Women and pastoralism: taking action for equality

women selling milk kenya

The role of women in pastoralism is often overlooked. While women have made significant strides in recent years, they still face specific challenges. To learn more, we spoke to, Mary Njuguna, who is currently Global Food and Nutrition Security/Resilience Advocacy Advisor for the Voice for Change Partnership programme.

Tell us about yourself.

I have worked with SNV for the past 24 years as a development expert. I have held various roles, most recently as lead for SNV’s agriculture sector portfolio in Kenya. In my years at SNV I have worked closely with many pastoralist communities in Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia as well as those from West Africa to a more limited degree. I have therefore interacted closely with pastoralist women as individuals and friends; economic units of production; groups and cooperatives working to improve their livelihoods and economic situations; and as alliances and movements of pastoralist women leaders pushing political space within their pastoral contexts.

Pastoralism and the role of women within it is often overlooked. What are the key challenges women face?

Although key developments have been made, the situation in which pastoralist women live is still challenging. Social and cultural practices still contribute to the exclusion of pastoralist girls from education, subsequently reducing participation in the job market.

Whereas many African governments have ratified the Convention on Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and instituted national gender-friendly policies and legislation to protect girls and women, such as affirmative action for higher education in Kenya, social cultural practices are systemically embedded in society. Practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM), child marriages and domestic violence remain an obstacle to progression of pastoralist girls and women.

Traditionally, pastoralist communities are patriarchal, meaning, for example, that though women could have access to land, they seldom have the ownership or the decision making over the land use and the allocation of benefits thereof. Because women lack exposure, they do not have access to information and technology to intensify and increase the value for their products. When it comes to climate change, women and girls bear the greatest burden of drought, primarily because of the gendered division of labour at household level and decision making power. Extreme drought brings a greater burden on women. They have to perform their reproductive and productive roles, and contribute more to household adaptation with less. Women suffer more climate change-induced food insecurity and related risks; considering that they don’t own the wealth, no decision making over resources and have limited opportunity to venture out in community level participation.

What changes have you seen in women’s role in pastoralism over the last few years?

Over the past few years there has been incremental advancement in changing the narrative that pastoralist women are entirely marginalised. At SNV we worked with pastoralist women entities in alternative products such as camel milk, sheep, goats, hides and skins, poultry products, honey and fodder by building their capacity to engage in collective marketing and negotiate robust trade agreements with other market actors in different arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL) in Kenya; Isiolo, Samburu, Wajir, Kajiado, and West Pokot among others. In this period I have seen pastoralist women grow from self-help groups to full-fledged businesses/cooperatives; such as the Enelerai Dairy, Anolei Camel milk cooperative in Isiolo as well as other numerous fodder & fodder seeds marketing groups in Baringo and Wajir.

What have been the key drivers of these changes?

Years of development work, devoting time and resources in the so-called marginalised ASAL areas, engaging pastoralist communities, creating awareness and providing exposure has given great impetus for pastoralist women’s engagement in the market. Donor funds and technical support to trigger community enterprise groups in the livestock value chain stimulated the growth of businesses along the value chain. Women over the years have grown to seize the emerging business opportunities and developed the skills to run these businesses.

The role of the state in creating an enabling environment has also been instrumental in facilitating women to access knowledge and financing through dedicated funds for women. In addition, there has been progressive change in society in general, leading to increased acceptance of gender equitable norms and, as a result, women’s participation in economic activities and contribution to livelihoods becoming more acceptable.

How does SNV support women in pastoralism?

In Kenya and Burkina Faso, SNV has remained a leader, strengthening market systems in pastoralist areas, including empowering pastoralist women individually and developing their agency in making choices and decisions in their businesses. Capacity building through knowledge and skills development has been key to instilling confidence in women’s capabilities; follow-up accompaniment in delivering their businesses enabled pastoralists to practically engage in the market. By 2016, the EU KRDP project reached 350 women-led households empowered through profitable camel milk trade. There was a functional women’s cooperative reporting a 42% increase in milk volumes and 45% reduction in operational costs as a result of business support. The same project reached 878 pastoralist women, of a total of 1712 group members engaged in fodder production, bulking and marketing, making a total income of 53,359 euros. By 2018, our work in the Economic Opportunities for Women’s empowerment (EOWE) in Kenya reported 5,293 women with increased income from their businesses and 100% of women reported feeling empowered with increased control over use of income. The Voice for Change Partnership (V4CP), an evidence-based advocacy programme, works to strengthen the voice of pastoralists to enhance their resilience to climate change. In Kenya, V4CP has advocated for the legislation of livestock sale yards which has resulted in an improved enabling environment within livestock markets, thereby enabling increased participation of women in the markets. In Burkina Faso, through V4CP, 16 strong CSOs who give continuous support to pastoralists women at local level have seen their capacities improve. And through data collection in six women’s dairy businesses in Dori, Banfora, Fada Ngourma, Tambolo and Bittou, among others, they have raised awareness of decision makers on the role played by women in the development of local dairy value chains. With an average annual net revenue per woman of 305 euros, women’s economic empowerment positively impacts the household healthcare access status and children’s education. By instituting and organising an annual national event called “Les 72 heures du lait local au Burkina Faso”, a national coalition has been built for local milk promotion. This has created greater access to institutional markets of Government and some development partners for women’s small and middle dairy businesses through the “fairefaso” label.

What changes or developments do you hope to see in the future?

The above citations are indicative of great strides made to tap into the existing enterprises and potential of pastoralist women. A lot still needs to be done. Enhanced access to education for pastoralist communities, and for women in particular, is still a crucial starting point to creating a level playing field. This is a key responsibility of policy makers at national and local levels. It is also urgent to address obstacles to the business environment for women, especially access to finance to enable women’s entry to trade in high value commodities like the beef industry, and to be able to participate in more lucrative downstream businesses like processing and value addition. At societal level, CSOs, government, private sector need to act as role models to demonstrate in practice how to contribute to changing social norms, ultimately influencing increased acceptance of gender equitable norms such as land ownership.  There has been growing participation of pastoralist women in community leadership and politics in general. It is important for pastoralist women and other women in leadership positions to continue mentoring younger women to grow and emerge successfully from their challenging contexts.

Written by Mary Njuguna-Kimwadu