NOTE: This is a guest post from Danielle Zielinski, a Communications Specialist at Population Action International.
WOLLO, ETHIOPIA — Fatima Said Yesuf woke up when she felt the water touching her face.
She opened her eyes, and it was all around her. Her clothes were drenched. She was no longer on her bed, but floating next to it, among rocks, sand, and what remained of her home.
“That’s when I realized the flood had overpowered the walls and swept us off the bed,” she said. “I started to shout and wake everybody up.”
Fatima and her husband, disoriented and barely awake, frantically fished for their six daughters in the rising tide. They waded through the water, climbed over rocks and hurried to Fatima’s father’s house. At first, they couldn’t find their infant, and Fatima feared she had been swept away in the flood. Thankfully, the girl survived, despite taking in a lot of water through her nose and mouth.
“I never thought that my family would be in danger because of a rain,” Fatima’s husband, Mohammed, said. “We’ve never experienced it. For the rain to come down that hard and flood my house with rocks and sand, and endanger my family… it never crossed my mind.”
Unfortunately, the flash flood Fatima and her family experienced is not an isolated incident. Across the world, temperature and precipitation patterns are changing, and severe storms and extreme weather events of all types are becoming more frequent. Consequences of climate change – such as floods, droughts, and declining agricultural production – affect everyone. But in many developing countries, these changes are making life especially hard for women and families.
Fatima’s family lost everything in the flood – including the stock of food they had been saving for the coming year. They now live with about 20 other families in a relocation camp of corrugated metal shacks covered with plastic tarps. The government has provided them with 15 kilograms of wheat per person. Everything else Fatima’s family has, down to the jerrycan that they use to gather water, is borrowed from relatives and neighbors.
Fatima feels lucky for surviving the flood, and for the generosity of others that is allowing them to scrape by. But she’s barely able to nurse her infant because of her own lack of nutrition, and she can’t afford both food for her daughters and the clothing they need to attend school. She and her husband don’t own their own land, so they work on other people’s farms for a share of the profits. Before the flood, they had been trying to have a son, despite the difficulty of providing for their family of eight on Mohammed’s salary as a laborer.
“I never thought about it before the flood,” Fatima said. “But after the flood, life became really hard. So I made family planning my goal. I got angry at myself for being poor and penniless. I said I’m done having babies from now on. My decision is based on how I will raise my children.”
In Ethiopia, the average woman has more than four children, with fertility rates highest among women living in rural areas, and women who are poor or uneducated. One-third of married women want to prevent pregnancy but lack modern contraception.
Mohammed said he’d heard about family planning before, but didn’t take it seriously. Now, he wishes he had, and supports his wife in her decision. “It would have been useful to us if we had taken spacing our children to heart,” he said. “Having to raise that many children and not having enough to eat takes its toll.”
For now, they take it day by day. Fatima nurses her baby and bakes injera bread in their temporary shelter. Mohammed works in the fields, but the unpredictable weather means the crops are suffering. And their daughters still have nightmares about the flood.
Mohammed used to wish for a boy. Now, he said, his priorities are simpler.
“From now on, we just wish that the children we have will grow up.”
Watch Fatima’s story:
A new documentary, Weathering Change, tells the stories of women around the world who are shouldering the burdens of climate change. To hear more from Fatima and the other women featured in Weathering Change, visit www.weatheringchange.org.
Photo courtesy of Population Action International