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How Drought Sparked a Gender Revolution in a Maasai Community

When the residents of Nkoilale village started a cooperative to mitigate the effects of climate change, it soon became clear that in order to succeed, they would need to push aside patriarchal attitudes and involve women in decision making.

Written by Wesley Lang’at Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Traditional gender roles are changing in Nkoilale village in western Kenya, as men and women work together to save the community from drought. Now women are making decisions on land management and tending to cattle, jobs that used to be reserved for men.PHIL MOORE/AFP/GettyImages

NKOILALE VILLAGE, Kenya – Margaret Kireu has just finished running a community meeting at Nkoilale village, alongside three other women. Only a few years ago, this scene would have been impossible. Traditionally only men make the decisions in Nkoilale’s Maasai community. But the area has recently been devastated by drought, and the villagers have learned that saving their crops and cattle requires allowing men and women to work together.

Today, Kireu and three other women are part of a cooperative board in charge of land and water management

“These are important issues to address, especially when touching on land and livestock. Women were not allowed and never entrusted with major decisions pertaining to the community, but times have changed, and the community now accepts us,” Kireu says.

For generations, Kireu’s village in the Mara River Basin has lived under a patriarchal system in which all decisions affecting the community were made and administered by male elders, trickling down to the households where men were entrusted with implementing the decisions within their families. But increasingly, prolonged droughts over the past five years have resulted in huge economic losses, prompting community members to search for ways to adapt to the effects of climate change.

The community thought they had found an answer in July 2016 when, through a project implemented by a Netherlands development organization (SNV), the villagers pooled their land and money under the management of a cooperative. SNV taught the cooperative members new techniques and business models to help them use the village’s resources to raise cattle and sell them for a profit, reducing their collective losses from the drought and ensuring the community’s sustainability.

To get the most out of the program, it became clear that everyone – women and men – would need to be involved. “Gender was a key factor we considered, especially when forming the committee in charge of grazing and livestock management,” Oscar Okumu, an SNV Kenya livestock adviser working with the villagers, says.

He says as an equalizing factor, each member contributed the same amount of money and land, irrespective of gender, giving the women equal decision-making powers to the men on issues such as pasture rotation, water use and land management.

Now Kireu and the other three women who were appointed to sit on the grazing committee help design grazing plans, deciding when the livestock should be moved to the next grazing plot. They also keep the cooperative’s accounts and participate in the sale of the animals, something that would have been unacceptable only a few years ago.

Changing Attitudes

While Kenya grants equal rights to men and women in its constitution, in reality, men make up the majority of landowners, and they have more control over resources and income generation. This is despite the fact that in rural populations, women are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Kenya drought

For the past few years, drought has been ravaging parts of Kenya. Giving women more decision-making powers has helped some communities better adapt to the disastrous effects of climate change. (TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)

“The majority of the rural population comprises women who are much more exposed to the risks of climate change. Many of them rely on a very delicate ecosystem for their livelihoods and, as a result [of climate change], they are gradually losing it,” says Nigel Crawhall, expert on Small Islands and Indigenous Knowledge for UNESCO.

The involvement of women in decisions around development, economy and the management of resources can only do good for a community, says Fridah Gacheri, a market access adviser working with SNV Kenya. “Women spend most of their time performing natural resources-dependent activities like fetching water, firewood and farming,” she says. “If they are engaged in climate change adaptation programs, those are more likely to be successful.”

The project in Nkoilale village is in line with the Gender Action Plan that Kenya adopted along with other member states during the 2017 Conference of the Parties (COP23) in Bonn, Germany, which aims to give women more of a voice on climate change issues.

But when the project came to the village, not everyone was immediately enthusiastic about that goal. “Men think that women are for milk and men are the sole owners of the cows,” Kireu says. It didn’t take long for that attitude to change once a few male members of the community publicly supported the inclusion of women in the cooperative.

John Olempoe, 60, was one of those men. He lost his 400 livestock to drought in early 2016, and says he now sees that all possible solutions to climate change adaptation require everybody’s efforts.

“Drought is a disaster destroying our livelihoods, and women play an important role in contributing to the mitigation measures,” he says.

“While I am away, my wife takes care of the remaining [cattle] stocks as well as representing my family in forums like this. These meetings used to be strictly for men, but we no longer follow that rule.”

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