Gender and climate change adaptation responses in Kenya

Published on 22 April 2021

Eunice Wangari

Doctoral Researcher

The links between climate change and gender are widely known. However, little research has been done on how men and women respond differently to climate variability and uncertainties. To help respond to this, my ongoing PhD examines the politics of gender in climate change adaptation in the Maasai community of the Mara region in Kenya. So far, I have found many ways in which gender, class and age intersect with responses to climate variability, among diverse pastoralist men and women.

Extreme weather events

The Mara region of Kenya has experienced increasingly unpredictable extreme weather events like frequent prolonged droughts and floods that plague the area. This has led to a loss of key resources for livestock pastures, water, and salts, that are crucial for livestock production. The region has also faced tremendous ecological and social economic changes in the last couple of decades in the form of land fragmentation and dispossession, urbanization, and an influx of immigrants. These changes, coupled with the erratic weather events, have compromised the communities traditional coping strategies. In response, changes in processes, livelihood activities, and sources of income have emerged, along gendered lines.

Responses to climate variability occur in the confines of society that is laced with social inequalities along the lines of gender, class, age, race etc. These in-equalities pose barriers to access, control, and ownership of resources, perpetuate unequal distribution of labour, and excludes certain segments of society from meaningful decision making. Thus, shaping how diverse men and women, avoid, prepare for, respond, and recover from extreme weather events that threaten their lives and livelihoods.

Mobility and Local Knowledge

The fragmentation of the rangelands in the Mara region has not hindered access to key resources by the pastoralists but have made it more difficult for the community to effectively respond to the extreme weather events through mobility. Following customary laws, women and young men were totally excluded from the land allocation process, therefore losing access to resources from the land. Therefore, new forms of mobility, use of local knowledge and uptake of new livelihood are the main responses taken up by both men and women, albeit in varying degrees.

Mobility, despite being the response to climate variability in pastoral livelihoods has changed with the change in land tenure. Currently, older, middle class men hire younger poor lower-class men to herd their livestock in search of pastures, while their families remain sedentary. The herders trek the livestock across the country for varying periods of time depending on the season. During normal seasons, the livestock is grazed in nearby places, like the conservancies or national reserve. Access to these places is usually restricted and illegal, but the herd owners are able to negotiate access and can afford to pay fines in case their cattle is impounded.

However, in drought season, herders are away for extended periods of time and this calls for them to use their knowledge of the region, liaise with their counterparts in diverse locations and maintain relations with wheat and barley farmers, who allow them to graze on their land post-harvest.  Herding in a fragmented rangeland, filled with uncertainty and sometimes in the dark, is a challenging task for herders, who not only spend days knitting together patches of land but endanger their lives by grazing in wildlife filled areas by night. Hence, many herders leverage their intimate knowledge of the reserve and wildlife territories to be hired as spotters by tour operators, where they assist locating species like the big five animals.

More work for women

The impacts of climate variability on the women and their vulnerabilities to it are exacerbated by dispossession of land and its benefits, and unlike the men, the limited access to and control of resources. Since frequent extreme weather events impact their ways of life, many have had to engage in alternative livelihoods to meet the increasing financial responsibility leaning on them. Engagement in tourism related activities like making and trading in beadwork, working in the tourist camps, entertaining tourists dominate the types of alternative income-generating activities available to them.

Due to the location of these activities, these women, often middle-aged, and poor, end up setting up and living parallel lives away from their husband and co-wives, closer to schools. These women come together as a group and lease land from a wealthy man to build their huts. While many term the arrangement, refreshing in terms of freedom to make decisions, and to teach their children life skills, they end up bearing the sole financial responsibilities for their children. Nevertheless, it is also common for poor women living in their husband’s household to shoulder the sole responsibility too.

In addition to the financial responsibilities, women have been shouldering the duties that were previously carried out by their children. Whereas men can afford to delegate their grazing duties, by hiring herders to herd the bigger animals, women and children are still expected to graze small livestock like sheep, and goats. This livestock are often grazed on pastures found in marginal lands, like school playing grounds, open spaces, markets, and roadsides. With women insisting that their children go to school, they are left with no option but to take over their responsibilities. Many cannot afford to hire herders and herders are not keen on being hired by a woman. For instance, as demonstrated by Naisura, a middle-aged poor woman, who spends her early morning hours grazing before heading off to the business of the day.

“I have to graze myself. If I do not do it, my children will have to do. But I want them to go to school.”

Taking up these additional chores is problematic, as it overburdens the women and further takes time and productivity away from the alternative income-generating activities, they engage in. A possible outcome of this is women losing earnings, due to slowed down productivity. One of the beadwork project manager recounts,

“Women are less productive when schools are opened, they come in late, others do not even show up and they take longer to finish tasks assigned to them.”

She attributes these challenges to the extra livestock duties they take on, before coming to the project. The desire for women to see their children have a better life through education is also reflected in the large numbers of women that are closely involved in their children’s education activities like paying their school fees, attending parents meetings, pushing for re-enrolment of those who drop out.

Structural causes of vulnerability remain

From this evidence so far, we can see that men and women respond differently to climate variability due to the societal norms practiced in the community. Many are keen to take on new livelihoods or responsibilities as they are deeply concerned about their children’s wellbeing. Although this adds an extra burden to the women, many have been pushing the social limits, causing some shifts in gender relations. Although the effectiveness of these responses against more severe climate-related impacts remains unknown, they are not foolproof as the structural causes of their vulnerability to these impacts remain unaddressed.

Funding statement

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 764908.


Related content