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  • Human Rights Research Center

Violence Against Women During Extreme Weather Events in Sub-Saharan Countries

Author: Xinyu Zheng

December 13, 2023

This is the second article in the series to understand violence against women during extreme weather events. This time, we will focus on the sub-Saharan region, where violence against women is at risk of increasing during more intensive and frequent droughts.

Violence Against Women in Sub-Saharan Countries

Violence against women (VAW) in sub-Saharan countries mostly occurs in the form of intimate partner violence (domestic violence), non-partner sexual assault, child marriage, and female genital mutilation (FGM). As shown in the graph below, 29 out of 33 countries reported percentages of ever-partnered women (women who reported having had sex, been married, or been in a romantic relationship) experiencing intimate partner physical and/or sexual violence higher than 20%. Among them, Equatorial Guinea ranked the highest, with almost 60% of ever-partnered women ever experiencing intimate partner violence and over 40% during the last 12 months. Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Gabon followed, where over 45% of ever-partnered women reported experiencing intimate partner violence during their lifetime. [1]

Child marriage and FGM were also widely practiced in sub-Saharan areas. In contrast to intimate partner violence, child marriage and FGM incidents are more spatially concentrated. The left panel of the maps below shows that the proportion of women married before 18 years old is higher in central African countries, especially those near the Sahara Desert. The right panel, however, reveals that Western and Northeastern African countries had higher proportions of women who have undergone FGM than the rest of Africa. [1]

One major explanation for this pattern is the roots of child marriage and FGM in community traditions. Communities with prevalent child marriage and FGM justify the violence as adherence to their cultural norms. They value females’ “purity” and tend to marry girls at young ages to reduce the possibility of losing that “purity” before marriage. They may also make girls undergo FGM as a demonstration of such “purity” to their future husbands [2]. Economic factors also play a role in forcing early marriage, as suggested by the association between the proportion of women married before 18 and the GDP per capita in each country [3]. Sub-Saharan countries have dowry schemes similar to Bangladesh, which encourages child marriage by pricing girls higher at their younger ages [4].

Droughts and floods in Sub-Saharan countries

Sub-Saharan countries are typically vulnerable to extreme weather, such as droughts and floods. Annually during 2011-2020, over 12 million people in the sub-Saharan region were affected by droughts, and almost 3 million were affected by floods, representing about 1.2% of the total population in sub-Saharan Africa [5]. In comparison, nearly 4 million people, only 0.3% of the total population in China, were annually affected by droughts during 2011-2020 [6]. Although China is a flood-prone country, 1.7% of the population was affected annually in the last decade [6]. Sub-Saharan countries are impacted heavily by anomalous rainfall due to their high reliance on agriculture and natural resources. According to the report by UNCTAD, in 2021, 52% of employed people in sub-Saharan Africa were active in agriculture [7]. Climate change is catalyzing extreme weather events, especially droughts. Between 2021 and 2022, the number of drought-affected people in sub-Saharan Africa soared to almost 50 million, 25 million annually [5].

VAW during extreme weather

Some academic papers found that an increase in intimate partner violence follows droughts and floods. For example, one such paper pooled intimate partner violence data for 83,990 women from 19 sub-Saharan countries during 2011-2018, and found that women who experienced either severe or moderate/mild droughts reported experiencing controlling partners and physical and sexual violence at higher rates [8]. Another paper covered 40 countries globally, including sub-Saharan areas, from 2000-2018. While the data from sub-Saharan countries do not suggest associations between droughts and emotional, physical, and sexual violence, it does provide evidence that droughts affect controlling partner behaviors [9].

The focus of academic research on intimate partner violence does not mean other VAW problems during extreme weather are minor. All research is based on Demographic and Health Surveys provided by the US Agency of International Development, suggesting a more accessible data source on intimate partner violence than other forms of VAW. Alternative sources, such as news and humanitarian aid organizations, unveiled how extreme weather events increased the incidence of child marriage, FGM, and sex selling.

Persistent heatwaves and irregular rainfall made clean water inaccessible and forced women, who are usually assigned tasks to collect natural resources, to travel further for water and be exposed to non-partner violence. A 2016 report from Africa Renewal noted that it took more than 20 hours per week to locate safe water, regularly examine the water level in the existing wells, and carry the water home [10]. An analysis by the Kenya Red Cross found that women and girls walk more than three times longer than before, up to 30 km in some locations [11]. Worst, as Asa Torkelsson, the Economic Empowerment Adviser at the UN Women's Regional Office for Eastern and Southern Africa, says, there have even been cases of exchanging sex for access to water sources or firewood [10]. In cases where villagers are displaced, women are vulnerable to refugees in the camp and at risk of being trafficked for sex during traveling. Leila Abdulahi, a Somali refugee in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya after the 2011 drought, recalled that “We are afraid to go fetch firewood in the forest. Bandits attack us in our own homesteads and rape us. If I had the money, I would just buy firewood, and I wouldn’t then have to go or send my daughter to the forest.” [10]

Droughts or floods trim food production and household income flow, leading families with girls to some “coping strategies” - child marriage and FGM. Sub-Saharan countries have a dowry system similar to Bangladesh, encouraging families to marry their daughters early in return for resources after extreme weather shocks and driving the practice of FGM at the same time in preparation for marriages. The dowry system also encourages FGM directly by pricing girls who have undergone FGM higher than those who have not [4]. While there is a lack of evidence to link child marriage and FGM with extreme weather events, many organizations observed a rise in child marriage and FGM in Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, and Malawi after droughts [11][12][13]. Mohamed Abdullahi, the head of the United Nations International Children’s Fund Kenya’s northeast office, says that cases of child marriage have increased in the country as a result of “man-made and natural disasters, specifically drought” [12]. According to UNICEF’s analysis, in Ethiopia, child marriage and FGM increased by an average of 119% and 23% across regions worst hit by the droughts between January and April 2021 and the same period in 2022 [11].

To cope with aggravated poverty caused by extreme weather, some females are forced to sell sex to feed their families. World Vision staff witnessed a surge in the number of girls resorting to transactional sex in Angola and Zimbabwe during prolonged droughts. According to CARE International, some reported that girls as young as 14 resort to selling sex, especially en route to South Africa and near goldmines in Zimbabwe. ActionAid regional advisor Chikondi Chabvuta also said women and girls were forced into transactional sex in Mozambique and Malawi [14].

Domestic and global efforts

Almost all sub-Saharan countries have laws, policies, strategic plans, or services to combat intimate partner violence, non-partner violence, child marriage, FGM, human trafficking, and prostitution, but their efficacy is uncertain. For example, Kenya adopted the Protection Against Domestic Violence Act in 2015, the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act in 2011, and the Children’s Act (Minimum Age Marriage) in 2001 and provided free hotlines and training in clinical care for survivors of sexual violence. Kenya even announced a National Policy for Prevention and Response to Gender-based Violence in 2014 to eliminate gender-based violence (GBV) and a plan to coordinate the enforcement of anti-GBV policies and to ensure accessibility of services to GBV victims or survivors. [1] Those efforts drove down the percentage of women between 20 and 24 who were married before 18 from 34% in 1994 to 23% in 2016 [12]. However, the lack of more recent statistics makes it hard to estimate the impact of climate change, COVID-19, and the Ukrainian War on VAW in Kenya, which is at risk of rebounding.

There is also no systematic review of the response to VAW in the current extreme weather management plans for sub-Saharan countries, but Kenya gives a clue. OCHA coordinated the Humanitarian Partnership Team to release a flash plan to respond to the five consecutive below-average rain seasons in Kenya. The plan estimated the size of the population at risk of GBV during the drought, 2.8 million in total, and designed intervention projects targeting 871,000 people in need, requiring 1.5 million dollars of investment [15]. However, GBV and VAW are not the mandates of the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) in Kenya. NDMA highlights the plan and projects to secure crop and livestock production, indirectly prevent the incidence of VAW, and mentions the protection of vulnerable populations, which is too vague to know if it includes protection from VAW [16]. In other sub-Saharan countries, especially in Western, Central, and Eastern Africa, where VAW is more prevalent and economic sustainability is unsure, it is highly possible that VAW is not prioritized in their extreme weather response plans.

International organizations intervened with some women empowerment projects to combat climate change, although on a small scale. For example, UN Women and UNEP started an initiative, “Women’s Entrepreneurship for Sustainable Development,” in Senegal to train women on clean energy technologies and access to financial resources. Another project by Solar Sister cooperated with women in Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda to sell solar power equipment not only for extra income but also for more reliable power supplies [10].

Women’s participation in renewable energy expansion might be a promising path to both alleviate VAW and mitigate extreme weather conditions in the long run, but in the near term, insufficient resources for sub-Saharan countries to consider VAW during extreme weather might constitute the major barrier to depressing VAW further.



*Cover image: A displacement camp for people impacted by drought in Baidoa, Somalia, in Sept. 2022. [Image credit: Ed Ram/Getty Images]

[1] UN Women, Global Database on Violence Against Women.

[2] Human Rights Watch. (2010, June 16). Q&A on female genital mutilation.

[4] Aronoff, R. (2021, June 9). Climate violence in sub-Saharan Africa: A gendered review. Earth Refuge.

[6] EM-DAT - The International Disaster Database.

[7] Akiwumi, P.. (2022, September 30). Revitalizing African agriculture: Time for bold action. UNCTAD.

[8] Epstein, A., Bendavid, E., Nash, D., Charlebois, E. D., & Weiser, S. D. (2020). Drought and intimate partner violence towards women in 19 countries in sub-Saharan Africa during 2011-2018: A population-based study. PLOS Medicine, 17(3), e1003064.

[9] Cooper, M., Sandler, A., Vitellozzi, S., Lee, Y., Seymour, G., Haile, B., & Azzari, C. (2021). Re-examining the effects of drought on intimate-partner violence. PLOS ONE, 16(7), e0254346.

[10] Mourdoukoutas, E.. (2016, August 5). Women grapple with harsh weather. Africa Renewal.

[11] UNICEF. (2022, June 28). Child marriage on the rise in Horn of Africa as drought crisis intensifies.

[12] Wadekar, N., Swanson, W. (2020, August 12). Child Brides of Climate Change. Pulitzer Center.

[13] IUCN. (2020). Gender-based violence and environment linkages: The violence of inequality.

[14] Batha, E. (2020, January, 30). Cheap as bread, girls sell sex to survive hunger crisis in Africa. Thomson Reuters Foundation News.

[15] OCHA. (2020, September 4). Kenya Drought Response Plan 2023.


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