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Haretha Hussein, Chairlady of the Widows and Divorcees Association, an ActionAid supported women’s group in Ijara District, Kenya explains how her members have avoided the worst effects of the drought

Ijara district lies in Kenya’s North Eastern Province, one of the areas severely affected by the current drought that is threatening the lives of more than 3.2 million people. In Ijara Town, the stories are typical for the region. People have lost their livestock, harvests have failed, foods prices are up, and with them malnutrition rates are rising. However, amongst the despair, there are stories of hope.

Haretha Hussein is one of 20 women in the Ijara Widows and Divorcees Association – a local women’s group which over the past 6 years have set up several small businesses, and which today are earning a stable income, in spite of the drought.

Haretha explains, “we trade livestock, have a small retail shop and a business selling hides and skins from livestock.”

Like most pastoralists, the group have experienced losses. With nearly half of their livestock dead, the arm of their business selling and trading livestock has been badly hit by the drought. However, with two other streams of income to rely on, the women have managed to protect themselves from its full effects.

“The hides and skins business is doing very well. Because of the drought, more goats are being slaughtered. We just loaded a consignment of 145 skins that are going to Masalani. When the markets are good we can make 70 to100 shillings profit per goat skin.”

“In the shop, we sell rice, pasta, maize flour, beans, sugar, salt, tea leaves, utensils and clothes. In a good month we will make 5,000 shillings, in a bad month it might make 3,000 shillings.”

A solar powered battery which the women bought from their profits is their newest venture – charging a small fee to charge mobile phones and other electrical appliances in an area where most don’t have electricity is good business.

Haretha explains that the women use the income to buy food, pay school fees and medical care.

We don’t have a single child that is not going to school and that doesn’t have uniform. The 20 members of this group do not rely on food aid.

The benefits of the group have gone beyond protecting them from the effects of the drought. In a region which is predominantly Muslim, a strong patriarchal culture dictates that women are usually denied the right to make decisions on how household finances are spent, As they are also denied control over household assets (like land and livestock), they are by default, also denied the opportunity to earn their own income. Women’s groups are bringing about a change in these traditional power dynamics.

Community Development Facilitator, Abdi Omar explains:

“Traditionally this community wouldn’t give women space in terms of owning and controlling resources. However, women want to get out of poverty. We see time and time again that it is women who provide for their children and it is women who want their children to go to school."

Once you empower women economically, everything changes. They can pay for their girls to go to school and they have a voice in when their children are married.

The groups also acts as watchdog when the development funds from the Kenyan State are distributed to school buildings, dispensaries, infrastructure and other services.

“In Ijara, women in these groups are now influencing the projects funded by the devolved funds. They make sure that the funds go to necessary projects and they prevent politicians and administrators from being corrupt in their fund management,” he continues.

ActionAid and local partner organisation Womankind Kenya support Ijara’s women’s groups with financial grants to kick-start their businesses. ActionAid also give women training in bookkeeping, organisational development and leadership, so they have the skills to run their businesses independently, and the confidence to negotiate with and influence village elders and businessmen.