The Horn of Africa is experiencing the most intense food crisis in the world today. Over 12 million people are severely affected in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, areas at the heart of the crisis. Although a famine was officially declared by the United Nations on July 20 in Southern Somalia and much media attention then followed, severe food insecurity in the region was alerted in May by the World Food Programme and even earlier by various NGOs. However, the gender disparity in the effects of the drought often go unmentioned.
From the outset, women are over-represented in the agriculture industry, self-employment and the informal economy. Their greater dependence on raw materials and livestock makes them especially vulnerable in natural disasters. Women are also the primary caretakers in the household. When the Horn of Africa drought hit, they faced extra pressure to survive as unlike the men they lacked the liberty of migrating in search of work and to mobilise resources for rehabilitation.
For young girls, the strain could result in a vicious spiral of their increasing absence in education. Ten-year-old Debo Dida had to walk about 12 kilometres twice a day carrying 15 litres of water after the drought dried up the small pond in her village. “I found it difficult to go to school as I should help my mother with fetching water so I dropped from grade 1," she said. "It is very tiresome to carry water on my back and walk through scorching sunlight.”
As households struggle with malnutrition, hungry mothers lack breast milk to feed their babies. In Somalia, parents resort to feeding their children with maize, beans and black tea, often the only food available. Most of the children are too young to be eating solid food.
When the situation becomes too critical, many are forced to relocate their families and head to refugee camps. According to CARE International, since January 2011 in Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp approximately 70% of refugees are in women-headed households.
Women and girls on the move face high risks of sexual violence, abduction, illness and even death. Men and boys do face their own threats of being arrested and forcibly recruited by insurgents groups. However, where services, including vital ones like medication, are provided by male practitioners, women may not be able to access them for cultural reasons.
Many among the refugees are mothers who find themselves abandoning their children who are too weak to survive or unable to continue the long trek. Josette Sheeran, who heads the World Food Program, said: “Over half the women I talked to had to leave children to die or had children die”. She called the pathways to the Dadaab camp, “roads of death”. One mother spoke of her experience of leaving her sick child behind, saying, “His eyes still haunt me to this day”.
New arrivals often are forced to settle scattered on the outskirts of full camps, generally far from services like clinics, water sites or latrines. Women who have undergone the trauma of rape en route to the camps usually do not report it and forgo counselling and other support for fear of marginalisation by other refugees. Fardosa Muse, a gender violence officer for CARE, said, “This is a social stigma” and explained that known rape victims are shunned by others. “The community are blaming the women who are raped”. On occasions, the aftermath proves unbearable. “We hear stories of how some go to the extent of suicide as they have been rejected by their families and relatives," said project manager Eliana Irato of GRT, an Italian NGO. The camps themselves are not free of sexual violence. The United Nations has recorded 87 incidents of sexual violence in the camps as of mid-August, but UN statistician Susanne Butscher admits data collection is imprecise as not all abuse or rape gets reported.
Further observations reveal the need for humanitarian responses to be gender-differentiated and sensitive to the outlying social context. The number of patients outstripping medical facility capacity is one problem but there have been cases of women refusing to be admitted to the inpatient facility as they have children who will be left uncared for. Similarly, women frequently forgo or share their aid food to feed children and the elderly first.
According to ActionAid, in some parts of Kenya, women have resorted to a life-threatening practice to handle their hunger: stomach binding. They tie bits of rope or cloth around their stomach to stave off hunger but expose themselves to health problems. Evelyn Samba, Head of Programme for ActionAid Kenya, told Think Africa Press that cases like this occur because the role of the women in the home and in the community compels them to put others’ needs first even at their own expense.
However, the drought has also led to women rising up to the challenge of disaster mitigation, at times even changing their gendered status in society for the better.
In Kenya, women in the Nanighi community started a savings group called the Attaya Group to support each other in jobs such as mat-making, tea selling and operating small sales kiosks. With the facilitation of CARE, they also created photo footage documenting their concerns on climate change and their response, collectively making known those views to the men and elders in the community for the first time.
Women are also leading in Kenyan-based ActionAid Relief Committees that distribute food. Christine Angola, chair of one such committee, confessed: "It used to be difficult to have a woman in a senior position in the community, because women are expected to have children and stay at home. Now people know that everybody has the right to be a leader.”
Wangari Kinoti, ActionAid International Team Kenya (AAIK) Women Rights Coordinator, told Think Africa Press that the role of women as decision-makers also improves the practicalities of drought responses. For instance, women’s control of food procurement enabled them to replace previously distributed food rations of maize and beans that require much water and long hours to cook with other cereals like rice. "We need more women at the forefront, even [in] the long-term intervention," she concluded.
Nonetheless, women at large remain poorly represented in decision-making roles at national, regional and global levels. Their insights and knowledge on natural resource management that would prove useful in handling climate change are excluded in current policies. The Horn of Africa famine is a food security disaster. It does not also have to be a missed opportunity to capitalise on women’s capability while advancing gender equity.
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