Investing in Women to End Extreme Poverty

by Kathleen Colson, Founder and CEO of the BOMA Project

For the past five weeks, I have been travelling through the far reaches of Marsabit and Samburu Counties, in the arid lands of northern Kenya, where the BOMA Project is working to eradicate extreme poverty by implementing an innovative, gender-focused poverty graduation program. Sharing borders with Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan, this area is a snapshot of the most severe effects of climate change, economic isolation, and the marginalization of women. Already experiencing yet another devastating drought season, the families and communities in these regions are under incredible pressure to feed their children and maintain their livelihoods,

When disasters strike—the Syrian refugee crisis, an earthquake in Haiti, a tsunami in Indonesia, or horrific droughts and famine in Africa— we hear the wrenching stories of tragedy and human suffering, and the world responds with an outpouring of donations and heart-felt generosity.

But that outpouring does not provide any assurance or preparedness against the next catastrophe. And so often, climate change is the greatest catalyst behind these events, creating conditions that lead to devastating environmental pressures and civil unrest.

The most vulnerable members of the populations affected are women and children living in last mile locations of poverty and economic and geographic isolation. As we look ahead to International Women’s Day (March 8, 2017), we need to reflect on our responses to these cataclysmic events and look at what can be done to better prepare African dryland populations for increased turbulence in the wake of climate change. The arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs) of Africa, consisting of 40% of the continent, are places with low population densities and a reliance on livestock or irrigated farming. These are communities that are familiar with, and have adapted to, the rhythms of dry seasons, but what they have experienced in the Horn of Africa over the past ten years has been devastating. In 2011, drought in East Africa, in the same areas where I spent the past five weeks, and where the BOMA Project has been working since 2006, imperiled 13 million people and left an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 dead, at a humanitarian aid cost of $1.5 billion. This year, early drought in these areas has already resulted in soaring prices for staple foods and decreases in livestock prices, leaving pastoral communities with even less income.

It was the unimaginable suffering of women and children that I witnessed during the 2005 drought that drove me and my co-founder, Ahmed Kura Omar, to search for a more lasting solution for the families living on the frontline of climate change disasters in the ASAL’s. Over the course of two years, I spent long extended visits to the region listening to residents – women, community leaders, chiefs and elders. The obvious conclusion – we need to focus our efforts on helping women establish sustainable livelihoods and access to financial services so that they can safely save and transfer money. Ours was an investment in a resilience-building program that helps people where they live before catastrophic climate events result in mass migrations from rural communities to urban slums.

Putting women at the center of such resilience-building efforts has proven successful because not only are women some of the most vulnerable members of dryland communities - they also have the ability to affect societal change. A 2012 World Bank Study concluded that women tend to invest as much as ten times more of their earnings than men in their family’s well-being.

Poverty graduation programs like BOMA’s Rural Entrepreneur Access Project target the most vulnerable and help them establish a sustainable source of income so that they can support their families and accumulate savings to withstand shocks like droughts. This proactive approach gives the ultra-poor an alternative to humanitarian aid in the aftermath of a crisis. Proactively building resilience helps women living in extreme poverty handle the shock of climate events.

The BOMA Project’s experience, and research in the field, shows that when women are given the opportunity to establish their own income-generating activity, open savings accounts, insure their livestock andlend and borrow money, they invest in their children’s education, food, nutrition and healthcare that leads to the fracture of a generational cycle of poverty. At the same time, they are building resilient families that can withstand the shocks of drought and famine without falling back into the traps of extreme poverty and dependence on humanitarian aid.

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to turn the world’s attention to the concrete changes that can be accomplished through poverty graduation and resilience building. Let’s celebrate the successes of these remarkable women, and continue to apply our efforts in meaningful ways that honor the dignity of women living in poverty while also having a measurable impact in the face of the continuing challenges of poverty, climate change, hunger and gender.

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