A lack of women in policymaking is worsening the impact of the Horn of Africa drought, U.N. and aid agency officials say.
The region, which is seeing intensifying dry spells believed linked to climate change, is struggling with what aid agencies say is its worst drought in 60 years. Pastures and wells have dried, livestock are dying and thousands of families from southern Somalia are surging over the Kenyan border looking for help.
Women - as in most natural disasters - are worst hit, aid agencies say. Changing that, they say, will require efforts to involve women in preparing for, responding to and recovering from drought.
“The climate sector often presents women as passive victims of climate change, rather than effective agents of change, ignoring women’s extensive knowledge and expertise with regard to climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies,” Oxfam International recently reported.
Henia Dakkak, a Somalia researcher for the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) believes drought-stricken regions could boost crop production 20 percent if women had more authority of land use because “women are often guardians of traditional knowledge of seed varieties and crops that can be grown in less than ideal climatic conditions.”
More effort needs to be put into consulting women and using their specific environmental knowledge to improve agricultural and nutrition programmes, Dakkak said.
Women’s views are key to making policies work, gender specialists say. But while women are needed in decision making, many are reluctant to enter the public sphere without community support.
Many face cultural barriers to an active public role, or simply lack the time. Louis Belanger, an Oxfam International spokesperson, emphasised that women are frequently “on their own,” widowed and with many children, key barriers to them gaining access in the political arena.
Efforts to improve risk reduction, adaptation and resilience to climate change are essential to helping countries in the Horn of Africa cope with worsening drought – but gender issues are also key, Oxfam researchers said.
Women for instance, produce a majority of the world’s food but get less than 10 percent of farm credit, according to the UNFPA. That suggests that “investing in women is key to solving a food crisis,” the UNFPA said.
According to a June U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, “to stave off the worst effects of the global food crisis, it’s important for all women - not just female farmers - to get better access to land, capital and technology.”
Oxfam also reported last week that “long-term investment in livelihood protection measures and smallholder food production” must include efforts to provide support to women.
Investing in women can create a “positive cycle of growth for the entire family”, because studies show women reinvest in education and children’s healthcare when they receive more income, the UNFPA noted.
To implement effective policies that curb climate change and drought, women need to gain more representation in government bodies, advocates say - not an easy task, particularly given Somalia has had no formal government since 1991.
One model may be Ethiopia’s Health Extension Program (HEP), which helps women gain more credibility and respect in their communities.
“The model is built around going through remote villages and choosing young women who have shown some leadership potential in their community,” said Kay Khan, a Massachusetts state representative who chairs the state’s Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities.
The women - chosen for being known and trusted in their communities - are trained in basic health knowledge and skills, from reproductive health to the use of mosquito nets to avoid malaria.
HEP, created in 2004, could be a first step to help rural women become leaders in their communities, according to Khan, who visited Ethiopia last year to see the programme.
The programme has so far trained 35,000 women, each of whom helps many other families in the drought-prone country of 70 million.
The effort has run into some problems, including an increasing number of promising girls being pulled out of school to cope with difficult conditions at home. But the longer the programme exists, the more “women will rise up,” Khan believes.
“I think it is a slow process,” she said. “It’s all about education and (helping) young women to develop their own skills and abilities to be seen as credible.”