As the sun’s morning rays stretch across the sky, a long line of women carrying bundles of firewood on their heads walks past the Sipepa Rural Hospital in remote western Zimbabwe. They proceed to the hospital’s backyard where close to 900 villagers have lived in tents since their homes were destroyed by flooding after a tropical storm, Dineo, hit in February.
The displaced – mostly women and children – survive on aid from humanitarian agencies and the government’s social welfare services. Some men stayed behind in their villages to look after what little livestock and family possessions they had left, but many of the women are single mothers or grandmothers and have only their own income to rely on.
For many, it’s been months since they’ve earned a cent. As vendors and subsistence farmers, they used to earn a small income, but the floods destroyed their fields, their belongings and their livestock.
Sharon Mapanga, 35, is a mother of six and works as a vegetable trader. She has been unable to travel to the markets since her home was flooded.
“If it was a normal year, by February I’d start ordering onions and tomatoes from the market and, after some months, I’d have something to pay for school fees when the second term comes [in May],” she says. “But now I’m just sitting here in one place doing nothing.”
Mapanga’s predicament is shared by many of the women she lives alongside in the hospital yard. Her tent-mate, Anna Sibanda, worries about whether she’ll ever be able to restart her cattle business and continue putting her three children through boarding school.
A 2016 report by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs shows that, compared to men, women are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. In emergency situations, such as floods, women perform an even higher amount of unpaid work – such as tending to children or cooking – than usual.
“Due to lack of safety nets, limited social protection policies in the agriculture sector and the invisibility of care work, the impact of a disaster is often more severe for rural women,” says Christina Kangawari, the international project manager of ActionAid Zimbabwe. The international NGO has measured women’s unpaid care work across the globe and found women perform a higher number of unpaid tasks compared to men.
Kangawari urges the government to make national budgetary provisions to recognize unpaid work responsibilities such as child care, finding water and fetching firewood. Yet, at present, the cash-strapped government largely depends on international donors to provide emergency aid.
At the Sipepa camp, women spend their days doing communal chores, taking turns cooking, cleaning toilets or picking up rubbish around the hospital yard. On cooking duty, Sibusiso Sibanda, 40, feels frustrated. Before the floods, she was looking for a job as a cook, but she says she will have to wait to be resettled before she resumes job-hunting.
Jeselina Masuku is feeling impatient, too. This 67-year-old rural farmer lost all but three of her 35 goats to the floods. She now shares a tent with 28 other people, and wants to move away so she can start her life anew. The government is making plans to relocate 298 households from the floodplain to less fertile but higher ground. Plots of land have been pegged; however, the allocation and building process may take up to six months.
“It’d be better if they just allowed us to live in tents on the new plots of land, at least that way we could earn our own living rather than depending on someone else,” she says. Masuku, like many others, feels this would give her greater freedom to go about her daily life, farming the land or doing other jobs.
This lengthy displacement has caused some villagers to become restless and return to their destroyed homesteads.
Silibaziso Ncube, 59, has resorted to commuting back and forth from the camp to her village to look after her remaining livestock and crops. Although her chickens were swept away by the water, some goats survived and she hopes her sorghum crop will be ready to harvest this month.
“I want to go to a new [place] because staying here in the mud is impossible. We survive on the grain we are given by social welfare, and we drink the water from the river, but we need to start our lives again in a new place,” she says.
The Zimbabwe government has launched a domestic and international appeal for donations and is currently seeking about $200 million to repair hundreds of destroyed roads, schools, hospitals and bridges. While repair work has begun, restarting economic activities with limited access to essential services such as clinics or roads presents an immense challenge for these rural communities.
At end of March, hundreds of women in Sipepa received sanitary kits from the U.N. Population Fund and most of the villagers in the camp were given a one-off $80 welfare grant by the German NGO Welthungerhilfe.
Although this helped, some women feel it was not enough – what they want is an income. But given the current pace of reconstruction efforts, the women of Sipepa may have to wait a while longer before they can get back to work and rebuild their lives.