Maasai pastoralist women’s agency in navigating climate variability and gender inequality

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Although pastoralists have long-standing traditional responses to variability (Mehta et al., 2019), these responses have been undermined by the frequency and intensity of weather events coupled with their socioeconomic vulnerability. Pastoralists tend to be marginalized by the state due to the long-held misconception that their livelihood is outdated and requires modernization. As such, top-down land-use changes from communal lands to neoliberal forms of conservation (Bedelian et al., 2024) fragment livestock resources, hinder mobility, weaken social relations and exacerbate gender inequalities by dispossessing women without compensation.

‘Maasai women … use their agency to mobilize strategies that navigate the complex interplay of climate change and deep-rooted discriminatory gender norms.’

As such, women bear the brunt of these changes due to uneven distribution of labour, unequal resource distribution and exclusion from strategic decision-making (Wangui et al., 2018). Climate change impacts exacerbate pre-existing gender inequalities, resulting in women being disproportionately affected, raising the need to address these inequalities.

Prevalent narratives often depict Maasai women as thoroughly subordinated, without rights and considered as property. While this may hold true in some cases, the dangers of portraying women as passive victims by overlooking their agency, undermining their achievements and not recognizing them as agents of change, have been widely discussed in feminist literature (Arora-Jonsson, 2011). This scholarship calls for the recognition of women’s agency in responding to climatic and non-climatic changes. In this article, I foreground how Maasai women in the Mara ecosystem use their agency to mobilize strategies that navigate the complex interplay of climate change and deep-rooted discriminatory gender norms.

Revitalizing social networks by re-creating commons

The role of social networks as a coping mechanism for pastoralists has garnered significant scientific attention. Maasai women draw on social networks to perform their roles of shelter construction, caregiving, collecting water and firewood, and sharing food during droughts. However, the conversion of land use effectively disrupted these social bonds, as vulnerable individuals such as divorced, widowed and poor women were completely dispossessed of land.

‘I only realized we were poor when we moved to live on our own’

Married women also faced geographical displacement as they relocated to live in their husbands' allocated lands in new areas; as one woman aptly expressed, ‘I only realized we were poor when we moved to live on our own’. This sentiment reflects the loss of social support systems and the material depravity that often accompany such displacement.

My research reveals that women are actively re-establishing social networks and reclaiming agency through a phenomenon referred to as re-creating the commons (Archambault, 2016). Central to creating these commons are women leasing land from male landowners and building cultural villages. These villages serve as either primary or secondary homes for the women. In these villages, initially created as part of larger neo-liberal conservation initiatives in the region, women assume decision-making roles and engage in income-generating activities to strengthen their financial autonomy.

Afbeelding
Two African women milking a cow in a field
Women milking cows at the cultural village, with an older woman guiding a teenager. Talek, 22 Nov 2019. ©Eunice Wangari Muneri

These villages strengthen the previously experienced social bonds as women share responsibilities, including providing guidance in carrying out tasks, as shown in the image above, and sharing resources during droughts.

Beyond the neoliberal drivers of these villages, women have proactively initiated efforts to strengthen their social networks in diverse ways. By pooling financial resources, the women engage in welfare-based projects that not only address immediate needs but serve as adaptation strategies amidst climatic events like droughts. For instance, the women joined forces to purchase water storage tanks, which are essential for mitigating the impacts of droughts on water availability in households. Purchasing such tanks is unaffordable for individual women, and they hardly qualify for loans from commercial banks due to a lack of collateral. Pooling resources illustrates how women navigate institutional barriers to raise funds. Similarly, by addressing water scarcity through collective action, women demonstrate a proactive response to droughts, emerging as active agents of change in their communities.

Transformative gender relations around livestock control in New Commons

Through the re-creation of the commons, social networks are re-established and gender and generational relations are transformed, especially the control over resources. Livestock trade remains a highly gendered activity in the community, with women being openly dismissed from trading centres. Men refuse to engage with women in livestock trade discussions, insisting on speaking with fellow men. Despite this, women in the cultural villages employ strategic tactics, such as sending young men to purchase or sell livestock on their behalf, as shown in the image below.

Afbeelding
People and animals at an outdoor sheep and goat market in Kenay
A young man is discussing the purchase progress in the men-dominated livestock market with my female research participant. Aitong, 21 Nov 2019. © Eunice Wangari.

They thus decide whether, when and which livestock is sold or bought, challenging traditional gender roles.

As droughts intensify, there is a notable shift in livestock ownership dynamics, with men increasingly asserting control over traditionally women-owned livestock - sheep and goats (shoats), due to their minimal feeding requirements. Despite this dispossession, women use their agency to support themselves by turning to alternative ventures such as chicken rearing and beekeeping, which are not subject to traditional gender norms surrounding livestock ownership.

‘…women are actively re-establishing social networks and reclaiming agency through a phenomenon referred to as re-creating the commons.’

These ventures are viable income-generating activities for women, offering economic empowerment. Despite cultural taboos associated with chicken consumption, women leverage these ventures to supply local and high-end restaurants, tapping into tourism-driven markets.

Women’s land ownership through collective action

In Kenya, women own a mere 7% of the land, despite its centrality in rural livelihoods, especially as climate variability affects the quality and quantity of natural resources. Despite the country’s constitution recognizing women’s land inheritance rights, sociocultural constraints persist (Nzioki, 2022). To circumvent these constraints, my research revealed how women utilize self-help groups as a collective action platform. For instance, a group of eight middle-class women saved diligently for a year to acquire a 2-acre parcel near an urban centre, strategically avoiding scrutiny from cultural gatekeepers who may have questioned their land ownership as women. Their choice of location for land acquisition reflects women’s strategic decision-making informed by cultural contexts. By pooling finances and jointly purchasing land, women challenge gender biases and exercise agency in securing property rights.

‘…women use their agency … by turning to alternative ventures … which are not subject to traditional gender norms surrounding livestock ownership.’

The eight women leased the land to a group of three women running a girl’s boarding school. The importance of education as a response to climate variability is increasingly recognized in the community (Archambault, 2017). By recognizing that education improves livelihood prospects, women have shifted their focus towards supporting girls' education as an adaptation strategy. As such, women across ages and classes are adopting innovative ways of retaining girls in school. Climate variability, especially droughts, has been linked to increased school dropouts among girls due to heightened domestic responsibilities and early marriage (Archambault, 2017). By leasing out their land to establish a boarding school, not only did the women generate additional income but also demonstrated their commitment to fostering educational opportunities and mutual support among female community members.

Conclusion

In this article, I shift the narrative about Maasai pastoralist women from one of victimhood to one of empowerment. The cases exemplify that despite their disadvantaged positions, women are agents of change who use their agency in innovative and collective ways. Recreating the commons has not only improved women’s economic prospects but also enhanced their social networks, enabling them to purchase assets through pooling resources. New gender and generational relations are also emerging in these commons, which enable women to navigate discriminatory social norms around livestock ownership. Similarly, women challenge social norms regarding property ownership and simultaneously support girls' retention in schools. By understanding how women mobilize their agency in the face of intersecting challenges, we gain valuable insights into their strategies, which can inform gender-responsive adaptation policies and interventions, thus promoting gender equality in Kenya and beyond.

References

  • Archambault, C. 2016 ‘Re-creating the commons and re-configuring Maasai women’s roles on the rangelands in the face of fragmentation’ International Journal of the Commons 10(2).
  • Archambault, C. S. 2017 ‘”The pen is the spear of today”:(re) producing gender in the Maasai schooling setting’ Gender and education 29(6), 731-747.
  • Arora-Jonsson, S. 2011 ‘Virtue and vulnerability: Discourses on women, gender and climate change’ Global environmental change 21(2), 744-751.
  • Bedelian, C., Ogutu, J. O., Homewood, K., & Keane, A. 2024 ‘Evaluating the determinants of participation in conservancy land leases and its impacts on household wealth in the Maasai Mara, Kenya: Equity and gender implications’ World Development 174, 106442.
  • Nzioki, A. 2022 ‘National gender assessment of the land sector, Kenya’ Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Djibouti.
  • Mehta, L., & Srivastava, S. 2019 ‘Pastoralists without pasture: Water scarcity, marketisation and resource enclosures in Kutch, India’ Nomadic Peoples 23(2), 195-217.
  • Wangui, E. E., & Smucker, T. A. 2018 ‘Gendered opportunities and constraints to scaling up: a case study of spontaneous adaptation in a pastoralist community in Mwanga District, Tanzania’ Climate and Development 10(4), 369-376.
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