Rising temperatures, rising injustice for victims of abuse

Rendile Women in Korr, Marsabit County attending literacy classes under an Acacia tree. [Lynet Otieno, Standard]

Safia* enjoyed her childhood, love and family warmth, but lost it all so drastically when she conceived aged 16.

In her community in Marsabit, culture and the predominant religion prohibit pregnancy before marriage. She was therefore excommunicated. The man who put her in the family way knew the consequences, but he disappeared into thin air, while the girl was made to pay for their “sin”.

Soon Safia was due. She was still homeless.  She was taken to Marsabit General Hospital, where she delivered. When she was discharged, Lokho Abduba, the Indigenous Rights and Resource Management Organisation (Iremo) Executive Director, called the young mother’s brother to take her home. But he would not dare. Meanwhile, a clan member was making arrangements to marry Safia off to an old man outside the community. Lokho heard about it and sought timely help at a Catholic Sisters-run rescue centre, where the girl and her new-born were accepted.

“When we took her there, there were several other teenage mothers who had been rescued. Safia and her child were lucky to get help. Others suffer at the towns. It is always double tragedy when it floods,” said Lokho.

I first met Lokho in Kajiado County, where land use planning as a means to mitigating climate change effects were discussed. At the event attended by Maasai community members, representatives of the county government, a climate justice organisation and wildlife conservationists, Lokho emphasised that women are disproportionately affected by climate change, and should own more land, or be empowered to decide how family land was used.

A professional teacher and a former nominated MCA in Marsabit County, Lokho says some cultural and religious beliefs have enabled practices that demean victims of Gender-Based Violence (GBV).

“Some of these pregnancies are a result of defilement or incest. But local culture prohibits harbouring such teenagers. Not even their parents or brothers can save them,” she says.

Such girls are moved to “town” centres, sometimes by their brothers. “Among the Boran and the Gabra, teenage mothers are pushed to marry in communities far away, sometimes as second wives. However, since 2020, there has been a declaration by some Marsabit communities to allow such girls to live in urban centres,” says Lokho.

She says the teenage mothers may benefit from reproductive health services, but either lack information, or suffer stigma.

“They are abandoned in towns and have little or no knowledge of reproductive health rights and services.

At the urban centres where they struggle to survive, they are hounded by the very men who declared them unfit to live in the society and made pregnant again, as they seek financial support. Some end up with up to five children, all with “ghost” fathers,” says Lokho.

As the world marks 16 days of action against GBV, which started on November 25, Lokho is reminded of the role climate change plays in the plight of teenage and single mothers, and widows in ASAL areas, which are now experiencing floods.

“We suffer prolonged drought. When it rains, we are adversely affected. We suffer violent conflict like the one that ended recently. Low literacy levels, especially among women, hinders their access to reproductive health services,” she says, adding that women and girls displaced by calamities suffer more, whether they are married or not.

According to the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS) 2022, poverty and education levels determine rates of teenage pregnancy. “About 4 in 10 women aged 15-19 years who have no education have ever been pregnant, compared to only 5 per cent of women who have more than secondary education,” it read in part.

Safia, too, had never been to school.

Eric Mundia, a researcher and Senior Policy and Advocacy Advisor at Ipas Africa Alliance, says climate change is worsening the situation in the ASAL areas, especially when extreme weather events occasion displacement. Addressing the two problems, he says, means building climate resilience and enabling women and girls, especially the teenage mothers, to have more access to reproductive health services concurrently.

“Women in these areas are more exposed to GBV because they are dependent on men in many aspects, sometimes leading to increased unplanned pregnancies. Some opt for unsafe abortions, while others miscarry. The miscarriages, which are basically spontaneous abortion, are not recorded as such, but as still births. This denies the victims post-abortion care. For others, seeking such services earns them labels such as “barren”, or “those out to make men barren”,” says Mundia.

Lokho describes the dependence in other details: “Sometimes climate induced migration causes women to be separated from their husbands for months, as the latter look for pasture. In a community where decisions concerning family planning are made by husbands, mothers-in-law, or even brothers-in-law, a woman seen in hospital securing reproductive health services in the absence of her spouse is easily labelled a prostitute. Yet, her method could have expired and she was due for the next visit”.

Mundia says many women separated from their husbands due to drought resort to commercial sex to provide for children.

“Climate change is pushing people to extremes. Information should be simplified to enable women to understand reproductive health issues and resourcing improved, even if it means integrating the modern family planning methods with traditional ones,” says Mundia.

Retrogressive cultural practices

Lokho says some old methods may still work. “In some communities, a man who milks a camel cannot have sex with his wife, sometimes even for three years. During such times a man may choose to engage his other wives or abstain. Women’s chances of conceiving are also reduced when their husbands leave for months in search of pasture. For some, withdrawal worked. But the worst are the Rendile that force abortion by stepping on a woman’s stomach until a child is removed,” says Lokho.

Mundia and Lokho separately agree that calamities do not change women’s reproductive health needs, but worsen the issues and retrogressive cultural practices such as early marriage and female genital mutilation.

This worsens for women and girls with physical disabilities, or mental illness, who may be sexually active but without capacity to access or understand their reproductive health rights respectively.

Iremo links the teenage mothers with older women for mentoring, and gives them micro-grants. “At times they become the conduit for their communities to finance projects. At such times the negative tags such as “the broken” or “dead” disappear and the teenagers are somehow embraced by family again,” she says.

Mundia says the floods displacing people in ASAL areas may increase cases of GBV and teenage mothers. Besides, “migration may cause conflict. Women and children are a target when a community wants to teach another a lesson, which comes through rape and abduction,” he says, adding that a lot of those on the move due to climate induced disasters rarely have identification documents. “As a result, they are not comfortable reporting abuse in their new environments”.

The Marsabit County government is yet to complete a rescue centre for victims of GBV. 

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