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CARE in Malawi: "We don’t wait until a cyclone hits to start taking action"

Rozina Bakali in front of her home which was destroyed by Tropical Cyclone Freddy. Over 500,000 people have been displaced as a result of the flooding caused by the cyclone. Photo: Deliwe Mataka

Rozina Bakali in front of her home which was destroyed by Tropical Cyclone Freddy. Over 500,000 people have been displaced as a result of the flooding caused by the cyclone. Photo: Deliwe Mataka

Before Tropical Cyclone Freddy made landfall, Malawi was already trying to manage the worst cholera outbreak in decades.

Then, on March 15, the cyclone hit, bringing mudslides, landslides, and flooding to a country already vulnerable to system failure and disease.

According to the UN, the cyclone displaced nearly 660,000 people in southern Malawi and killed 676. Another 537 are still missing.

While searches are ongoing, chances of finding survivors are “slim” according to Malawi’s Department of Disaster Management Affairs.

Sungeni Ajala, a mother of two, watched her family home collapse, flood, and eventually wash away in the floods resulting from Cyclone Freddy. Photo: OCHA/Kiiru Jane

Sungeni Ajala, a mother of two young children, says as the rains increased over the weeks, her family’s house began collapsing, with water reaching inside the home and eventually washing it away entirely.

“By the time we were running away most of our property, including the chickens, had been washed away,” Sungeni says.

“We only managed to salvage a few clothes. My priority was my life and my children lives.”

According to Amos Zaindi, CARE Malawi Country Director, the numbers of those affected by the cyclone are expected to increase as previously inaccessible areas are opening.

CARE Malawi is supporting the Malawi government and partners with assessments, search and rescue efforts, distribution of non-food items, including shelter, and providing safe water, sanitation, and hygiene.

Flood waters rushing the streets of Nsanje in Malawi following torrential rains and floods caused by Cyclone Floods. Photo: Deliwe Mataka

We spoke with Laura Criado Lafuente, Deputy Country Director of Programs for CARE Malawi, on how the organization is delivering aid amid this emergency and how women and girls are particularly impacted.

CARE: Laura, tell us how CARE approaches coordinating support during emergencies such as cyclones. In the case of Cyclone Freddy, what was your plan?

Laura: We don’t wait until a cyclone hits to start taking action. We have a preparedness action plan in place as CARE that outlines the actions we will take, knowing that each cyclone and its conditions are different.

In Malawi, we facilitate a humanitarian partnership network of local organizations. The objective was to strengthen local capacity to be ready for a timely response in terms of a disaster.

We’ve been working with them for the last year and supporting them in training village disaster committees on the same.

About ten days before we expected the cyclone, CARE supported these organizations to send early warning messages to the communities that would be affected. These warning messages ensure that communities can prepare shelter and evacuation centers for those who will be displaced.

We know, because of Cyclone Ana [which hit Malawi in 2022], that delivering humanitarian aid to these areas will be very difficult if a flood occurs, so when we anticipated the cyclone, we had to deliver humanitarian items to a nearby warehouse where they could easily be distributed.

Over the past several months, the Southern Africa region has experienced multiple emergencies. Despite many obstacles, CARE country offices have been working with their local partners to deliver much-needed aid.

CARE: What challenges does CARE face in the immediate aftermath of an emergency such as this cyclone?

Laura: From a logistics perspective, there were a lot of areas that were not accessible since the flooding affected the road infrastructure.

We didn’t have the means to access these areas by boats or helicopters, so we had to wait for external aid from Zambia and South Africa, who provided these logistics.

Access has been very complex, and we’ve had to wait. During this time, we prioritized distributing non-food items that were easier to store in warehouses than food items since we needed to deliver these by helicopter or boat to people in affected areas.

The Madani village after Tropical Cyclone Freddy hit. Photo: Deliwe Mataka, CARE Malawi

CARE: When we talk about distributing ‘aid’ in an emergency, what exactly does that entail?

Laura: CARE Malawi distributed Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene kits [WASH] which is a priority, especially as the country is facing a cholera outbreak and cyclones and floods pose an additional risk for the spread of this disease. There are larger WASH kits delivered to entire communities and smaller kits delivered to households. These kits contain buckets, chlorine, hand soap, laundry soap, toothbrushes, and toothpaste.

We also provide information on sanitation and hygiene to help prevent outbreaks such as cholera. We also provide dignity kits for women and girls, which include underwear, reusable sanitary pads, and chitenge [African cloth]. These are essential for women as many have likely fled their homes with just the clothes on their backs.

CARE: Women and girls are central to CARE’s work. Tell us about the gender considerations that must be made in emergencies.

Laura: Evidence shows that women and girls face additional challenges in case of emergencies. In the case of a cyclone, displaced women and girls stay in evacuation centers which are common spaces with boys and men who they are not familiar with. This poses an additional risk in terms of sexual and gender-based violence.

At a family level, evidence shows that gender-based violence can spike in stressful situations, such as experiencing a disaster where the family has lost their home and assets. We need to raise awareness on this. Psychosocial support is important for anyone in an emergency situation as this is traumatic, especially for women and girls who face additional risks.

Mota Camp established following Tropical Cyclone Freddy. Photo: Deliwe Mataka, CARE Malawi

CARE: In the case of Cyclone Freddy, what heightened risks are you seeing for girls in particular?

Laura: With Cyclone Freddy, most evacuation centers are schools, so children are losing time in classrooms. When schools reopen, families will prioritize boys going back to school, so the dropout rate for girls is expected to increase.

Sometimes, because families have lost everything, they may decide to marry off their daughters as the income or assets they gain from this child marriage can sustain the family. As a result, child marriages and teenage pregnancies increase in disasters.

These challenges are why we do a rapid gender analysis with the government of Malawi, which surveys girls and women. The data we gather in these surveys inform us to design and implement long-term support relevant to girls and women who will be dealing with the impact of this emergency for a long time to come.

You can support CARE’s work in Malawi by donating or sending a CARE Package. Learn more here.

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