Health and violence risks multiply for women and girls in Kenya as worst drought in 40 years takes hold
- 17 October 2022
TURKANA COUNTY, Kenya – Chants of “Apei Apei ng’akankomwon ng’akan!” ring out from a group of women sitting under a tree. The words translate to “One, one, nine, five” – Kenya’s national gender-based violence helpline number.
The women are taking part in an integrated medical outreach session, supported by UNFPA in the village of Lokapararai, in Turkana county. The session is one of many aimed at bringing sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence protection services to women and girls affected by a prolonged drought currently ravaging the country.
“We have to walk for more than 7 kilometres to find water, and sometimes what we find isn’t safe to drink,” said 39-year-old Elimlim Ingolan, one of the participants at the outreach session. Holding her 7-month-old baby in her arms, she described digging for water from dry river beds, sometimes for hours, often without success.
It is usually women and girls who are sent to fetch water, heightening their exposure to sexual exploitation, violence and abuse on their search as they walk ever further from their homes and waiting for hours at boreholes. The situation is especially dangerous as hostilities mount among communities desperate to secure the scarce resources available.
Urgent need for protection and maternal health services
In some areas, over 90 per cent of water sources have dried up, and as crops fail and families lose their livestock – for many their only source of income – more than 4 million people are grappling with acute hunger. Hundreds of thousands have been forced to move in search of survival, leaving vulnerable women and girls with little to no access to critical health facilities or protection and support services – at the very time they need them the most.
At the Samburu county referral hospital, clinical officer Jackline Njomoni told UNFPA, “We have seen an increase in gender-based violence, female genital mutilation and child marriage during the drought. Families are cutting their girls and marrying them off to pay for food or to re-stock cattle.”
Unable to access family planning and contraceptive services, teenage girls are also falling pregnant in higher numbers – often unintentionally – which can lead to life-threatening health complications such as obstetric fistula and a higher risk of intimate partner violence.
An estimated 134,000 women are currently pregnant or breastfeeding in drought-affected regions of Kenya. Many are now malnourished and anaemic – conditions which can be life-threatening for pregnant women – yet trekking long distances in search of water and food means they often miss critical appointments, even when warning signs arise.
Safeguarding health, rights and lives
To help protect women and girls from the drought’s fallout on their health, safety and well-being, UNFPA is distributing maternal health kits and dignity kits across Kenya. The kits contain essential hygiene supplies for women and girls and items to support new mothers, as well as a solar-powered flashlight and a whistle to call for help if needed.
UNFPA’s medical activities can reach populations in remote areas with essential services such as antenatal and nutrition services for pregnant women. UNFPA also provides free referrals to hospital and ambulance transfers for women with obstetric and newborn emergencies. From October 2021 to June 2022, UNFPA reached more than 186,000 women and girls with sexual and reproductive health support and over 60,000 with gender-based violence response and protection services, including mental health support for more than 45,000 survivors.
More than 340 front-line health workers and community responders were trained on preventing and responding to gender-based violence, with a focus on clinical management of rape, psychological first aid and referrals for legal and medical assistance.
The joint UN drought appeal for Kenya calls for $320 million to support more than 4 million people in dire need of assistance: If forecasts of a strong likelihood of the October to December 2022 rains also failing in Kenya prove accurate, this would tip millions more vulnerable women and girls who are teetering on the brink of crisis over the edge.