The uneven balance: How global warming is hitting women harder

A woman pulls a jerrican of water at Kanamkuny village,Turkana County by County on October 11, 2022. As climate change intensifies, women face higher rates of violence, displacement, and poverty; there is  also a likelihood of armed conflicts, a possibility  that threatens their health, rights and overall life outcomes.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • United Nations Environment Programme estimates that 80 per cent of people displaced by climate change are women. 
  • With this, their risks of all forms of gender-based violence, including conflict-related sexual violence, human trafficking and child marriage, widen.
  • With the loss of biodiversity through destruction of forests and water shortage, they have to trek to fetch these basic necessities, chores that also take a heavy toll on their mental health.

For Sh100, Pamela Oluoch would feed her family of seven on a sufficient dietary intake of vegetables. The resident of Kisumu Ndogo in Nairobi’s Korogocho informal settlement would make a nutrient-rich mix of amaranth worth Sh30, sukuma wiki (Sh50) and spinach (Sh20).

Now, she spends double that amount for the same assortment, eating into her profit from her egg business.

“These days, two leaves of sukuma wiki or spinach go for Sh20. And a Sh10 bunch of amaranth is too small, I have to buy six,” she says. “When you ask why the bunch is smaller, the seller says the greens are scarce because of drought.”

She explains that she used to save at least Sh50 a day but now can’t. She has exhausted all her savings on food.

On a good day, Ms Oluoch earns a return of Sh200, but when business is slow, she makes only Sh50. Her husband does menial jobs and often, the opportunities are irregular.

“When I don’t have money, I just buy sukuma wiki for Sh30 and spend the rest on tomatoes and onions. I fry the sukuma wiki and add a lot of water to make soup. What else can I do? Is that not better than having nothing to eat?” she says.

Climate change is a hidden driver of rising inflation. It drives up the cost of food, which makes up the largest share of commodities that cause a general jump-up of inflation.

Household commodities

And women largely suffer the consequences of inflation owing to the fact that they spend 42 per cent of their salary on household commodities, compared men’s 28 per cent, according to a 2019 survey by Max Life Insurance, an Indian company.

Climate change impact on urban poor women and their households may be unseen, but in the long-term, it creates weak urban and rural communities, too poor to survive when consequences like water scarcity, floods, droughts, landslides, storms, declining biodiversity, severe fires in nearby forests, or rising sea levels hit them.

The high cost of food will have depleted their savings that they would spend to relocate or sustain them up to the next rainy season.

Women are also tormented by a lack or shortage of food for their families.

“I constantly live in fear of what will become of my grandson as we mostly go without food for even three to four days. It is heartbreaking to watch such a toddler survive only on plumb nuts and water,” says Naparon Lekerima, who resides in drought-stricken Siyangan village, Samburu County.

United Nations Environment Programme estimates that 80 per cent of people displaced by climate change are women. With this, their risks of all forms of gender-based violence, including conflict-related sexual violence, human trafficking and child marriage, widen.

Mental health

Furthermore, among Kenyan households, women are the main providers of firewood, charcoal, and water for domestic use. With the loss of biodiversity through destruction of forests and water shortage, they have to trek to fetch these basic necessities, chores that also take a heavy toll on their mental health.

“One thing that stresses me the most is fetching water. I don’t have the luxury of resting well because I have to wake up at 5am to trek to River Murunyi to collect water on an empty stomach. It is tiring,” says Viviane Chepkemei, a resident of Cheptia, West Pokot.

She takes close to three hours on her round-trip.

But what is climate change?

“It is when long-term averages of temperature, moisture, wind speeds, and periods of the sun start to shift,” explains Hausner Wendo, a technical expert in climate change and disaster risk reduction at World Vision Kenya.

“The easiest way to see this is by the change in seasons, average temperature, or rainfall. Such that a four-week long rain season shrinks to two or three weeks.”

He adds: “Climate change is attributed to human activities that put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Often, this is through the burning of fossil fuels. Another big driver of climate change is environmental degradation, which is taking the vegetation off the land, including cutting down trees and burning charcoal.”


Kenyan communities experience the impacts of climate change differently owing to the diversity of socioeconomic activities they undertake. There are farmers, pastoralists, and fisherfolk.

As of 2019, some 48.6 per cent of Kenya’s land was utilised for agricultural activities, mostly for permanent pasture, says data from Statista, a Germany-based market and consumer data company.

The League for Pastoral Peoples and Endogenous Livestock Development estimates that 8.8 million Kenyans are pastoralists. In 2016, the government launched the Kenya National Adaptation Plan (2015–30), which recognises the vulnerabilities of these communities.

To tackle their challenges through this policy document, the government has committed to promoting livestock development by supporting livelihood diversification and market access.

They also plan to restore degraded grazing fields and encourage climate-smart agriculture among pastoralists and other livestock farmers.

In agriculture, it commits to promoting drought-tolerant traditional high-value crops, water harvesting for crop production, index-based weather insurance, and conservation agriculture, among other interventions.

National and county governments have also made efforts towards implementing this policy. They have invested in drilling more boreholes, constructing water pans, promoting water harvesting and encouraging pastoralists to adopt climate-smart agriculture.

Domestic laws

In 13 counties – Isiolo, Marsabit, Samburu, West Pokot, Baringo, Laikipia, Garissa, Makueni, Kajiado, Turkana, Wajir, Mandera and Tana River – the national government has launched an offtake programme through which it buys livestock from pastoralists for slaughter.

Further, counties have established related domestic laws. Turkana, for instance, has in place the Turkana County Climate Change Act (2021), which provides for ward climate change planning committees and establishment of a climate change fund to be allocated at least two per cent of the county’s annual development fund.

Development partners have also plugged in their efforts in supporting urban and rural communities to build resilience against climatic shocks.

In the slums, the Association of Women in Agriculture Kenya, for instance, helps women venture into vertical farming, a low-cost and low-carbon emission practice.

In Laikipia and Marsabit counties, World Vision Kenya has invested in climate mitigation and disaster risk reduction initiatives, including investing in the education of pastoralist children, planting trees, and enabling the pastoralists to start cooperatives to market their livestock.

We speak to six women to share their harrowing experiences with the climate crisis.

Fifth time unlucky for displaced flood victim

More than two years after she was displaced from her home by the rising water levels in Lake Baringo, she is still homeless, living in a shanty tent in Uwanja Ndege village, Baringo South.

With her seven children, they have no choice but to fit in the tiny structure, despite facing challenges, including whirl winds and sweltering heat during the day, and braving the cold at night.

Jackline Koyala, 40, is among more than 100 heads of households who relocated to the area, dozens of kilometres away from the flood-prone Ng’ambo and Loropil villages in Baringo South in May 2020. Floods had swallowed their homes and farms, rendering them paupers.

Two years on, Nation.Africa has learnt that their houses are still submerged more than five kilometres inside the swollen lake.

Ms Koyala has been on the move since 2010 after rampant flooding pushed her from Maasai village adjacent to the lake.

“This is my fifth time being displaced by floods. I first moved from my home in 2010 when River Perkerra burst its banks, submerging most homes. I have been on the move since then and birthed five of my seven children in temporary camps,” says Ms Koyala.

She says life in the camps is devastating with lack of food and clothing and poor shelter. This has exposed people here to cold-related illnesses.

“I did not salvage anything during the flooding. All the maize on my two-acre farm and a number of goats were swept downstream. I only have few utensils and a tattered tent, which I was given by the Kenya Red Cross in 2017,” says the distraught mother.

Ruma Naiweti, 58, at her shanty home in Uwanja Ndege village on the outskirts of Marigat town on October 22, 2022.  

Photo credit: Florah Koech | Nation Media Group

Being a single mother, she has had to rely on menial jobs at the Perkerra irrigation scheme, which pays her a meagre Sh200 a day, and if she is lucky to get the work.

“I used to rely on maize farming before the flooding and in a good harvest, I would earn more than Sh200,000. The displacement has reduced me to a beggar. Sleeping on empty stomach at this camp is not new to us,” says the mother of seven.

“The money I earn from menial jobs isn’t enough to feed us, let alone buy clothing and pay school fees. As I speak, my child, a student at a local secondary school, has been sent home for fees,” she adds.

The situation is the same for Ruma Naiweti, 58, who was also displaced from the flood-prone Loropil village at the time, and had to seek refuge at the temporary camp.

Her situation is worse because she is physically challenged.

“Everything I had is under water, including my livestock, which used to be our main source of livelihood with my seven children. Maize farming, which used to support us, came to a screeching halt after the farm was swallowed by flood waters. I now depend on well-wishers because I cannot do menial jobs like my counterparts,” says Ms Naiweti, whose two children have also been sent from school for fee balances.

Lake Baringo has increased from 236 square kilometres in 2015 to approximately 260 square kilometres currently, submerging adjacent structures, including homes, institutions and social amenities.

More than 1,000 houses previously on the shores of the Lake have been submerged.

Nyando women shoulder burden of seeking alternative shelter for family during floods

It is 10am when we arrive at the old Ombaka Mixed Secondary School in Nyando, Kisumu County. Here, a number of women are busy airing their bedding in the sun as young girls wash utensils in the vast compound.

Just a few years ago, the compound hosted students. But all this changed following the backflow of Lake Victoria and flooding, which experts attribute to the harsh effects of climate change.

We are welcomed to one of the largest halls in the compound, which now acts as home for six women and their children. Evalyne Akinyi is one of them.

A flood victim at the old Ombaka Mixed Secondary School camping site in Nyando Sub-county, Kisumu County. This is her new home and that of other families following the August downpours that submerged their houses.  

Photo credit: Angeline Ochieng'| Nation Media Group

The hall is empty, apart from clean utensils. Ms Akinyi, who has been here for the past two months, says they air their bedding to make the room presentable.

“During floods, it is a woman’s responsibility to seek alternative shelter for her family,” says Ms Akinyi.

The heavy rains experienced before the August election saw her pack out of her matrimonial home in the middle of the night.

She recalls how she was preparing to sleep but was worried because the water levels had been rising since morning.

“A few hours before we retired, my two-room house was already full of water, forcing me to leave,” she says.

She was lucky to find a group of women, already displaced, travelling on a boat towards the rescue centre. She joined them.

Her next responsibility was to find a warm place where her children would sleep. Her husband had an alternative shelter with other men.

“Living in a camp is something I would never wish even on my enemy; it is tough for women who temporarily become breadwinners when they don’t have a source of income,” says Ms Akinyi.

Prior to this, she practised small-scale vegetable farming and would feed her family. With her husband, a fisherman, they shared costs at home.

Bed sheets

“This camp has reduced us to beggars, a number of times, we rely on help from well-wishers and our husbands, who at times feel burdened, leading to quarrels from time to time,” she explains.

Ms Akinyi shares the hall with six other women and children, something she says denies them privacy. The different families have partitioned the rooms using bed sheets, while others have learnt to share the rooms without any difficulty.

But separation from their husbands, for months, is another challenge they have to deal with.

“This can only mean we go for days without conjugal rights,” says Ms Akinyi, who blames the separation to cases of prostitution among young married women here.

Peres Owuor, another flood victim, explains that one of the challenges they face is bringing up their children on their own.

Poverty levels are high here, she says, many teenage girls fall victim to sex pests.

“Teenage pregnancies are common and because it is our responsibility to take care of the children here, we are always blamed for these pregnancies and early marriages,” she explains.

While the government has made an effort to supply the women with contraceptives, they say sometimes they go for months before getting them.

“Travelling to hospital to get means added expenses when we are already struggling to make ends meet,” she explains.

Meanwhile, many women who live around Lake Victoria depend on fish for daily income.

Millicent Atieno displays fish at her stall on Dunga Beach, Kisumu County. Fish supply has reduced over the years, despite the commodity being a major source of income for women around Lake Victoria.

Photo credit: Angeline Ochieng’ | Nation Media Group

The current fish shortage has also been blamed on the climate crisis. Millicent Atieno, 38, has been a fishmonger for the last 20 years.

When she started, she would get up to 10kg of fish at Sh500, an amount that has risen to Sh5,000, thanks to the shortage.

“Generating interest is by luck, we always end up with debts of fishermen who are no longer willing to give us the commodity,” says the mother of four, adding she largely depends on the fish business to educate her four children.

“I am also taking care of four children from my relatives. Something needs to be done for the lake to be more productive like it was 20 years ago,” she says.

Food and water scarcity led to my miscarriage

Priscilla Kalama, 23, is seated under a tree at her homestead in Manda-Maweni, a remote island in Lamu County.

The mother of three recalls how she lost her infant about a year ago in what she attributes to the adverse effects of climate change.

From the time she conceived, Ms Kalama says she was exposed to extreme heat in her village, and walking long distances in search of water and food.

At Manda-Maweni, drought has been the norm, a situation that has resulted in most of the water sources drying up.

The few available ones are far away.

The wells and boreholes here and surrounding villages have turned saline, owing to the intense heat.

A recent report by the National Drought Management Authority in Lamu, indicates that the county received 83mm of rainfall, which was below the long-term average (LTA) of 284mm, translating to 67 per cent below the LTA rainfall performance recorded in Lamu annually.

There is a scramble by humans and wildlife for the few available water sources. The county has experienced mass crop failure due to a lack of rain, resulting in famine.

Cases malnutrition are also reported to be on the rise, especially among vulnerable groups like pregnant women and under-fives. And Ms Kalama is a victim.

Priscilla Kalama of Manda-Maweni village in Lamu with her children. 

Photo credit: Kalume Kazungu | Nation Media Group

“Only two water pans still have water in our village, but they are about 20 kilometres away from my homestead. While pregnant, I would wake up early and walk over 20 kilometres daily, to fetch water for my family. My children are young and cannot assist me,” says Ms Kalama.

She explains that she would opt to fetch dirty, saline water from nearby wells and boreholes for home consumption, especially on days when she woke up feeling too tired to trek the 20 kilometres

“I started developing health problems, including anaemia and even eclampsia while pregnant. I believe all that was because of the hard work I exposed myself to. This region is generally hot.

“As a result, I experienced post-traumatic stress disorder and heat exhaustion. I was depressed by the drought and the fate of my family. Food and water was a problem. I miscarried.”

Ms Kalama’s case reflects that of many other women in Manda-Maweni and other remote villages of Lamu hard hit by drought and other effects of climate change.

At Sheemgambo, Bar’goni, Ras Kitau, Mswakini, Pandanguo, Dide Waride, Mavuno, Poromoko, Madina, Kiunga, Ishakani, and Katsaka Kairu among other places, climate change has resulted in an unpredictable rise or drop in seawater levels, leading to high or low tides.

Residents are forced, on several occasions, to stay at home even during medical emergencies as they wait for the water level to normalise before crossing to King Fahd.

“Some of us resorted not to get pregnant. Young women who had already started giving birth have stopped because of the fear of climate change repercussions,” says Zawadi Tunda of Ras Kitau.

Lamu Women Alliance Executive Officer Raya Famau also cites increased gender-based violence meted out to the Lamu women.

“Drought has increased in Lamu. There’s no rainfall anymore. Men have lost their fishing activities and this has generally led some of them being stressed and fleeing their homes, leaving their wives to provide for their families. Some men even beat their wives out of frustrations,” says Ms Famau.

We don’t take clean water anymore

Pauline Lekureiya looks exhausted. She has just fetched water from a drying water point from the Waso area in Samburu East.

Ms Lekureiya has to trek about 21 kilometres daily in search of water for domestic use, because other sources nearby dried up last year. She has twice escaped attacks from wild animals, which have surrounded the only water point in the region.

“This has been our routine. But I must say it is a dangerous routine because wild animals have thronged here to quench themselves,” Ms Lekureiya tells Nation.Africa.

“So I have to find water for domestic use and for the little goats that have remained.”

Climate change has also doubled Ms Lekureiya’s motherly responsibilities in her homestead (manyatta).

She has to take care of little shoats, which have remained as others perished following droughts.

“They are like my children again because I have to look after them now and then. They are too weak to walk, so I have to feed them like my children,” she says.

Nalipo Lekiloi has witnessed four extreme droughts since she was born. But she says the ongoing drought ravaging Samburu County has rendered her family destitute following mass death of livestock. She is struggling to feed her two-year-old son amid shortage of milk.

She says the situation has posed a health threat to her children because the family has to drink dirty water.

“We do not take clean water anymore. This is a race to survive by getting any water regardless of where you fetch,” she says.

As Samburu grapples with one of the worst droughts in a decade, the dry conditions mean that women and girls are at an increased risk of gender-based violence and other forms of exploitations.

Pauline Lekureiya in Umoja village, Samburu East. The extreme weather conditions have doubled her motherly responsibilities in her manyatta.

Photo credit: Geoffrey Ondieki | Nation Media Group

The drought has decimated livestock and other livelihoods, forcing women to bear the burden of finding water and food.

Samburu Women Trust, an indigenous women organisation, says security risks to girls and women have increased in the past two years, as a result of the ongoing drought.

The local rights group say Samburu women are making long trips through drought-ravaged terrains in search of water and foods.

The organisation’s executive director Jane Meriwas says more women have been subjected to violence, including rape, sexual exploitation and domestic abuse during the drought period.

She says most are suffering in silence because they find it difficult to report cases to relevant authorities.

Hundreds of children in Samburu are acutely malnourished and need urgent intervention as crippling drought continues to ravage the pastoralist region.

With mass deaths of animals, which are pastoralists’ main source of livelihoods, most families have been rendered destitute and “cannot properly feed children”.

Data from the Samburu County Nutrition department show hospital admissions across all health facilities due to malnutrition-related diseases such as diarrhoea.

Samburu also has so far conducted mass screening on under-fives and malnutrition cases were recorded.

I’m weak, dizzy but must breastfeed to keep her alive

Gumato Qunyo Adhi holds her seven-month-old daughter in her arms. She is suckling.

She sits outside her hut in Shankera village, North Horr, Marsabit County, to feed her. She dazes a broad lovely smile at her. All the while, her tiny hand plays with mama’s fingers.

But mama is not doing well.

“I’m feeling dizzy and my legs are weak. It’s because I’m so hungry. But I have to breastfeed her to keep her alive,” says Ms Adhi, who has five other children.

We interview her a few minutes past noon upon her return from Shankera hills where she had gone to fetch firewood. She had left the child behind with her older daughter, aged eight.

“We had cooked dried maize. That’s what we ate last night. In the morning we drank water,” she says. “We remained with a portion of the cooked dried maize and that’s what we will take for supper. I don’t know what we will eat tomorrow. I have no maize left.”

The maize she got was a donation from a consortium of international humanitarian organisations supplying food relief and water to vulnerable households – those with under-fives and breastfeeding women – in the county.

Her neighbour, Badhole Adhano Doko, has a year-and-five-month-old son to breastfeed. And food scarcity has already taken its toll on her mental health.

“All through the night and day I’m wondering, will my children survive? Will we receive food before it’s too late? When are the rains coming so that we can have enough pasture for our goats?” wonders Ms Doko who has four children.

She says she allows her son to breastfeed for as long as he wishes to “just keep him alive” even when it’s “too painful because the breasts are empty”.

Gumato Qunyo Adhi breastfeeds her seven-month-old daughter outside her hut at Shankera hills in North Horr, Marsabit County, on September 22, 2022.

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria | Nation Media Group

Just like Ms Adhi, she and her children took boiled dried maize yesternight. She also received the donation from the same organisations.

She says her husband had remained with few goats, but they are too emaciated to attract a good price. He had travelled with them to a distant grazing field. But she fears he may return without them as often most died enroute.

“Had there been rains and enough pasture, the goats would be well fed and fat. I’d be milking them. The milk would be enough for all of us,” she says.

“We would also sell a goat for Sh9,000 or Sh8,000 and use the money to buy adequate food. Now, no one wants to buy the goats because they are too thin.

“I can’t take this anymore. This is too much for me to bear.”

Ms Adhi and Ms Doko are among 229,893 people presently in need of humanitarian assistance in the county, based on the data from the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA).

But without food, water and pasture for the people and animals, NDMA Marsabit County coordinator Parkolwa Mustafa warns that the number is likely to grow beyond 252,000 this month.

Unfortunately, there are no actual figures of breastfeeding women affected by the drought. But there are 216,219 women in the county based on the 2019 Census. Here, by age 14, girls are married off.

And at 40, women are still having children. The county ranks second with highest fertility rates at seven births per woman after Mandera (eight births per woman).

There is danger of having malnourished breastfeeding women. A 2019 study—Maternal Malnutrition, Breastfeeding, and Child Inflammation in India—found breast milk from malnourished mothers may stimulate inflammation in breastfed children.

Ms Adhi’s mention of experiencing weakness in her legs is a plain sign of a deficiency of both nutrients.

When a colleague asked Ms Doko the last time she ate an egg, it felt like an insult. Our translator asked: “What kind of a question is that? Where will they get eggs from? Which chicken will survive here? Have you seen any chicken around here?”

By Florah Koech, Moraa Obiria, Kalume Kazungu, Angeline Ochieng, Geoffrey Ondieki and Kazungu Kalume