When Jackline Cheplang’at began teaching fellow community members about gender and conservation issues in Kenya’s traditionally patriarchal Rift Valley region, she expected some pushback.
But she didn’t expect to be physically assaulted for what she was saying.
Cheplang’at is a passionate member of her local Water Resource Users Association (WRUA), which works on restoring and preserving the health of the Itare-Chemosit water catchment in the Mau Forest Complex. Deforestation, land conversion, charcoal burning and encroachment for settlement have all taken their toll on the catchment, compromising its ability to provide sufficient clean water for people who live along the river.
Last year, Cheplang’at took part in a train-the-trainers (ToT) program run by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and their partners. The program, which included both WRUA members and Community Forest Association (CFA) members, explored gender concepts and their application to forest and water management, including the differentiated roles of men and women in forest and water conservation.
Traditionally in the area, women are responsible for water, firewood, food and conservation, while men earn money by selling forest products such as honey, poles and bamboo, and by grazing cattle. The Kalenjin culture of the area both forbids women to own land, and requires them to seek the men’s permission to carry out conservation and alternative livelihood practices on the land that they live on. Inevitably, this limits what the women are able to achieve.
Following the program, Cheplang’at began training people in the surrounding villages to educate their own communities about these issues. It was challenging: Cheplang’at was barred from speaking at many community meetings because of her gender. Determined to break down barriers, she persisted, successfully mobilizing 75 people across 11 villages to become trainers like herself.
In the process, she became aware of a local issue with far-reaching impacts.
Her own village of Kaptebengwet sits at the upper reaches of Tobilo stream. One of the villagers had planted a ten-acre eucalyptus plantation surrounding a spring that feeds the stream, reducing its flow. The villager had also fenced off the spring so that others could no longer collect water there, and was now selling bottled water from the source. This was having an adverse impact on villages downstream, whose ecosystems were beginning to suffer along with their water supply.
Cheplang’at, encouraged by other community members, decided to confront the villager about her land management and its impact on the catchment and community. But after hearing of her plans, the woman responsible for the eucalyptus plantation surprised her at her home at 6 am one morning – and assaulted her.
The incident has gendered connotations, says CIFOR principal scientist Esther Mwangi. Had a man been in Cheplang’at’s place, such an assault would be unlikely, and it’s much more probable that he would have had the chance to air the community’s concerns. Ironically, while women are well-versed in managing the resources around them at the household level, at broader scales “their authority in forest and water management will always be contested,” says Mwangi. “Especially if it comes up against profit-making ventures.”
Still, Cheplang’at’s work has already created ripples of change. The plantation owner’s neighbour, who himself had three acres of eucalyptus, has now cleared his trees in order to replant with indigenous varieties, and has joined the WRUA. In total, Cheplang’at and her trainees have educated 277 community members on gender and conservation issues, and recruited 75 new members to the WRUA.
There is also change afoot within some households. After attending one of the gender trainings, Philip Chelule, who is Assistant Chief of the Sotit sub-location in Itare, encouraged his wife, Caroline Chelule, to take on a project outside of their home. He allocated her tea bushes and had her register them under her name so that she became the owner of her own tea plantation– a very unusual occurrence in this part of Kenya.
“At first, I was sceptical,” Caroline admitted, “but with time, everything went well.” Philip agreed: in her first season managing the plantation, Caroline turned a good profit, “we even started having bread in the house!” he laughs. “So I realized that if [my wife] is given more responsibilities she will perform well.” For her part, Caroline values the independence she has gained through the enterprise. “I used to depend on [my husband] for everything,” she said, “but now I don’t.”
At wider scales, more women are becoming leaders, too. Across Itare, three out of ten of the user groups involved in forest and water catchment management are now led by women. While it’s still customary for men to lead, women tend to be trusted more to take care of finances, says CIFOR researcher Douglas Bwire.
It’s now critical to take steps to ensure that both women and men can go about their gender training work in safety, and for mixed groups to carry out the trainings together, says Mwangi. It’s also crucial for more men to follow Philip Chelule’s example and become champions of women’s empowerment. “Normailizing and strengthening women’s leadership and authority in resource governance is the ultimate goal,” she concludes.
This story is the third in a three-part series.
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