Women and girls make up 80 percent of the people displaced by climate change. Once displaced, not only do they have to survive, they have to care for their families—all while evading the heightened risk of violence.
Thirty years ago, at the start of the ongoing Somali civil war, Zeinab’s parents fled their home in Somalia, seeking safety and stability for their family in Canada. Today, Zeinab is back in the Horn of Africa, currently based in Nairobi, Kenya, as a humanitarian worker with Alight, the global aid organization I lead. Zeinab is currently focused on raising global awareness and action to help more than 20 million people facing critical food insecurity in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya.
The region is experiencing its worst drought in 40 years—widely believed to be linked to climate change—along with the world’s worst food emergency. A famine in 2011 in Somalia claimed 260,000 lives (half of them before famine was officially declared), but with a sixth consecutive failed rainy season expected from March to May, the situation now is even more dire. The U.N. reports that 8.3 million Somalis, nearly half the population, will require humanitarian assistance and protection this year. The food insecurity and malnutrition brought on by the drought have left many with no other option but migration.
“Where we came from there wasn’t even a cup of water, never mind any food,” a group of Somali women told me at a food distribution site last fall.
“I couldn’t feed my kids. I didn’t have a choice. It was either death or life,” said Ayan, a mother of three.
Like many of us who work closely with people who have been displaced—whether by climate change, conflict or persecution—Zeinab often finds herself working against common misperceptions, blind spots and biases.
“When we think about refugees, we have this tendency to reduce them to the worst thing that has ever happened to them,” said Zeinab. “But the reality is, people who have experienced the trauma of displacement are not only multifaceted people—they are experts on their needs, with a lot of ideas and solutions for how to improve life in their communities. It’s just a matter of listening to them and providing the resources required to co-create solutions with them.”
Since 2010, Alight has been working in Somalia on a humanitarian response to famine. In visits to camps for internally displaced people (IDPs), we sit with families displaced by climate-induced drought, listen to how they want to restart their lives in urban areas and redesign services alongside them. More often than not in these visits, we find ourselves listening to women.
People who have experienced the trauma of displacement are not only multifaceted people—they are experts on their needs, with a lot of ideas and solutions for how to improve life in their communities.Zeinab
The U.N. estimates that women and girls account for 80 percent of the people displaced by climate change. In places like Somalia, which ranks fourth lowest for gender equality globally, laws that limit women’s abilities to own assets mean they have less access to economic opportunities and tend to depend more on natural resources for their livelihoods, which makes them more vulnerable to displacement. Once women are displaced, not only do they have to survive, they have to care for their families, all while evading the heightened risk of sexual and domestic violence.
The women I talk to in IDP camps used to ask, “When can we go back?” Now, they are asking, “How can we make a place here that we can call home?” Nobody should want to live in a camp. But for the millions of people displaced by climate change, there is nothing to go back to.
For Zeinab, changing perceptions around displaced people includes lifting up stories about the work women are doing to build new homes in IDP camps—and helping to raise funds for the things they need to build a new life for themselves and others in their communities.
For example, there’s the story of Sacdiyo in Kismayo, Somalia. Sacdiyo runs a center where she teaches young women to tailor. She knows the power of a useful skill and trade, and she’s sharing that power with her neighbors. She’s also helping them find joy and creative expression in their work, offering workshops in tie-dye. What Sacdiyo needs—in addition to the basics of survival—is sewing machines.
Cusub, a farmer living in a camp outside Hargeisa in Somaliland, learned her trade from her father.
“Life was beautiful before the famine. All of the skills my father taught me meant that I was able to provide for my family,” she said. But after losing all of her livestock, over 200 goats and sheep, to the famine, she had no choice but to leave her farm. What Cusub needs is livestock, a few goats, to create a version of home in the camp and use her skills to provide for her family.
Another woman in Kismayo, Fatuma, has adopted a group of 35 families who traveled to an IDP camp in search of water and food, allowing access to her water tap. Fatuma’s monthly water bill increased from $30 to $100 a month, and she needs help covering the costs. The families she supports have been making multiple trips a day to the water tap, sometimes spending the majority of their time fetching this precious resource. What they most need is jerry cans, or large containers, to make the most out of their trips.
Once women are displaced, not only do they have to survive, they have to care for their families, all while evading the heightened risk of sexual and domestic violence.
In story after story, what we hear is that the women in IDP camps need skills and resources to provide for their families.
“We are looking for a house, somewhere to feel at home. We want education for our kids, and we want livelihoods for the women,” they told me.
They want to grow and sell vegetables, to keep and sell livestock in the market, and to open up kiosks to sell non-perishable items. And most of all, they want to be heard, and seen as experts on their own needs.
What I learned when I listened to women rebuilding their lives in IDP camps is the power of doing what is doable. Even when problems feel insurmountable, on the scale of famine or climate change, small actions can make a big impact. This month, as we recognize extraordinary women throughout history, let’s also celebrate the women who are out there doing the doable and seeing the potential in impossible situations.
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