Researchers have found evidence that climate change is making gender-based violence and mental-health problems worse for the most vulnerable women in Malawi.

Experts at Glasgow Caledonian University’s Mary Robinson Centre for Climate Justice carried out an in-depth six-month study in Malawi speaking to women who have been hit hardest by climate change.

The study found that as many as 86% of the women surveyed admitted their mental health and wellbeing had been affected by climate change, compared to just 15% saying the same about their physical health.

Professor Tahseen Jafry, Director of the Mary Robinson Centre for Climate Justice, said: “These testimonies are harrowing and provide clear evidence that climate change does contribute to changes in mental health and issues of violence faced by women.

“This research is important to ensure that solutions to the impacts of climate change are people centred, in that they do not ignore what vulnerable groups are personally experiencing.”

The researchers say Malawi, in south-eastern Africa, is highly vulnerable to climate change and can experience extreme and unpredictable weather events such as drought, flooding and cyclones.

This can cause loss of life and contribute towards food shortages, destruction of livelihoods, displacement, and deepening poverty, all of which, the researchers say, negatively impact the population’s physical and mental health.

The study, funded by the Scottish Government, gathered data through surveys and one-on-one interviews with local women who are bearing the brunt of gender-based violence and mental health.

The aim of the study was to gather evidence, find solutions with a range of stakeholders, and make recommendations to protect women from the mental-health impacts of climate change, while also addressing gender-based violence and supporting progressive social change at a national and local level. 

The project involved discussions with 213 local women and 46 in-depth interviews, where a mental-health district nurse was on stand-by to support as needed. The women were also encouraged to contact local support networks and provided with long-term support counselling.

More than 86% of the 213 surveyed women said their mental health and wellbeing had been affected by the changes in weather. In this context, participants spoke of emotional pain (30%), feeling sorry, sad, or depressed (17%), worrying and restlessness (16%) and the mental-health impacts related to their marriage (10%). Respondents also mentioned feeling devastated or traumatised (6%), stressed (6%), experiencing fear (5%), being traumatised by physical impacts (5%), crying (2%), and being confused and frustrated (2%). More than 5% admitted having suicidal thoughts. Only 2% (four respondents) mentioned coping strategies, including “getting used” to these emotions.

Their biggest worry was for their children and the effects climate-induced food insecurity can have on them, both in the short and long term.

Mothers worried about disasters making it impossible to provide enough food for their children, leading to malnutrition and hunger, which would have a detrimental effect on their education, health and development in general.

Many mothers said they felt guilty about not being able to properly raise their children, an emotion described by one of the participants as “painful”. There was also at least one case of a child losing their life to a landslide, traumatising the mother, who needed to continue caring for her other two children in the direct aftermath of the disaster. Another interviewee mentioned having to leave their three-year-old child in someone else’s care due to mental illness.

Verbal abuse was also a common theme identified among the majority of women and 24 disclosed they had been victims of physical abuse, while 44 women specifically highlighted incidents of physical abuse, saying frequently that “husbands beat their wives” when were asked about gender-based violence occurring in their community.

These emotional testimonies will help decision-makers in Malawi identify, design and develop community-led solutions to adapting to climate-change that minimise the risk on women’s mental health and deal with gender-based violence for vulnerable groups.

Researchers have recommended the design of a robust network of support for women (and men) using referral systems and the development of victim-support facilities.

The project was carried out in collaboration with Mzuzu University in Malawi, and Life Concern, a Malawian non-profit organisation which provides sustainable economic empowerment to women and vulnerable populations. The researchers also worked closely with the Malawian Government’s Ministry of Health.

Researchers presented their project findings and recommendations at a workshop in Lilongwe, Malawi.

They met with mental-health practitioners, policy makers, academics, activists, government stakeholders and individuals from affected communities to find areas of common understanding and identify recommendations for support structures for women in need and seek collaborations for further research across more regions in the country and beyond.

Professor Jafry said: “There has been little research to date that explores the relationship between these issues, the overlapping risk factors and the extent of the problem.

“Climate change is exacerbating issues of mental health and gender-based violence in countries all over the world, but more research is needed in countries like Malawi, that are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, to build the evidence base and overcome the global lack of knowledge and data on the impact that climate change is having on mental health and gender-based violence. This will help to achieve climate justice for those who have contributed least to climate change but are bearing the brunt of the crisis.

“Globally, there is now great impetus to look at these issues and use it to strengthen the resolution that was announced by the UN General Assembly in July 2022, whereby they declared access to clean and healthy environment a universal human right. This is such a positive development and I hope that our research can play a vital role in underpinning the much-needed work that is required to protect those on the front line of the climate crisis.”

Environment Minister Mairi McAllan MSP said: “All too often, it is the people least responsible for global warming that are suffering its worst consequences. This research helps to illustrate the full and terrible extent of those consequences, including the disproportionate impact on women, their mental wellbeing and physical safety.

“Scotland is committed to supporting countries that have experienced loss and damage as a result of climate change and to ensuring we recognise and address the gendered impacts of the climate crisis. This work will help us deliver on that promise and provide a valuable resource for others looking to address the often-overlooked impacts of loss and damage.”