Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

In Kenya, facing down the climate emergency means fighting for girls

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Margaret Kikuvi meets with a girl who mentors girls who have had to drop out of school. “With education, girls and their families can adapt to their changing environment,” says Kikuvi. “Without it…they may fall victim it.” Photo: Madarakapics Photography

Drought has left farmers, herders, and the animals they depend on struggling for survival. A girls’ and women’s rights organization plays a vital role in the humanitarian response.

The drought in the drylands of Kenya is devastating. The pastoralists (herders) and their animals are making long treks in search of water and pasture, and the goats, sheep, camels, and cattle that survive these forced marches are emaciated. This spells doom for the livelihoods of the herders. What’s more, the relationships between farmers and pastoralists have frayed badly and become violent, and that has deepened the crisis.

I am the head of programs for a girls’ and women’s rights organization known as the Pastoralist Girls Initiative (PGI). We were founded by pastoralist women who wanted to shine a spotlight on a badly neglected population whose struggles they understand all too well. The challenges that girls in the arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs) face are dismaying—sometimes shocking.

Girls share the survival struggles of their families but face the additional hazards of early marriage and female circumcision; meanwhile, they are often denied an education. At PGI, we support girls to get an education and to stand up for their rights; we mentor them in leadership, and help older girls gain life skills to begin securing the money they need for a better future.

Local organizations at the nexus

But while we were founded as a development organization, as disasters like floods, locust infestations, the pandemic, and drought grip the lands where we work, it is crucial that we also engage in humanitarian response. This is where Oxfam enters the picture: they support the ASAL Humanitarian Network (AHN), a group of Kenyan NGOs of which we are a member and a leading voice.

With technical support from Oxfam and other partners, we’re now assisting communities of pastoralists and agro-pastoralists (farmers who raise both crops and animals) by distributing cash—with a special focus on assisting survivors of gender-based violence. We are trucking water, promoting safe hygiene, digging shallow wells, building latrines, and supplying water-storage tanks. We are also providing women with goats and helping those living in villages and settlements grow kitchen gardens to earn money and improve the nutrition of their families.

PGI is taking the “nexus” approach to the emergency—continuing our development work but adding humanitarian and peace-building projects to meet the complex needs. During the locust infestation, we worked to avert deadly clashes between farmers and herders by planting fodder crops for migrating herds.

Our next steps involve helping strengthen collaboration among communities, community leaders, and government authorities in order to lay the foundation for resolving conflicts around contentious issues like migratory routes.

Women—and women’s groups—struggle to survive

As in most emergencies, women and girls are experiencing particular risks and hardships. With pasture and water sources strained to the breaking point, herds must move more frequently and farther than before. Women, who are responsible for feeding and caring for their children and dismantling and reconstructing shelters, must work harder—while suffering from hunger themselves, and in many cases while pregnant and breastfeeding their babies. School-aged children and some women, like the aged and those living with disabilities, stay behind in settlements on the migratory routes; there, they may face gender-based violence, and now they also struggle to get enough food to eat and water to drink.

Women’s organizations place the needs of women and girls at the center of our work, and we are better equipped than our male counterparts to handle sensitive issues around health and bodies.

Yet, in the midst of major emergencies, PGI is having to lay off staff. In part, it’s because we live in a patriarchal society where women leaders are routinely excluded from decision-making roles and fundraising opportunities. In part, it’s because the funding we do receive is short term and project-based, so layoffs are always around the corner. In part, it’s because, despite a worldwide commitment to local humanitarian leadership, there is a reluctance on the part of international organizations and donors to invest in local organizations.

Progress on local leadership, and an ask

That said, I feel the humanitarian world is moving in a good direction. There is a growing appreciation of the capacity of local organizations to lead the way when it comes to managing disasters.

Where once we were treated by international agencies like their service providers in emergencies—and felt drained and weakened by the time they departed—now, some international actors, like Oxfam, are backing us to pursue the agendas we ourselves consider most critical, and are also helping us strengthen our organizations.

We, too, are moving in a good direction: in Kenya, the AHN has become a source of leadership in humanitarian response, with women’s groups in the forefront.

What do local organizations need in terms of funding? Flexible, multi-year grants that enable us to build, strengthen, and sustain our organizations. With them, we can lend a hand to the people who need it most; without them, sometimes we can barely keep the lights on.

As we face climate disasters—both present and future—PGI and all our humanitarian peers in Kenya need international support to carry out our missions. But the form and spirit of that support matters. We ask our international partners to attune themselves to our voices, cede space to us when we need it, help us sustain our organizations, and let us guide you toward solutions that reflect our understanding of the communities we are all committed to serve.


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Margaret Kikuvi is the Head of Programs for the Pastoralist Girls Initiative (PGI), a girls’ and women’s rights organization that works in Kenya’s ASALs (arid and semi-arid lands) region. Kikuvi has been active in development and humanitarian work since 1998. The focus of her current work is improving education outcomes for girls; improving food security, nutrition, and health for women and girls; countering violent extremism; and providing gender-sensitive programming in response to Kenya’s drought emergency. She is also a leader in the ASAL Humanitarian Network (AHN), a group of more than 30 Kenyan NGOs that are strengthening local capacity to manage disasters. (Oxfam supports both PGI and AHN.)