Women and Climate On the Horn Of Africa

Barlin Hassan Ali Interviewed by Lisa Cloete

Hank came to Somalia when desertification was made worse by tens of thousands of refugees pouring in from Ethiopia. As the director of a national woodstoves program, he faced a monumental task, not only in the technical sense, but also culturally. Imagine coming into a new country to jump start a new program with all the odds working against you.

Hank weathered all those challenges and grew a two-person office (I was his first employee) into a nation-wide office with multiple extension offices and more than fifty employees. He did that by being patient and respecting the local culture. Some of the energy saving stoves designed under his tenure are now common household items in East Africa – though no credit is given to Hank or those involved in their original designs.

True, women are disproportionately affected by climate change. In this patriarchal society, women carry out mundane tasks that have become more difficult due to climate change. Rural women collect firewood, fetch water, build the makeshift houses, herd all animals (except for camels) rear children and in general take care of all the household chores. Urban women are similarly burdened. Although, urban women to some extents are economically empowered (you could say they are the bread winners), the source of that empowerment is controlled by men, and is equally affected by climate change.

Empowering women can be achieved by raising the socio-economic status of women through political participation of women at grass-roots level. In Somaliland, where there is a one-person one-vote system, women could be educated to vote for women who can advance their cause. In recent local council and parliamentary elections, despite dozens of women candidates, not a single woman was elected to local council or parliament. Although majority of the voters were women, most did not vote for the women candidates because of cultural and religious beliefs that a woman’s place is at home. Therefore, women’s empowerment will only be achieved through political awareness and participation.

Definitely. Because women bear the brunt of environmental mismanagement, their participation in formulating environmental policies would yield positive results. Their input and influence are far reaching because they understand the issues. However, the uphill battle is convincing enough women that they can and should play a role in policy making.

Evidence of climate change is hard to pin down, especially in this part of the world, where data necessary to define climate change is not readily available. However, through anecdotal stories and from what I have observed, I can say climate change is occurring. Rainfall is erratic, flooding has increased, and as I indicated above, fetching water, collecting firewood, grazing animals is harder than it has ever been. It is evident that human activities are impacting the climate.

I don’t see a change in culture or resource reallocation that is taking place to deal with these circumstances. However, urban women, for example, are switching to modern household technologies not because they are conscious of the impact of climate change, but because these technologies (e.g., cooking with propane gas) are more convenient to use regardless of the damage they may do to climate.

In general, I would say the populace in this part of the world are climate change deniers. In general, convincing one that human activity is a factor in climate change is a tall order.

Thank you so much Barlin for taking the time to speak to us and for all the work you do empowering women, which in the end empowers the planet.

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