Africa, People, Peace & Partnership, Equal Opportunity & Human Rights

Empowering women means taking a stand for environmental rights

UN Environment | Mar 05, 2019


This article was originally published by UN Environment and is republished with permission.

As the Samburu fight for control over natural resources, Samburu women are demanding to be heard

The Samburu, a pastoralist indigenous tribe from the vast semi-arid and arid rangelands of Northern Kenya, face many of the same challenges as other indigenous communities around the world. They have few opportunities to influence or manage activities that affect their environment, and insufficient information and understanding of their entitlements and rights when large development and infrastructure projects come to do business on their lands.

But the women within that community have even greater hurdles to overcome. When it comes to the management of land and livestock, most Samburu women have little power: they don’t own property and are excluded from community meetings. They are among the many millions of women who produce between 60 and 80 per cent of food in developing countries but own only 2 per cent of land worldwide. They are the disempowered among the disadvantaged.

 “[It is] difficult to imagine that a woman can own, can access, can control … especially in pastoralist communities. It is unheard of,” said Jane Meriwas, Executive Director, Samburu Women’s Trust.

When women are poorly informed of their community entitlements and environmental rights, it has a big impact on the wider community. Big infrastructure and development projects often bring competition and conflict within the community, and between the community and government and businesses, over who gains, and how, from natural resources.  

Photo by The Samburu Women’s Trust

Women and environmental governance

To address this problem, the Samburu Women’s Trust empowers females from the community to participate in decision-making and influence policies that affect the Samburu. Training enables them to better understand and defend their rights and to protect the community’s economic, social and cultural interests. They provide the women, literate and illiterate, with information on their constitutional rights, and allows them to share their views with the government. Very importantly, the Trust transforms legalese principles into layman’s terms so that the community can understand their rights and how to protect them.

Thanks to all of this work the Samburu women are now exercising their land rights—20 women and three women’s groups own land where Jane Meriwas comes from. There are even women’s groups talking to various government offices including the County Government, women caucuses in the County Assembly, the Governor’s Office and the Office of the First Lady.

Photo by The Samburu Women’s Trust

Meriwas says that the journey, however, is not easy. Women who speak up are sometimes beaten, divorced, intimidated and “given names”. She recalls one case of a Woman Human Rights Defender from Marsabit County who had to be sent to the Netherlands for three months in the wake of threats made against her. The Trust, along with other organizations such as the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders, provides Women Human Rights Defenders with the information and resources to protect themselves against harassment.  

This case study is an interesting example of how defending a community and women’s rights can simultaneously help to fulfill environmental rights. The Samburu tribe is currently advocating for environmental rights such as rights of access to information and natural resources, public participation as well as community rights. Though achieving this is difficult, confusing and dangerous, there has been success: women have gained ownership over land and livelihoods and there is more female influence in Samburu natural resource management.


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