Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe have been left devastated by the effects of Cyclone Idai which hit south eastern Africa earlier this month.
In Zimbabwe - Mutare, Chipinge and Chimanimani are the worst affected districts. Many people lost their lives, either swept away by the flood waters or trapped by huge boulders and debris.
There is much to be said about the lack of disaster preparedness. Every survivor speaks first about how the cyclone caught them by surprise. ‘Tanga takatorara’ (we were sleeping) is the first thing people say when asked to recount their experience.
Information has been trickling in since then and a better picture of the true extent of the loss of human life is emerging. In Rusitu Valley, an entire town was swept away leaving four houses where 147 once stood.
A group of men tell of how when the waters began to rise, people in the valley gathered at the police station. They tied a rope to a tree and for a short while were able to evacuate people to safety. But after the rope broke and a huge wave of water came rushing down the valley, they had to run for their lives and lead their families up into the hills.
Many children are still missing
As I stand amid the destruction a week after the cyclone hit, I try to comprehend the fact that the pile of rocks in front of us were, just a few days before, a bustling town. When speaking to survivors, many tell us how in the moments after being swept away by the flood waters they had to let go of their children and do not know where they are. Over 40 children are still missing.
Women and girls often eat last or not at all when food supplies dwindle.
Those displaced by the floods in Chimanimani district have sought refuge in informal camps or are being hosted by neighbours. They spend their days frantically searching for missing family members, waiting for news from government and sharing what little they know with aid agencies who are assisting them.
Many women are among those standing by the river banks, looking for their children and other relatives. They alternate between violently weeping and trying to stay strong. Men are there too, part of the search team, lifting and digging, desperately keeping from crying.
Women and girls take on extra responsibilities
Within the camps and host families, women and adolescent girls, traditionally tasked with care and domestic work, have to take on additional responsibilities during crises. They stoically get on with the business of figuring out where to get clean water for everyone - most now have to travel much further away than before as their usual water sources have been destroyed or contaminated.
Walking back home will be dangerous, but so is hunger.
They also have find firewood to cook the meagre food resources they have. Many of the women I spoke to told of their struggle to source wood to cook, even before the floods. They mostly use maize stalks and sticks that girls are tasked to gather while the older women take care of the sick, elderly and young. Even when they are ill themselves.
It is these women who form the majority of people queuing up to receive food aid in order to ensure there is a meal for their families that evening, another chore they are tasked with. And when food arrives late, as it often does, the women just have to wait because what else can they do when their family has to eat? Walking back home will be dangerous, but so is hunger.
Risks for girls and women increase during crises
In an area already affected by high rates of HIV infection among young people, plus teenage pregnancy and child marriage, the risks - especially for adolescent girls and young women - only increase during an emergency.
Women and girls often eat last or not at all when food supplies dwindle. Married women have to ensure that their conjugal rights are fulfilled even in cramped camp conditions with no privacy, holding back their grief for the sake of their children.
I spoke with Mbuya about life after the flood. Although everything in her village was destroyed, she has resolved to keep life as normal as possible for her 8 grandchildren including Munashe who is a sponsored child.
The family still wake up early, fetch water, make a small fire on which they cook porridge, take baths and send the children to school. 14-year-old Munashe, as the oldest grandchild, does the bulk of this work. It’s not uncommon in her community and is seen as good training for when she marries, which on average will be two years from now. Her mother and both her aunts were married by the age of 16.
Munashe, however, wants to finish school, get a good job and take care of her grandmother, her siblings and cousins. She is in form 1 and her birth certificate and books were ruined by the floods that destroyed her home. But even amid this crisis, children still have hope.
We aim to ensure equality among survivors
I am left thinking, how everyone affected has lost something or someone but girls face the most barriers on their journey to recovery. Over and above the grief and poverty, their gender and age work against them. We have to keep this at the centre of our focus without losing sight of what everyone is struggling through.
That is the challenge that responding to disasters throws at us – but it is our responsibility to ensure that there are equal opportunities and equal outcomes for all those who survived Cyclone Idai.