Flooding in Senegal forces women into new forms of despair

A young girl walks through the Diougop relocation camp outside of Saint Louis on August 11, 2021
08 December, 2021
Recent flooding of the Senegal river has highlighted once again the continued impact of climate change. Yet within this, women are especially susceptible of destitution, which poses troubling questions for their general survival and family planning.

Fatou*, a former resident of Saint Louis, found herself and her family caught between the Atlantic and flood-prone Senegal River. The area was already flood-prone, but increasingly severe weather changes caused by climate change forced her to move away.

The family of seven – consisting of Fatou, her husband their son and four daughters – now live in Diougop, a makeshift camp shared by 200 other families whose lives changed when the climate crisis caused sea changes to take over their homes. 

"UN figures indicate that 80% of the people displaced by climate change are women, and globally women are far less likely than men to find socio-economic independence and escape poverty"

With the harsh changes causing economic pressure, Fatou ended up selling fish in the market until midnight the night before giving birth because she already had four daughters to think of.

The lack of financial security meant Fatou could not access the contraception she needed until she was aided by MSI Reproductive Choices, an organisation that has been delivering sexual and reproductive health care services to over 155 million women since it was founded in 1976. 

Fatou isn’t the only one whose life has been negatively impacted by the drastically gendered nature of the climate crisis, and the inequality only increases when it comes to low-income communities in the global south

Rising seas have displaced hundreds of people from Guet NDar fishing village to the Diougop relocation camp [Getty Images]
Rising seas have displaced hundreds of people from Guet NDar fishing village to the Diougop relocation camp [Getty Images]

“Resources are scarce now because of climate change. If women can’t choose if or when to become pregnant, their lives and those of their children become difficult. Thanks to family planning, we can support ourselves, look after our children and get on with everyday activities. This is why we use contraception, to reclaim our lives,” says Binetou Sonko, President of the Mbogo Yaye organisation, which focuses on rebuilding local mangroves in Joal, Senegal, and is one of the organisations that have gotten access to contraception through the services MSI provides.

UN figures indicate that 80 percent of the people displaced by climate change are women, and globally women are far less likely than men to find socio-economic independence and escape poverty. Displacement and other climate crisis related consequences leave women more susceptible to child marriages, sexual violence, domestic violence and lack of reproductive care.

These harsh realities are what led journalist and PhD student Reetika Subramanian to start Climate Brides, a project that looks at the connection between early marriage and climate change in South Asia.

Countries like Bangladesh are amidst some of the most vulnerable to the climate crisis. “Sudden events like cyclones create vulnerable spots as well. Families get restructured during a crisis. A Lot of times these ecological realities become part of your family’s decision making,” says Subramnian, adding, “In cases where girls are married at age 14 or 15, parents feel like young girls are no longer their responsibility and they don't feel leaving her behind is a risk in relief camps, despite it being a threatening space with the acute possibility of sexual assault.

"In the region, I’ve worked in doctors were arrested for practising sex-selective abortions, which were demanded out of fears of dowry that end up being their whole life’s income", she concluded. 

In low and middle-income countries, 218 million people currently want, but lack access to contraception. MSI research reports that with access to contraception, and subsequent increased time to gain an education, women can increase their earnings up to 20 percent.

One of the most vulnerable regions where MSI works is Sub Saharan Africa, despite the continent only contributing to two percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions

"A greater global focus on women’s sexual and reproductive health and safety brings about a hope that women will be able to access a more even playing field when it comes to finding socio-economic independence and battling the climate crisis"

“Across the Sahel region, extreme, climate-induced weather events including devastating flooding and droughts, have forced many families to flee their homes, disrupting their contraceptive access and leaving women and girls at risk of unplanned pregnancy. Increasing temperatures, drought, and food insecurity also mean women are having to travel long distances to fetch water and food for their families, increasing the risk of sexual harassment, rape, and other gender-based violence and reducing their ability to seek medical care,” shares Sanou Gning, Sahel Director of MSI Reproductive Choices. 

Cop26, the most recent focus of global climate conversations, has been repeatedly called out for being exclusive as the voices and demands of vulnerable communities across the globe are left unheard.

Gning points out that it only takes two pence a day to protect a young woman from unintended pregnancy for a year and yet contraceptive use across the Sahel is less than 15 percent. It is due to the fact that the needs of these women have so little priority in global forums that their access to care is so limited. 

Rokhi, another woman who lives in Joal shares that the climate emergency has hit the region hard. “We have noticed a lot of changes in the environment. As a result, harvests have shrunk. Before, we could get up to 100 baskets of fish. Now we barely get 10. We cannot rely on the sea or agriculture anymore,” she says, adding that the lack of economic stability has made it harder to support her family.

Previously, she was not only burdened with multiple unwanted pregnancies but also being unable to work due to the physical limitations of being pregnant or having to care for a small child. “Before I accessed family planning, as soon as one child was old enough to walk, I was falling pregnant again. This made it hard because when a pirogue [a small fishing boat] landed, you had to run to get the fish. When you’re pregnant or have a child in your arms, you can’t do it.  

“With family planning, I was able to space my pregnancies and have time to work. It helped us tremendously. It meant we could finally look after ourselves and our children,”  shares Rokhi. 

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Neglect around women’s reproductive health has meant that those now working within vulnerable communities have to take apart generations worth of taboos in order to bring change. “Women in the Sahel face many barriers when it comes to sexual and reproductive health, from myths and misconceptions such as the belief that contraception can make women infertile, to social pressure to have large families or marry and have children young. 

"MSI works with religious leaders in Senegal to help inform community members about the importance of spacing births in accordance with Islamic beliefs. This helps to raise awareness of family planning and the importance and availability of modern contraceptives. MSI also works at the community level, working with women and youth associations to raise greater awareness of family planning and contraception,” Gning shares. 

A greater global focus on women’s sexual and reproductive health and safety brings about a hope that women will be able to access a more even playing field when it comes to finding socio-economic independence and battling the climate crisis.

*Name changed for security reasons

Anmol Irfan is a freelance journalist with bylines in VICE, HUCK, Guardian amongst others. She has experience writing on minority politics, activism, and gender issues. She is also the founder of the Pakistani community platform, Perspectives Magazine 

Follow her on Twitter @anmolirfan22