The theme for this year’s International Day for Disaster Reduction is, “Women and Girls: The Invisible Force of Resilience.” I don’t have to look far to see this invisible force. At 18, my mother was already a wife. Several years down the line she had 12 children, and for 24 years she was either pregnant or nursing a baby. At the same time she was a primary school teacher, a women’s group leader, a church official, a school board member, and head of the household because my father worked away from home. Ironically, when we children graduated from university it was my father who got the praise for raising the family. I knew the unsung hero was my mother.
A few weeks ago I met other unsung heroines in Wajir county, in northeast Kenya.
Through an Oxfam cash transfer project – meant to cushion poor women from frequent droughts – they’ve managed to save money to initiate community development projects. Of the 3,000 Kenyan shillings ($35) that each woman receives, they saved 500 shillings each. Over time they’ve dug three shallow wells to conserve water and built a school where their children can learn. To me, these are the forces of resilience that we are celebrating today.
Disasters are complex and affect both men and women – however, vulnerability to disasters is not equally distributed. Gender relations place women in central roles in disasters. If we are to advance the conversation about “resilience” then we have to talk about the uneven distribution of resources, the growing disparities within our country, and the importance of gender equality.
Today women represent 51 percent of Kenya’s population, but their representation in post-primary education, wage employment , enterprise ownership, and decision making processes, is limited. Women literacy rates are lower than men (74% to 85%) and many more men go to university than women (63% compared to 38%). Men often have better access to credit. It’s not surprising that poverty levels are higher among women.
Women are heavily impacted by environmental degradation and drought – the scale of which is becoming alarming in Kenya in recent years. Collecting and carrying water is often a task exclusively for women and girls. Every extra hour spent seeking out scarce water and firewood, or extracting crops from diminishing land, are hours that are not spent in school or in paid work. During drought, Kenyan pastoralist men go off with their animals in search of pasture – it is the women who are left behind, searching for water and food to feed their children.
This responsibility for collecting water, firewood and other resources gives women a unique insight into the local environment. Unfortunately this expertise is rarely used by policy makers. I think of our late Professor Wangari Maathai… a champion of environmental conservation, but until she won the Nobel Peace Prize her voice was largely ignored by Kenyan leaders. Her struggle paints the picture of resilience in women which is often ignored.
Women’s unique perception on environmental management and planning needs to be better reflected in our national development plans. Sustainable development will be an elusive goal unless women’s contribution to environmental management is recognised and supported.
As Kenya’s elections approach (in March 2013) it’s worth remembering the Post-Election Violence of 2007/08. Again, women were particularly vulnerable in the aftermath, and the majority of people still living in the IDP (Internally Displaced Person) camps are women and children, with no source of livelihood and reliant on humanitarian assistance. Many women have become the sole breadwinners in their household, rejected by husbands after suffering sexual violence or left alone as husbands and sons go off to look for work.
Despite all this, today women are leading efforts to restore peace and reconciliation in Kenya. Across sub-Saharan Africa women are responsible for around 75 percent of household food production. Every day, women demonstrate incredible inventiveness to feed their families and cope with disasters. There is a lot to be hopeful about, but resilient women need greater support if we are to achieve true equality.
To mark the day Oxfam has produced a series of new papers to explore Gender Equality in Emergencies. The series includes studies from Kenya and DRC.