The dust has barely settled at Chikowa Primary School in Salima, which hosted the commemoration of International Day for Disaster Reduction.
On Saturday, October 13 the nation paused to reflect on everything done to prevent or reduce the damage caused by natural hazards such as earthquakes, floods, droughts and storms.
This year, government through the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DoDMA) and other stakeholders, organised such a forum to discuss and exhaust mechanisms that can protect communities while involving women and girls.
The stakeholders include Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (Cepa), Oxfam, Save the Children, Concern Universal, World Vision International, Coopi, Evangelical Association of Malawi, Action Aid and UNDP, among others.
Of particular attention were communities in Nsanje, Chikhwawa and Salima which are perpetually affected by two extremes of dry spells and floods.
This year, 6 157 families lost their property, over a thousand hectares of crop fields were ruined and 343 houses were destroyed when tropical cyclone Funso from the Mozambican channel landed on southern Malawi in January.
Pupils from Chikonje and Namiyala primary schools in Nsanje were there with displays on how they pay extra attention to the role played by women and girls to keep their loved ones safe from harm, not just today or tomorrow, but everyday.
Source of livelihood
On display were brooms, baskets and fish traps which, according to Margaret Wiseman (15), a Standard 8 pupil at Chikonje, are a source of livelihood when disasters occur.
Her narrative on how pupils lost educational materials inspired Anita Kalinde, Minister of Gender, Children and Social Welfare, who pledged to present the pupilsâ€™ plight to President Joyce Banda upon her return from Belgium.
Kalinde said 22 000 households were affected by disasters in the 2011/12 in 26 of the 28 districts in the country.
â€œSome lost lives. Government spent over K105 million to rehabilitate the affected families. So, if we were to develop meaningfully, we need to reduce the damage caused by disasters,â€ she said.
The story of Enelles Zex from Group Village Headman Maganga, T/A Maganga was touching. She said women are often the ones in charge of safety both in the home and in the community.
â€œWhether it is making sure food and water are safe to consume, arranging the house so that dangerous items are out of reach or secured, or evacuating their families in advance of a powerful storm, women make critical decisions every day that help reduce disaster risk,â€ she said.
She added that some of these activities may be overlooked but upon closer examination, women and girls prove themselves to be real-life action heroes all year round.
â€œWomen are first responders, rendering first aid or making the decision to call for extra help. They are also teachers, sharing their knowledge with friends, neighbours, family members, and colleagues.
â€œNo matter the risk, women are experts at building resilience within their communities, acting well in advance of an event and always thinking about long-term survival needs. They save money and other resources for the unforeseen challenges, whether prompted by an unpredictable droughts,â€ she said.
On display to showcase how women and girls are resilient to disasters were wood saving stoves by Talandila Stove Production Group.
Team leader Elita Mwale said the stoves reduce their vulnerability and target interventions to enhance community resilience to disasters caused by climate change, thereby increasing agricultural productivity.
Mwale, however, observed that despite all of the instances of progress the fact remains that women are still more frequently affected by natural disasters than are men.
She noted that women and girls are still vulnerable because of high poverty levels but remained optimistic that efforts to empower women and girls to participate in policy and project planning, design, and implementation are vital to reversing the trends.
Gift Mafuleka, deputy director for disaster in Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DoDMA) notes that this yearâ€™s theme comes from the realisation that women and girls are powerful agents of change.
â€œThey have unique knowledge and skills that are crucial when addressing or managing disaster risks. Women and girls are the foundations of resilience in that they are the first to prepare their families for a disaster and the first to put communities back together in the aftermath.
â€œThey are not invisible, voiceless or passive bystanders but are invaluable partners in disaster risk reduction processes. They, therefore, must participate in the sustainable development processes that will shape their future and those of their families and communities,â€ argued Mafuleka during a panel discussion held in Lilongwe on Friday (October 12).
Most affected groups
Key participants during the panel discussion were William Chadza of Cepa, Charles Mazinga of Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, Duncan Ndlovu of WFP and James Kalikwembe of Evangelical Association of Malawi.
In a later interview, Mafuleka said it is not gender but gender inequality that puts women and girls in harmâ€™s way when disasters strike.
â€œPreventing violence against women and girls, sexual abuse and exploitation is effectively reducing the many risks they face during a disaster situation. Men have to join the movement to make women and girls more active and visible players in disaster risk reduction.â€
Responding to the preparedness of the department in light of a seasonal forecast by the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services which predicts prolonged dry spells, Mafuleka said the dry spells automatically means that there will be problems in crop production which will ultimately affect women and girls.
â€œThe current weather forecast is that we are going to have dry spells. Dry spells automatically means we are going to have problems in crop production. So women and girls have to get prepared for this because there is a huge task in front of them,â€ she said.
The message the participants left with is that women in Malawi are agents of resilience which is essential to survive disasters such as cyclical flooding and dry spells.