Involve indigenous women in climate action, say activists

Silvana Lesuuda from Suguta in Samburu County speaks to journalists during the eighth annual national indigenous women conference in Isiolo on September 27, 2023. Calls for women involvement in climate change adaptation and mitigation dominated the three-day conference. 

Photo credit: Waweru Wairimu | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The 8th Annual National Indigenous Women Conference brought together human rights defenders and indigenous women from 26 counties and neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania.
  • Indigenous women have little access to, and control over resources and are hardly involved in management and governance of community land.

Barely two months to the United Nations Climate Conference (COP-28), state and non-state actors have been asked to fully involve indigenous women in coming up with the best climate change adaptation and mitigation solutions.

During the 8th Annual National Indigenous Women Conference, held in Isiolo County,  which brought together human rights defenders and indigenous women from 26 counties and neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania, participants demanded recognition of women’s contribution to effective mitigation efforts.

Samburu Women Trust Executive Director Jane Meriwas, said indigenous women had traditional knowledge and skills in natural resource management, which, if tapped, could aid in building communities’ resilience to climatic shocks.

“We are rooting for their effective participation and want them involved right from planning (on climate change action) to decision making because they are disproportionately affected compared to men,” Ms Meriwas said at the conference in Isiolo.

Participants said support to women through training could lure them into embracing renewable energy for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, which, in turn, will limit global temperature rise.

Like those from pastoralist, hunter-gatherer and fisherfolk communities, indigenous women have little access to, and control over resources and are hardly involved in management and governance of community land.

Private investors

They also have limited access to education and endure harmful customs such as female genital mutilation, early marriages and gender-based violence, which hampers their empowerment quest.

Hailing from arid and semi-arid (Asal) counties where community land registration remains a challenge, lack of title deeds exposes them to the risk of getting displaced and not being compensated for their land hived off by the government and private investors for mega projects.

National Gender and Equality Commission (NGEC) Chairperson Joyce Mutinda called for enshrining of indigenous persons in the Constitution, terming their classification under the marginalised groups discriminatory.

“There is a need to recognise and respect cultural diversity,” Dr Mutinda said, accusing Members of Parliament for being silent on the UN Resolutions of 1994 that recognise indigenous communities.

She hailed Chief Justice Martha Koome for ordering that women be involved in the Judiciary’s Alternative Justice System to ensure fair determination of cases.

“Leverage such opportunities to advance representation and involvement in decision-making for empowerment,” she told the participants.

Ms Meriwas appealed to President William Ruto to designate a state department for indigenous people to help in addressing the injustices that they face, including discrimination, patriarchal system and retrogressive societal norms that prevent them from taking part in key decision-making.

“The department will ensure recognition and involvement of the communities, as well as promotion and protection of their rights,” she noted.

National Land Commission CEO Tache Kabale said out of 3742 historical land injustices claims submitted to the agency by Asal communities, only 1037 met the criteria, with 32 cases from the Ogiek community in the final stages.

National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders Executive Director Kamau Ngugi lamented exclusion of indigenous people from conversations about land whenever the government or investors intend to start up projects within their territories.

Indigenous women from 26 counties at the eighth annual national indigenous women conference in Isiolo on September 27, 2023. 

Photo credit: Waweru Wairimu | Nation Media Group

“They (women) are excluded from government’s talks on minerals present in their areas and those (activists) who speak up against the vice are targeted, making it hard to champion their rights,” Mr Ngugi said.

He noted the need for women to contribute in political spaces where decisions are made to ensure their interests are taken care of during policy formulation.

“Everyone should be brought on board, including those who cannot read and write. We should allow them to articulate their issues in local dialects,” he stressed, calling for the implementation of policies and programmes targeting women.

Ms Shoba Liban of the Pastoralist Women for Health and Education encouraged women to enrol for adult education to enable them to leverage economic opportunities in the formal space. “Stand up for your rights and take advantage of available opportunities to improve your lives,” she appealed.

Isiolo Woman Representative Mumina Bonaya said significant progress had been made, including inclusion of women in community land register and management committees, support for girls’ education and recruitment of female chiefs, a position that was mostly occupied by men.

The lawmaker encouraged women to take up leadership roles and not to succumb to hurdles, sharing her journey to being elected county MP as one of going against the odds.

“I am one of those who defied orders by elders not to vie. I faced a lot of challenges but made it through,” she said.

Councils of elders have for a long time dictated political candidates to be fronted by respective communities and while in most cases those picked have a higher possibility to clinch the respective seats, Ms Bonaya and former Mandera Governor Ali Roba are among the few who sailed through despite defiance.

The theme of the conference, organised by Samburu Women Trust in partnership with NGEC, the Indigenous Women Council (IWC) and the Defenders Coalition, was accelerating effective inclusion of indigenous women in land and natural resource management, leadership and climate change negotiations.

Retrogressive culture

Ms Silvana Lesuuda from Suguta, Samburu County, said retrogressive culture remained a major impediment to women empowerment, citing teen pregnancies among the issues that should be promptly addressed by relevant actors.

“Our (Samburu) community has embraced education for girls, but high dropout rates due to teen pregnancy remain a major challenge. The government should ensure the perpetrators are brought to book and prosecuted,” she said.

Climate justice champion Judy Kipkenda, who has been a member of the IWC for the last five years, said indigenous women should be supported to undertake conservation as a way of building their resilience to natural catastrophes.

“There is a need to train and provide them with resources to protect the natural ecosystem and build community resilience,” Ms Kipkenda, from Baringo’s Ogiek community, said.

The council was hailed for building capacities of indigenous women and girls on their right to influence policies and amplify their voices for action.

A five-year strategic plan to guide social, economic and cultural empowerment of indigenous women was unveiled. The conference offered civil society groups, independent commissions, development partners, counties and the national government an opportunity to jointly address the challenges women face.

The COP-28 will bring together delegates from over 100 countries to negotiate on tackling climate change, share their individual plans for contributing to the goals and report on progress made so far.

The conference expressed optimism that women will feature prominently in efforts to help vulnerable communities across the globe adapt to and recover from the effects of climate change.

Also in attendance was Kenya National Commission on Human Rights Vice Chairperson Raymond Nyeris.