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Climate change pumping violence into the lives of Taita Taveta women

Taita Taveta women on a benchmarking exercise at a marble quarry in Kajiado. [Peterson Githaiga, Standard]

For three years in a row, Margaret Mwake’s roughly one-acre farm has not given her any meaningful yield. Even as rain has pounded other parts of Kenya in the last few months, it has barely drizzled in Rukanga, Kasigau Ward, where Margaret hails from. Consequently, her locality has been hit by a drought that can easily degenerate into famine.

The National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) has already declared that Taita Taveta residents like Margaret are among 4.1 million Kenyans threatened by starvation.

In other counties, drought empties farms and dinner tables then stops there, which is bad enough. But in Taita Taveta, drought does more. For Kasighau residents like Margaret and her neighbour Ruphence Malemba, drought increases their encounter with elephants. During drought, these mammalian giants routinely invade their farms in search of food and water.

Climate change-induced drought pushes these elephants from their natural habitats in the Tsavo Parks into human habitations in search of food and water. For three consecutive years, these elephants have destroyed crops in Kasigau’s farms in their desperate search for food and water.

Unfortunately for them, even humans in Kasigau have a problem finding water. Residents mostly consume water piped in from the nearby Mt Kasigau. Erratic rainfall has drastically reduced this water. Consequently, many residents rely almost entirely on water that is ferried in by trucks. These truck trips are irregular, which leaves them in a vulnerable situation.

Margaret is a single mother of four, all primary school dropouts and jobless. Her two daughters already have a child each and are single mothers like her. Just like many young men in Kasigau, her two sons have fallen into occasional drunkenness. Alcoholism in Taita Taveta is such a pressing problem that in 2020, the County Commissioner’s office revealed that rampant alcoholism was a major driver of sexual abuse cases.

Against this backdrop, Margaret and Ruphence ventured into Taita Taveta’s mining territory in search of casual jobs that would help them fend for their families.

Kasigau, where the two women hail from, is renowned for its gemstones. The Mozambique belt passes through Kasigau, Taita Hills, Mwatate and Kuranze, all in Taita Taveta County. This belt hosts more than 40 high value gemstones. They include ruby, tsavorite, garnets, tourmalines, sapphire, amethyst, peridot, iolite, spinel, rhodolites and kyanites.

Over the last few decades, these gemstones have made billions for established gemstone firms like one belonging to former Machakos Senator and current United Democratic Alliance (UDA) Chairman Johnston Muthama. Although his Firm, Rockland Kenya Limited, has employed dozens and positively impacted hundreds indirectly, the vast majority of Kasighau residents are not in the value chain of such large scale mining operations. They have to depend on smaller mining firms and the numerous artisanal miners in the county.

Margaret and Ruphence eventually found casual jobs in a mine owned by a well-known female miner. The mine’s work conditions were quite demanding. Workers were provided with food only once a day. They lived on site in polythene tents.

The two and dozens of other women toiled under the hot sun for long hours daily using ordinary hoes and axes. Making progress with this simple equipment was a herculean task, but they soldiered on. Their duty was singular – to keep digging and unearthing gemstones.

After several weeks of digging without pay, scores of female diggers resorted to hiding a few gemstones so that they could sell them and pay themselves.

They were desperate for some payment so that they could send some money back home to their children.

However, this plan hit turbulence when the mine’s owner conducted an impromptu body search.

Margaret was the first one to be summoned. The owner ordered her to strip naked and proceeded to search every part of her body. She even poked fingers into her private parts, ostensibly searching for the gemstones.

For good measure, the mine owner was armed with a pistol. More than one hundred women underwent this ordeal. The reason many of them were even in that mining operation, being subjected to Gender Based Violence (GBV), was because their farms no longer yielded much, thanks to climate change.

Makrina Mwamburi is the Secretary of Sauti ya Wanawake, a women organisation that is on the forefront of fighting GBV in coastal Kenya. She says climate change is a major drive of GBV in Taita Taveta.

“When rains fail, crops fail; then women have to travel long distances in search of water, food and jobs. This exposes them to numerous Gender Based Violence pitfalls,” she says.

These pitfalls have increased lately due to the lingering rain scarcity in the county.

Taita Taveta is amongst 23 Counties that are classified as having Arid and Semi-Arid Land (ASAL). This increases its vulnerability to drought occurrence, which in turn increases the probability of women encountering GBV.

Margaret and Ruphence farm in this harsh climate. Now that they are no longer eking a living from casual mining jobs, the farms are their only lifeline. 

At its best, the subsistence farming that they practice only puts food on their tables. It rarely puts money in their purses. That is because they mostly plant the same crops.

This drives down the demand and price of such produce during the harvest seasons.

Even on a good day, they rarely make above Sh500. This revenue is stifled by the transport fare that they pay to Maungu or Voi, where the nearest markets can be found.

Unfortunately for Margaret and Ruphence, even these good days are hard to come by because they can only be during the harvest period in July and August.

During the other 10 months of the year, they have to find money from elsewhere.

That is why GBV can only be uprooted from Kasighau and the rest of the county if women like Margaret and Ruphence are assisted to earn reliable livelihoods.   

Economic deprivation leaves women in Kasigau and other parts of the county vulnerable to GBV. In 2020, there were as many as 20 GBV incidents every month. Between January and June of the same year, 1,243 teens in the county fell pregnant.

Meanwhile, data from the County Commissioner’s office in the same year further revealed that Taita Taveta had been recording at least six cases of rape and defilement on a weekly basis. Tragically, this was turning the county into a sexual violence hot spot in the coastal region.

Sauti ya Wanawake and several other organisations continue to sensitise leaders and the populace on the need to tackle GBV decisively.  

Makrina, the organisation’s secretary, says she has a concrete solution: “We need boreholes to be dug all over the county so that women can easily access water even during drought. This will guarantee them not just water, but also security.”

In the same vein, decent livelihoods, particularly through climate smart agriculture, will shield them from GBV not just in the short term, but also in the long term, the women say.