Women and girls are bearing the brunt of the worst drought experienced in Kenya for 40 years, which is exacerbating the risk of sexual exploitation, violence, and abuse.
"We have to walk for more than seven kilometres to find water, and sometimes what we find isn't safe to drink," says 39 Elimlim Ingolan, mother of a seven-month-old baby. She describes digging for water from dry riverbeds, sometimes for hours, often without success.
Ms. Ingolan is speaking at an outreach session in village of Lokapararai, in Turkana county. The session, supported by the UN reproductive rights agency (UNFPA) is one of many aimed at bringing sexual and reproductive health, and gender-based violence protection services, to women and girls affected by the prolonged drought currently ravaging the region.
In some areas, over 90 per cent of water sources have dried up and, as crops fail, and families lose their livestock - which, for many, is their only source of income - more than four million people are grappling with acute hunger. An estimated 134,000 women are currently pregnant or breastfeeding in drought-affected regions of Kenya; many are now malnourished and anaemic, conditions which can be life-threatening.
It is usually women and girls who are sent to fetch water; because of the drought, they have to walk even further, and wait for hours at boreholes. This puts them at greater risk of violence, at a time when hostilities among communities desperate to secure scarce resources, are mounting. With hundreds of thousands of Kenyans forced to move in search of survival, vulnerable women and girls have little to no access to critical health facilities or protection and support services - at the very time they need them the most. There is evidence that gender-based violence, female genital mutilation, and child marriage have risen since the drought, as families marry off their girls to pay for food or cattle.
To help protect women and girls from the drought's fallout on their health, safety and well-being, UNFPA is distributing maternal health and dignity kits across Kenya. These kits contain essential hygiene supplies for women and girls, and items to support new mothers, as well as a solar-powered torch and a whistle to call for help if needed. UNFPA also provides free referrals to hospital and ambulance transfers for women with obstetric and new-born emergencies.
From October 2021 to June 2022, UNFPA reached more than 186,000 women and girls with sexual and reproductive health support. The agency also supported over 60,000 with gender-based violence response and protection services, including mental health support for more than 45,000 survivors
But much more support is needed: the UN is calling for $320 million to support more than four million people in dire need of assistance through a joint drought appeal. It is feared that, if forecasts of failed rains during the October to December season prove accurate, millions more vulnerable women and girls risk being affected by the crisis.