“In Northern Kenya, the Climate Crisis Shifts Gender Roles”
by Lauren Evans
Foreign Policy, October 26, 2020
I hope you’re well. I have a pitch that I thought might be of interest to you.
About me: I spent November and December embedded with an NGO in rural northern Kenya. My work has appeared [XX].
If you’re interested, I also have photos that can accompany the piece.
Thanks very much for considering this one,
Kenya’s Samburu people have always been pastoralists, with men spending their lives grazing their herds and women doing everything else, including walking up to 10 kilometers per day to fetch water. For the Samburu, a culture with gender roles so strict that women are not typically allowed to handle money or say their husband’s names out loud, this is the way it’s always been—until now. For the first time in their millennia-old history, Samburu women are slowly being allowed to work. Not because men have voluntarily softened their traditionally hard-line views on women’s roles, but because climate change has made it so there’s simply no other way to survive.
It’s well-documented that climate change has launched its assault on the world’s most vulnerable populations. The already brutal dry season, which traditionally encompasses every month except November and April, has intensified perceptibly, killing many more plants, livestock and people than ever before. The intense droughts have diminished their livestock by up to 85 percent by their own estimation, with armed raiders from neighboring communities frequently decimating what’s left. But those changes in temperature have brought with them a cultural shift as well.
The Samburu have been semi-nomadic since the tribe originated in roughly the third century B.C., and little has changed since then, outwardly and otherwise. Both sexes wear vibrant wraps of cloth called shukas; their ankles, wrists and especially necks are layered with strings of colorful beads, earning them the moniker “the butterfly people.” Female genital mutilation is still widely practiced in defiance of Kenyan law, as is “beading,” in which girls are promised to men for marriage while they’re still children. But all of this is poised to end, and those hot, brutal spells are partly to thank. Out of necessity, Samburu women are no longer just raising their families and collecting water. Now, in addition to those responsibilities, they’re also running small kiosks selling household items and raising livestock of their own; responsibilities that just a few years ago would have been unthinkable for a woman to assume.
I have interviewed dozens of Samburu women and their husbands throughout northern Kenya, and each and every one of them—male and female—told me that were it not for the worsening droughts, women would not have been allowed to begin working for money.
This piece can also be tied to a recent IUCN report on the link between climate change and gender-based violence. While some men are supportive of their wives making money, others feel threatened. Jennifer Lesasuyan, 38, was married off at 14 after receiving only a few years of education. Like the majority of other Samburu men, her husband was a herder, but after around six years of living in extreme poverty, Jennifer decided to take what little education she had to begin working in a duka, eventually becoming successful enough to start her own. But despite their poverty, Jennifer’s husband was enraged by her work and began beating her. She ended up separating from him—a decision that made her a pariah—and continued to make money on her own. Now, she is sending all four of her children, including her three daughters, to school to ensure they have a better life than hers.
I am proposing a story about these women and the unlikely ways in which climate change is affecting their culture, both now and in the future. I will supplement the interviews I have already conducted with experts such as Jon Holtzman, a Samburu scholar at Western Michigan University, as well as sources at Samburu Women’s Trust and Pastoralist Girls Initiative.