Pastoral women and climate change in eastern Africa

By: Mulubrhan Balehegn

Climate change is a global problem, but it has discriminatory effect on different communities, as there is disproportionate vulnerability among different demographic categories of the global population.  The poor are more vulnerable to the ills of climate change, and women as the poorest of the poor are the most vulnerable. Of the 1.3 billion people living below poverty line, 70% are women. Of the 49% of the people in Sub-Saharan Africa living on less than 1 USD a day, over 60% are women. Therefore, owing to their poor economic condition, women are 14 times more likely to die than men during climate related disasters.

Pastoral societies in east Africa have been plagued by recurrent droughts and extreme climate variability over the past five decades. Political and economic marginalization of pastoralists and inappropriate development policies have left millions of pastoralists in east Africa with weak adaptive capabilities to the negative consequences of recurrent drought and climate variability. Within the pastoralist communities women usually have degraded social and economic position and climate change serves as a risk multiplier to this already degraded social position. Climate change has a compounding effect on existing gender based inequalities. As if traditional subordination of women and inequality with men is not bad enough, climate change exacerbates the already existing inherent gender in equality and suppression.

Life was by far easier and better for women pastoralists four or five generations ago than those of today. Due to recurrent droughts and variability and subsequent drying of ancestral water wells, women pastoralists today have to walk long distances to fetch water and fodder for home staying livestock. Moreover, some economically important plants such as Sisal (Agave sisalana) disappeared from most of the pastoral areas due to overuse and unfavorable climatic conditions, thus women are no more able to produce their own income from selling ropes, sacks etc to neighboring agrarian communities. During droughts, when traditional food reserves are exhausted, women take the sole responsibility of collecting famine food to feed the household. The increased need for mobility and migration during droughts, adds more burdens to the already overloaded responsibility of women pastoralists for example in transporting household belongings and house construction at new sites. For instance among the Afar pastoralists of Ethiopia, women and girls are responsible for 58.1 % and 11.4% of household chores respectively, while men and boys are responsible for only 23.8% and 7.6% respectively.  Droughts are usually accompanied by resource use conflicts among different tribes inhabiting the pastoral areas. This usually triggers violence, including sexual violence on women of the other ethnic group.

Climate change affects women and men differently
Climate change affects women and men differently

However, despite all this gender discriminatory effect of climate change, women pastoralists are not passive victims. They contribute towards adaptation in many different ways. Perhaps due to their direct exposure to the challenges of recurrent drought and variability, women pastoralists have developed number of adaptation mechanisms that work locally. Women pastoralists have practical knowledge about dozens of wild fruit trees and famine foods that they use to feed their households during drought. Women pastoralists are the first ones to get informed about declining levels and quality of water in wells, rivers and other traditional water sources. Due to the excessive economic challenges they face, some women pastoralists have started to enter into extra-pastoral modes of life and embraced individuality and  self-determination in terms of livelihood source.  The very daring ones have even started petty trading in towns and cities to support their starving kids, despite always under the unfavorable condition of being disapprovingly watched by community elders and religious leaders. However, despite these options, women still have by far lower adaptation opportunities than men. Due to illiteracy, lack of technical skills, knowledge, experience and social influence, and many taboos against independence of women, women pastoralists are unable to take some of the formal jobs that many pastoralist men are taking.

Unfortunately, despite the mounting evidence on the gender discriminatory effect of climate change, incorporating the issues of climate change in pro-poor planning and more importantly the establishment of the linkage between climate change and gender has been given a marginal importance until recently. Despite recommendations on establishing such a linkage, research dealing with gendered dimensions of climate change is still scanty. Just as gender is not sufficiently mainstreamed in many areas of development policy and practice, the potential impacts of climate change on gender relations have not been aggressively dealt with and remain invisible. There is still a long way to go with regard to mainstreaming of gender and climate change issues.

women and girls are the first to be informed about declining quality and quantity of water
women and girls are the first to be informed about declining quality and quantity of water

The issue of gender and climate change is likely to be multifaceted. However, the gendered aspects of climate change should be analyzed in the following ways; the gender impact of climate change in various parts of the world and across different agro-ecosystems, aspects of gender participation in climate negotiations, gendered impacts of mitigation activities, and gender based differences in impact, adaptation and mitigation. Moreover, gender norms and power inequalities pertinent to participation in decision making politics, the division of labor, access to and control over resources, knowledge and skills entrenched in the social structure are important factors in climate change because they affect adaptation capabilities of men and women to climate risks.

If you would like to know more on gendered aspects of climate change and specifically the effect of climate change on women pastoralists in east Africa, please read our recent publication titled ‘GenderedImpacts and Adaptation Mechanisms to Climate Change among Afar Pastoralists inNorth Eastern Ethiopia’ (a PDF copy) – a book chapter in a new book ‘Impact of Climate Change and Variability on Pastoralist Women in sub Saharan Africa’


Published by

African Academic/Researcher

Science and Research by Africans for Africa

2 thoughts on “Pastoral women and climate change in eastern Africa

  1. This is an interesting finding on the issue of Gender and climate change and calls for global attention towards this iassue. Gender mainstreaming is required in every aspect of climate change including negotiation, mitigation and adaptation. I am doing similar study here in South Africa and hope to gain important insights from your paper.

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