News / Africa

Drought Brings Extreme Hardship to Kenyan Women

Women bind their stomachs with cloth or rope to stave off hunger

Kim Lewis

International humanitarian organization ActionAid says women are one of the worst affected groups during this and other crises across East Africa.

In Kenya, where recurrent droughts have plagued various parts of the country over the last few years, women have been left as the sole provider of their families.

“We’re finding women are becoming heads of households as their husbands are leaving, either in search of jobs or to migrate with their livestock—if their livestock is still alive.  That puts increased pressure on women to provide for their children,” said Airlie Taylor, a communications officer with the emergencies and conflicts team of ActionAid.

Mothers must often leave their children behind sometimes for hours as they set out on foot to search for food.

“We’re finding that they’re having to trek longer distances in order to find water,” said Taylor, “and that means they are taking up more of their day doing that.  This brings an increase in violence, so they might be victims of sexual violence or other forms of violence.”

She said coping with drought and hunger also puts a woman’s health at risk, especially with her new responsibilities as head of the family.

“In some cases,” said Taylor, “women are foregoing meals.  The little food they do find will be given to children and older members of the community first.  Most of the time there is not enough to go around so the women do not eat.”

Relief workers prepare to distribute food-aid rations at a camp for the internally displaced in Mogadishu.
Relief workers prepare to distribute food-aid rations at a camp for the internally displaced in Mogadishu.

Instead, in some parts of Kenya, women have resorted to a life-threatening practice as a means of coping with hunger.

“We found women who are either tying bits of rope or cloth around their stomach, essentially binding their stomach.  That’s really to stave off hunger and they feel it makes them stronger.” said Taylor.

Stomach binding brings on serious health risks.  Taylor said when food does become available and women release the bound cloth, her stomach cannot cope with the intake of food, thus creating serious health problems for the women.

ActionAid says it is working to address the most immediate needs of the women and their families -- providing food and water.  They are also working with them with the long term goal of building up livestock and getting their livelihoods back on track.

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