Samira, 14, lives in Zambia’s Central Province, an area badly affected by the food crisis currently gripping Southern Africa. She wants to be a nurse but currently struggles to stay awake in class.
Since the food crisis began, Samira’s food intake has halved, and she survives on just one meal per day.
Not only is Samira tired, but her school attendance is much lower than it should be. She’s regularly forced to miss school, either to look after her younger siblings or to go out looking for work.
Girls hit hard by crises
Existing gender inequalities and weaker bargaining power mean girls are more likely to miss school than boys.
“It’s been hard for me to survive without food. Sometimes I miss school so I can look after my younger siblings so they have enough food to eat,” she says.
Both of Samira’s parents have passed away so she lives with her grandmother and 3 siblings.
As often as 3 times a week, Samira stays away from school doing whatever she can to raise money. “I miss school because I do ‘piece work’. I wash clothes and sell vegetables,” Samira says.
Her work includes going door-to-door, exposing her to risks. “It’s scary because I meet different people. I don’t know what they think, where they are from, I just meet them.” Samira knows that what she is doing could potentially be dangerous, but because of a lack of food, she feels she has no choice.
I miss school so I can look after my younger siblings so they have enough food to eat.
For the last 15 years, the rainy season in Zambia has run from October to March. But now, rains have been falling as late as mid-December. And when they do fall, they’re erratic. This is the third year in a row that Zambia faces a failed harvest due to late rains, dry spells and flooding.
Ramin Shahzamani, Plan International Zambia Country Director, explains, “The impact of climate change is warming Southern African countries twice as rapidly as others. This means the rain patterns have changed completely. Last year we had no rains and this year the rains came a bit late and no one is sure how long they will last.”
While the repercussions of food and water insecurity are felt across communities, the effect can be particularly distressing for adolescent girls. One of the hidden impacts of a crisis like this concerns menstrual hygiene management.
Girls’ menstrual hygiene affected
“When you are menstruating, it’s really hard to come to school when you haven’t bathed,” Samira explains. “You have to take a bath twice a day, but due to lack of water you can’t because the distance from where I live to where I am drawing water is 5km. Can you imagine walking from home to there and back while you are menstruating?”
Not only does water scarcity pose a challenge to menstrual hygiene management, but the increasing unaffordability of sanitary materials often leads to girls and women resorting to alternatives that may expose them to infections.
There are also worries around long-term development for young people missing school. For Samira, and her dreams of being a nurse, the longer lasting impact is concerning. “If I miss some lessons, it will be very hard for me when it comes to exams. People end up saying: “She does not like going to school.” But they don’t know what I am experiencing.”
Today Samira will attend class. But tomorrow she will probably have to work to get food for her siblings.
Around 2.3 million people in Zambia are in urgent need of food assistance.
Plan International is working alongside the government to provide food to some of the hardest-hit districts, including distributing food to schools 3 times per week. We are also implementing measures to keep children, especially girls, safe.
Shahzamani says, “We are supporting as many families and girls as possible. But there is still a huge unmet need.
“We are calling on all humanitarian actors to recognise the specific needs and risks facing adolescent girls. Food insecurity often puts girls at increased risk. We’re calling on donors to urgently scale up funding to help the communities hardest hit by the hunger crisis.”