A flowing nightmare: Women bear disproportionate burden as floods wreak havoc

 Nancy Shitikha stands outside her house in Kibera on May 2, 2024.Her home was damaged by the floods.

Photo credit: Bonface Bogita | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The floods in Kenya have disproportionately impacted women and girls, exacerbating existing gender inequalities.
  • Many women have lost their livelihoods, homes, and access to essential items like food, clean water, and sanitary products.
  • Despite their resilience, women in flood-affected communities urgently require support in the form of safety, resources, and a gender-responsive approach to disaster relief efforts.

As raging floodwaters unleash chaos across Kenya, a harsh reality has emerged – the burden falls disproportionately on women and girls. While entire communities grapple with displacement and loss, the aftermath exacerbates existing gender inequalities, leaving women to bear the brunt of the crisis.

The floods have exposed the stark vulnerability of women. As the nation battles this natural calamity, a gender-responsive approach is imperative to address the unique challenges faced by women and girls.

Purity Mukami feeds her son at the Kahawa Wendani Primary School on May 01, 2024. She is sheltered at the school after heavy rains last Tuesday evening left her home flooded.

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

In Kiambu County, for instance, men affected by the floods seek adequate bedding and soap. By May 1, 2024, a total of 47 men were housed at Kahawa Wendani Primary School, but only seven mattresses were available for them.

Mutuku Wambua, one of the men flood victims from Kahawa Wendani and Kiuu wards, who is being hosted at the school, said that nearly all men sleep on the cold floor without blankets to cover themselves.

"The room does not even have lights. We sleep in the cold and in darkness," he lamented.

He expressed frustration at their idle state, stating that all they want is money to relocate to a safe place and rebuild their businesses. Mr Mutuku used to sell second-hand clothes in Bosnia to sustain his family of three children, but all his merchandise was swept away.

The women housed at the school, on the other hand, desire porridge flour to cook for themselves, appropriate food for their weaned children, maternity pads, and sanitary towels. They also need warm clothes for their children, enough soap, and medicine, as their children are falling sick due to the congestion and poor sanitation.

"My baby has a fever. I'm so stressed, and I don't have money to take her to the hospital," said Esther Wairimu, a mother to a seven-month-old boy. A community health promoter (CHP) walked into the room and provided her with a painkiller for the baby.

Residents of Bosnia in Kahawa Wendani who are seeking refuge at Kahawa Wendani Primary School, on May 1, 2024. The floods rendered them homeless.

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

In Nairobi City County, at the Karanjo area of the Mukuru-Kayaba slum, Emily Mulwani said the floods have cut off access to Wakulima Market, where she collects her goods.

She is a mother of four, and every day she is out of work, she loses Sh2,000 in income.

"Through this business, I have raised my four children. Now, I have nothing," she said in desperation.

In Kibra slums we met Nancy Shitikha. Her house is a shell of its former self. Four iron sheets now stand forlorn by River Ngong' in Kibera, Nairobi. The roof has collapsed, and stones and debris litter the muddy ground. The only remnant is a tattered white curtain hanging at the threshold.

"I've lived next to this river for 22 years. My six children and I know the gentle sound of the river flowing by heart. But on one particular night, it was different, it sounded like the angry beating of drums," Nancy recalled. When she stood up to investigate, she realized her house was flooding.

The Nyumba Kumi leader woke her husband and children, and they hastily fled their home, carrying only the clothes on their backs.

"We moved uphill and watched in dismay as our houses, including the only toilet in the row, were swept away as the river currents got stronger. We spent the night at the bus station before a Good Samaritan offered us shelter."

Agnes Mbatha, 66, whose house was flooded and uninhabitable, said that this is not the first time her home has been destroyed by Mother Nature.

Agnes Mbatha next to her destroyed house in Kibera on May 2, 2024. 

Photo credit: Bonface Bogita | Nation Media Group

"My house has been flooding during long rains since 2019, but even during El Niño rains, it wasn't this severe."

When she woke up in the middle of the night to find her house flooded, she quickly gathered her belongings and sought higher ground.

Nancy, too, asked her husband to go live with his brother in Kabiria while she stayed behind with the children.

Jeffrey Okoro, the Executive Director of CFK Africa, an organization working to rescue victims of floods in Kibera, said their rescue teams often find women and children standing in flooded houses. "They tell us that the men leave to make money for the family, but the women are left to guard what is left. There is also a lot of insecurity, so someone has to stay to guard the home," Mr. Okoro said.

Jeffrey Okoro, CFK Africa Executive Director during an interview at their organisation in Kibera on May 2, 2024.

Photo credit: Bonface Bogita | Nation Media Group

Even if she wanted to leave, Nancy added, she would not manage. "I can't afford to rent a house outside Kibera's floodplains. I used to pay Sh2,000 monthly for our one-room metal shack. If we moved away from the river, our rent would double to Sh5,000."

Their dire situation is compounded by contaminated water. Nancy said her nine-month-old grandchild has developed diarrhoea from consuming unclean water. The nearby water points have been destroyed by the floods.

Although the family was using clean-burning and efficient fuel before the floods, they have resorted to using charcoal, which they complain is both expensive and scarce due to blocked transport routes.

Mercy's dignity kit was also swept away, and she has been using pieces of cloth to manage her menstruation. Her mother, Nancy, has been without income for a month.

"I used to earn Sh400 working on people's farms, but now all of them are flooded. I also used to bead, but all my supplies were washed away," she said.

"On some days, my children go without meals, and when they get sick, I cannot take them to a public hospital because doctors are on strike."

Ashley Amyoyo stares at what she previously called home on May 2, 2024. She is one of the flood victim at Kibera in Nairobi. 

Photo credit: Bonface Bogita | Nation Media Group

Despite their challenges, they demand protection for their community from recurrent floods. With schools set to reopen soon, they are deeply worried about their future amidst ongoing hardship.

Nairobi City County chief officer in charge of disaster management, Bramwel Simiyu, said they are working with community health promoters to respond to the emergencies of pregnant and breastfeeding women. "We are giving them clean water and water treatment (products)," he told nation.africa.

"If there is any ailment, they attend to them, and if unable to do so, then they escalate it to our public health facilities. We are also giving them dignity packs," he said.

He said that in the case of food distribution, pregnant women, the breastfeeding, elderly, and disabled are served first. Women are heavily affected psychologically by the impacts of floods, he noted, adding that counselling services are available to the affected.

Feeding children

"In the low-income settlements, many footbridges mothers use to access markets and schools were swept away," he noted. Presently, he said, the county is "restoring about 15 to 16 footbridges in Mathare, Ngomongo, Kiambiu in Eastleigh, (and) Starehe area."

In Tana River County, women and children are struggling to survive between the cold weather and biting mosquitoes at night. "We only heard that the government brought nets in hospitals, but they are being distributed in homes; we in the camps have been forgotten," Fatma Ismail, a flood survivor in Madogo, told nation.africa. Pneumonia and malaria are inevitable for her children, and she survives each day hoping that rescue will come soonest.

While Fatma struggles to fight off diseases, Miriam Mohammed's splitting headache is feeding her children. "We keep seeing leaders coming to assess our situation, they are ever checking up on us, empty-handed, while they see our plight, they know we are starving," she said.

She has no choice but to depend on neighbours as she works as a caregiver for their children. As a single parent, she has no one to depend on during the crisis but looks up to the government for support.

Abdirahman Siyat, on the other hand, is a helpless man who drowns his sorrows in a gathering of other distressed men. The floods have affected his source of income and quarantined him into a camp he never imagined he would find himself in.

"My biggest problem is the cry of the children in this camp, its hunger everywhere, no money, no food, even clothes are an issue, we share a small mat with my wife and children, sometimes I have to sit out at night and let them sleep comfortably," he told nation.africa.

Mosquito nets

The survivors are in dire need of tents, mosquito nets, water purifier tablets, food, clothes, and sleeping mats to survive the hard times.

Meanwhile, the Machakos County government has provided communities affected by the ongoing floods with foodstuff, tents, and clothing. The donations also include sanitary towels. At Mumbuni Township, Machakos Governor Wavinya Ndeti last Thursday said the floods have affected women, children, and the elderly. She asked communities bordering riparian zones to move to higher grounds to avoid being hit by the floods.

Agatha Gichana, Moraa Obiria, Sammy Kimatu, Stephen Oduor, and  Pius Maundu