In recent years, life for citizens in the small Kingdom of Lesotho has changed significantly. The rains of farming season arrive increasingly later, turning once-lush gardens into patches of dust. With 90 percent of rural water sources already dried up, Lesotho cannot produce harvests bountiful enough to sustain humans or their livestock, exacerbating an already grim hunger crisis. As the country’s food and water supplies dwindle and Lesotho’s people are forced to rely on unsafe water sources to survive, cases of diarrhea, typhoid, and measles increase drastically, too. Now, with a third consecutive failed harvest season in sight, 500,000 Basotho lives–– nearly a quarter of the country’s population––are at risk of starvation, a 64 percent increase from last year.
Lesotho’s current crisis can be traced in part to man-made increases in the global temperature, which have led to its prolonged droughts. With the consequences of further climate change—and further drought—looming, the people of Lesotho are desperate for relief. Yet for one particular group—Basotho women—the situation is especially dire: Not only does drought bring threats of starvation and economic hardship, but climate change-induced impoverishment also drives increases in gendered violence and sexual assault. Thus, Lesotho is the perfect case study for examining the climate crisis through an intersectional, ecofeminist lens.
Lesotho’s agricultural economy is unique in that women are its primary drivers, making up the majority of Lesotho’s farmers and bearing the responsibility of providing food and water for their families. Despite serving as primary providers though, female farmers generally have land with smaller productive capacities. Because of this, women, rather than men, are often the first to feel the economic impacts of poor harvests, and have greater difficulty coping with shocks to the agricultural economy caused by a changing climate.
Importantly, the drought’s economic consequences are not entirely independent from increases in gendered violence in Lesotho. According to a 2016 study conducted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), gender-based violence increases during times of drought in Lesotho. Indeed, Lesotho’s Child and Gender Protection Unit (CGPU) reported an appalling 125 cases of gender-based violence per week during the drought season—a shocking number even as sexual assaults in Lesotho go grossly underreported. Notably, these disturbingly high rates of gendered violence are often rooted in the climate crisis. For example, when droughts occur, women must travel farther distances and for longer periods of time to locate viable water sources, putting them at risk of assault during their prolonged and often unprotected journeys. Men, desperate for water themselves, also have greater incentives to forcibly take water from women carrying it back to their villages. Even within families, men often blame the women for the lack of water and food––as the provision of such goods is traditionally a female responsibility––which can result in greater domestic and sexual violence in the household.
The precarious economic conditions created by climate change may also leave women with no choice but to trade their bodies for the food and money they need to survive, a trend largely seen in Lesotho. According to the United Nations, the drought has increased the number of women and girls leaving their villages in search of sex work—much of which involves trafficked and underage women. Child marriages have also increased in the last months of the drought, compounding issues of school drop-out and child abuse by older husbands. Issues of sexual violence and sex work are also inherently tied to Lesotho’s most prominent health crisis: HIV, which afflicts nearly 25 percent of the adult population. Women and sex workers are disproportionally affected by this disease, with 29 percent and 71 percent infection rates respectively. Past droughts have increased HIV rates by 11 percent, further demonstrating the incredible breadth of the negative impacts caused by rising temperatures.
As Lesotho looks to combat these issues and fight for the wellbeing of Basotho women, it’s essential to consider the connection between the attempt to dominate women’s bodies and the colonization and exploitation of African ecosystems. While recently worsening climate change has certainly contributed to much of this gendered violence, Lesotho and its women have long been unfairly burdened by the environmental consequences of colonial and Western development. Under a century of British imperialism, colonists overthrew Lesotho’s traditional economies and forcibly redefined the relationship between the Basotho people and their land by imposing wage capitalism and cash-crop dependency, specifically through the prioritization of mining for profit over farming for sustenance. Today, even as Lesotho pledges to reduce any harmful emissions by an incredible 35 percent in the next ten years, it bears the brunt of the climate change caused primarily by wealthy, developed nations like Great Britain, the United States, and South Africa, the regional hegemon that exploits Lesotho’s precious water. Moreover, colonialism has redefined Lesotho’s social, political, and economic structures as well as its environmental ones: The implementation of decades-old patriarchal British laws has exacerbated Lesotho’s already prominent gender inequality problem by designating men as legal heads of household, placing all property under the administration of men, and prohibiting women from bringing criminal charges against their husbands in cases of abuse.
As climate stresses and colonialism couple with Lesotho’s internal problems of gender inequality, it’s clear that the problems that Basotho women face will need to be overcome by strategies that take into account capital and power disparities between nations as well as between genders. To first start addressing its internal issues, Lesotho’s government and NGOs should focus on working with community leaders to develop local initiatives to deal with the ongoing climate crisis and its consequences. This may include education efforts targeted at men to facilitate the unlearning of gender violence, as well as strengthened judicial systems that prioritize women’s safety.
While addressing its internal problems, Lesotho must also continue look to the international community for environmental aid. Lesotho’s government has already requested $74 million in aid to relieve hunger, but only some of that need is being met: In December, the European Union granted Lesotho aid worth $1.6 million, but the United Nations launched a Flash Appeal to raise an additional $33.7 million. Still, aid alone is not enough: To maximize the benefit of the funds it receives, the Lesotho government must also take gender inequality into account, and place the money they receive directly into the hands of women. An effective way of doing this is by funding women-run microfinancing projects. Women are better microfinancing clients than men—they are more likely to repay loans on time—and in the hands of women, microfinancing payments reduce gender inequality, improve the nutritional status of women and children, and increase household income more often than when the payments are given to the male heads of households. A solution that gives tangible aid to women, combined with education efforts to challenge the patriarchal mindset of many Basotho men, could lead to real changes in women’s lives.
To address external threats to Lesotho’s environment, and therefore Basotho women, the responsibility to act falls predominantly on South Africa, who is both a regional hegemon and a drain on Lesotho’s water resources. Much of Lesotho’s water supply is given to neighboring South Africa through the exploitative World-Bank financed project called the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP). The project was sanctioned by both countries in order to provide the Johannesburg metropolitan area with water, while also supplying Basotho political elites with a steady source of income funded by South Africa. Lesotho’s water resources have been depleted through the project, which has created adverse effects on both the environment and Lesotho’s people. The construction of dams, tunnels, and a hydroelectric plant used to redistribute water resulted in soil contamination and degradation, deforestation, and biodiversity loss, most importantly as a reduction of the fish stock in nearby rivers. Moreover, women displaced by the dam’s construction disproportionately suffered from losses of water and land rights. In the future, South Africa must accept responsibility as a global hegemon by increasing compensation to Lesotho for its valuable water supply during droughts, and ensuring that the money is distributed directly to women rather than corrupt politicians.
Though the potential for positive impact is immense, South Africa’s actions alone will not be enough to address the present harms, nor the long-lasting effects, of climate change in vulnerable, poorer countries like Lesotho. While immense coordinated action between developed nations is unlikely, individual developed nations must take the greatest action to combat environmental decay by turning to renewable energy systems, investing in carbon capture technologies, and reducing unnecessary consumption. They must also factor in financial reparations, which similarly could be paid directly to women.
Whether reparations are offered by the British as atonement for colonization, by fossil fuel companies whose actions lead to global warming, or by the wealthy nations who have contributed the most to climate change, Lesotho, and especially Lesotho’s women, deserve more than empty apologies or diversion of blame. They deserve real recompense for the climate apocalypse playing out in their dusty farms and empty wells.