programmes implemented at different levels. These have been inspired and enhanced through legal frameworks such as CEDAW, 1979; Maputo Protocol, 2005; and Malawi’s Gender Equality Act, 2016, among others. Specifically, the Gender Equality Act is meant to promote gender equality, equal integration, influence, empowerment, dignity, and opportunities, for men and women in all functions of society.[6] On the other hand, Environment Management Act 2016 provides that in the course of sustainable use and management of natural resources, gender equality issues shall be integrated and mainstreamed as a matter of general principles.[7] Most importantly, the Malawi Constitution recognises the right of women to full and equal protection by the law and the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of their gender.[8] These provisions alone provide grounds for claiming and demanding representation of women in the decision-making process of any sort and disaster adaptation approaches and programmes in particular.

Opportunities for Gender Equality Interventions

Women and girls are excluded from the decision-making processes at different. Sometimes, this exclusion is not so obvious. However, disasters tend to highlight and bring into the open these preexisting gender inequalities. Disasters openly reveal the disparities in access to resources, decision-making processes, and social norms that affect women and girls. For instance, in the recent Cyclone Freddy in Malawi, women and girls living in camps appealed for the provision of water and hygiene facilities as well as the dire need for sanitary facilities. Even though access to water and sanitary pads is a challenge that women and girls face regardless of disasters, the cyclones increased this need’s visibility. Such visibility is an opportunity to address these gender issues and promote gender equality discussion and action.

Secondly, disasters can potentially provide an opportunity of addressing policy and institutional changes for gender equality. For instance, following Cyclone Freddy, the Malawi government raised an alarm that to rebuild communities from the disasters brought about by the Cyclones, it will need over $700 million.[9] Probably, such a call will be accompanied by a revision of guidelines, policies, and regulations on how these resources could be utilised to attain the optimum restoration of lives. This is another opportunity to incorporate gender-sensitive policies and practices that can ensure women’s representation at different levels. Additionally, it presents an opportunity for providing targeted support to address the specific needs of women and girls both during and after a disaster.

Furthermore, disasters likely provide an opportunity for the empowerment and participation of women and girls in the execution of duties and responsibilities that are traditionally dominated by or assigned to men. This contradicts some findings that assert that disasters provide grounds where stereotypical role perceptions and tradition-bound behaviour patterns resurface or are strengthened.[10] During the response to Cyclone Freddy, a considerable number of women participated in the rescues of missing people and actively sourced income to support their families. On the other hand, some men looked after their young children and even supported their families to source water, cook and care for the elderly. These are shifts in gender roles and norms that were taken upon by women and men due to the disruption. In traditional and ordinary situations, these are roles and responsibilities that they hardly perform. This shift presents an opportunity to challenge the dominant stereotypes surrounding negative gender norms that are toxic and contribute negatively to the advancement of gender equality and the enjoyment of human rights by the female populace.

Additionally, disasters provide an opportunity for education and awareness of gender issues among stakeholders. As people are more exposed to the gendered impacts of disasters, the likelihood of integrating gender issues in planning, response, and implementation is raised. This is because there is already publicity and increased outreach by different players responding to the disasters. This presents an opportunity to bring more awareness to gender issues and a platform for the presentation of approaches and strategies on how gender issues can be integrated into institutions, and communities and even reflected upon by individuals.

Meanwhile, as women and girls are incorporated into the decision-making process, they are further exposed to spaces of representing others in camps and other public engagements platforms. Subsequently, they harness and sharpen their public engagement and conflict management skills. These are skills that they need for life after the disasters in addressing other social ills that women and girls are facing in the communities. Thus, the disasters, in one way or the other, offer them a forum for unveiling their unexplored potentials, which might have remained muffled and uncultivated within them but for the disasters.


In as much as disasters such as Cyclone Freddy negatively impacted people’s lives and property, the unfortunate event should be seized and looked upon as an opportunity for interventions that promote gender equality. Nevertheless, more sustainable and deliberate efforts have to be made, beyond the disaster, to ensure concrete results are achieved. Systematic integration of gender equality initiatives, on top of the already existing approaches and initiatives, has to exceed the programmes dealing with disaster response if the aspiration set in the international, regional, and domestic gender equality instruments are to be achieved.

[1] UN Women (2019) Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals. The Gender Snapshot 2019, New York: UN Women and UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs.



[4] Malawi: Tropical Cyclone Freddy – Flash Update No. 12 (7 April 2023).

[5] Malawi: Tropical Cyclone Freddy – Flash Update No. 11 (31 March 2023).

[6] Gender Equality Act, Act opening narrative.

[7] Environment Management Act,2016, Art.3 (n).

[8] Malawi Constitution 1994 (rev. 2017), S (24).

[9] Lameck Masina, ‘Malawi Appeals for More Cyclone Freddy Recovery Aid’ (VOA News, 3 May 2023) < > accessed 19 May 2023.

[10] Acar, Feride, and Gamze Ege. Women’s human rights in disaster contexts: how can CEDAW help?. Ankara, Turkey ( United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, 2001) 3.


By Gift Gawanani Mauluka

Gift Gawanani Mauluka is a PhD candidate at the Chair for African Legal Studies at the University of Bayreuth.

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