The purpose of this article is to demonstrate how gender relations taking place at the domestic level in the rural Kenya has grave effects on the environment. The article also seeks to provide information necessary for all interested and concerned people or parties in the spheres of gender, economic development, environmental development, politics, and human rights focused development or any other related discipline. This article is based on a case study on rural life in Kakamega district of Western Kenya. The author studies domestic gender relations and how these relations affect the life of Kakamega forest. The author's life experience in the region is core to this study.
THE SOCIAL-ECONOMIC CONTEXT OF KAKAMEGA DISTRICT
According to Dr. Paul Maina Guthiga and John Mburu (2006), 52% of the population in Kakamega district lives under poverty line. Sabina M. and Mukoya W. (2005) note that farm wages provide 60% of house hold income which is the main occupation in the region. 75% of the farmers in Kakamega live under poverty line (Common wealth Learning 2007). Fishing and farming is the major economic activity in the region (CBS 2007). F. Waswa (2007) warns that poverty is a serious threat to the environment and it is directly related to how environment resources are used and shared. From a sociological perspective, Professor Constance Bansikiza (2007) observes that poverty makes people to plunder the environment. Professor Ruth Oniang’o and Agnes Kinoti (1999) argue that subsistence economy in Kakamega, which is based on agriculture is dominated by patriarchy, a regime that provides for the men to grasp the economy and its benefits making women subjects to servitude. J.Lay
(2007) notes that this region has the population of 700,000 people with limited opportunities outside agriculture. This rural region of Kenya is among the most densely populated regions of the world with 600 people per sq km (Earlham College 2006). The district is dominantly inhabited by the Luhya ethnic group of the larger Bantu people of East Africa. The Luhya people have continued to hold strong beliefs in the traditional gender structures which they have continued to propagate through modern life styles. This is critical because it shows that modernity does not necessarily mean change of thought and in particular the reverse or transformation of gender relations. In fact in such a context, modern complexities breed a social-economic setting of a caste nature which is difficult for the vulnerable poor communities to resolve environmental as well as gender problems in a third world economic and political setting.
H.Dose (2007) warns that diversification in agricultural production is not sufficient for securing livelihoods in Kakamega district. Kakamega also holds high unemployment and illiteracy rates (Kenya Institute of Management 2008)
THE KAKAMEGA FOREST
According to the United Nations System-wide Earth Watch, forests actively contribute to the world's environmental stability and are used as economic resources to produce subsistence and industrial products. They also have cultural and recreational value besides the role they play to host wild life and prevent soil erosion and degradation. Forests also play other significant roles like limiting the green house effect of global warming, and stabilizing the mountainous areas (Earth Watch 2008).
Over the recent years, Kenya has been criticized sharply by the international community over the destruction of forests. Kenya’s critical issues include poor governance, lack of proper and comprehensive legislation and corruption (World Bank 2006). The other view holds that the government compromises the national interests by favoring multilateral firms and as a result ignores the interests of her citizens (Nyong'o 2002). This fact has been realized in the study of the environmental degradation (Olukoye and Mukanga 2007). Gender relations at domestic level are critical and are among the most dangerous problems, immune to the existing preventive measures. Esther Mwangi (2002) notes that mainstreaming gender in sustainable development will provide an all inclusive approach to environmental sustainable development.
Kakamega forest is the only remaining rain forest in Kenya. It is highly valued by researchers, rich in habitat, and is ranked as third priority for conservation by the International Union of Conservation (Earlham College, 2006). This forest exists in relatively small islands surrounded by Savannah and human settlements. It hosts 367 species of birds, 36 of which are nowhere else in Kenya, 40 species of snakes, 170 species of herbs, 62 species of ferns, 60 species of orchids and 160 species of trees. It is the regular destination of lepidopterists and butterfly safaris (Earlham College 2006). Kakamega forest is part of the 6% total forest land in Kenya (World Bank 2006). It is noted with critical concern that over 50% of the forest has been lost in the last 25 years (Earlham College 2006). The forest, located in one of the most densely populated areas of the world is under heavy reliance of the community (Colorado State University 2006). Guthiga and Mburu (2006) observe that the local people enjoy economic benefits from the forest hence the challenge is how to balance conservation and consumption interests. It is important to note that the consumption interest is driven by the gender relations factor as it will be demonstrated later in this article. The community consumption of the Kakamega forest resources is manifested in heavy subsistence agriculture (Colorado state university 2006). Other economic activities are charcoal burning, logging, grazing, fishing, grass harvesting (for roof making), mushroom harvesting, medicinal herbs/plants extraction and mining among others. Guthiga and Mburu (2006) note that the people living around the forest are generally poor and therefore use the forest to supplement their income.
GENDER RELATIONS AND HOW THEY AFFECT THE KAKAMEGA FOREST
Gender relations at domestic level are reflected in every day life and activity. In cultural sense, daily life manifests power relations which include duty, responsibility, oppression, constraints, needs, deficits and alternative mechanisms to supplement what is to be brought in as an embodiment of the desired but unrealized human well being and fulfillment. Living in a culturally structured society but actively incarnated into modernity, one needs to be critically observant in order to get the sense of real life. This is because the quest for just and fair gender relations is unheard. Even when you attempt to question the people about critical problems in the society many will say that life is okay. Others will justify the existing gender relations saying that it is the nature of life. The worst you can experience is the scorn of the aged women who are partly members of the patriarchy regime and are key beneficiaries of tokenism that come as a result of this neo-cultural colonial rule. The critical way of study therefore must rely on critical observation, academic interpretation and analysis. The interpretation must take into account the cultural thoughts, concepts and practices in order to bring out the cultural meaning of the phenomena, before translating it into the academic notions of any discipline. It is important to emphasize that critical observation is significant because voices are rarely heard. If heard the cause mentioned is always the obvious. The underlying, driving, or controlling factors are therefore not exposed. For instance if you seek by interview why women go to the forest to get firewood, they will say, they need to cook, or they don't have it at home. But they are not able to connect this challenge to gender relations. This does not mean that they don't experience it, but they have been socialized to think of problems in terms of their culturally imposed needs, duties and responsibilities rather than the structures that define the whole social system.
The following is a demonstration of how domestic gender relations in Kakamega district affect Kakamega forest. The duties and responsibilities are based on the Luhya social structure and its influence on domestic gender relations as well as its effects to the environment.
- I. The Need for Fuel
Women are required to supply their homes with fuel. Since they do not have money to purchase fuel, they go to the forest to cut wood in order to use as fuel in their homes. Because subsistence economy (agriculture) can not provide adequately for household income, both men and women would go to the forest to cut trees so that they can sell to middle merchants who in turn sell them in far rural or urban centers. If men go to the forest to get wood as fuel, it is for sell and not for domestic consumption. Many homes have relatively many trees whose branches can be used for fuel as a way of sustainable use of trees for fuel, but women don't own trees and therefore are not allowed to use them.
- II. Subsistence economy
Since it is mainly agriculture and is majorly controlled by men, women are displaced and therefore look to the forest as an alternative place for economic empowerment. In homes there are restrictions that only provide for male economic power. In the forest, there are no such gendered restrictions. The forest security only prohibits and arrests forest invaders, particularly those who are found in government protected areas. It is important to note that part of the Kakamega forest is owned by the community and the law allows community consumption of the natural resources but in a sustainable way.
- III. Grazing
Grazing is the role of the children, but under the supervision of the women.
Since there are relatively small farms with squeezed mixed farming the children go to graze in the forest. Cattle keeping in the region are strongly valued because cattle are used to pay for bride price. According to the Luhya concept of bride price, both age and number of cattle accounts for the value required. In this expensive economic life, it is expensive to keep dairy cattle or even use them in bride price payments. Instead, traditional cattle bread is preferred. Therefore, and there are thousands of cattle in the forest overgrazing everyday and resulting to environmental challenges. Other reasons in favor of the traditional bread are that they are easy to maintain by poor farmers who cannot even afford the cost of their own basic needs.
- IV. HIV and AIDS
HIV and AIDS continue to claim productive people in the society. Women who live longer than men in Africa, or who are the grand mothers but guardians of their grand children depend on the forest for their economic life. Orphans who also have none to care for them, particularly girls, get into the forest to find firewood in order to sell and feed their younger brothers, or purchase some of the basic needs that can keep them until the next day.
- V. Low or no formal education for the majority of the population
In this context women are the most disadvantaged and so lack the skills and capacity for economic development. The simple alternative is participating in the direct resource extraction business in the region. Kakamega forest is always the place to run to for economic survival.
- VI. Building and Construction
Since building a house is associated with manhood, a man attains social value because he has built a house. But in the context of such poverty, many people build simple structures by extracting material from the forest. The challenge is that relatively young trees and other raw material are extracted from the forest and therefore destruct the continuity of natural forests. Other biologically weak species are rendered extinct due to these activities. In light of the entire population a lot of resources are extracted from the forest and used on temporary structures which will last for less than half a decade before other resources of the same or more value and quantity are extracted.
CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS
This article reflects on the effects of gender relations on the environment. Based on a case study on gender relations in Kakamega district and how this affects the life of Kakamega forest, the author seeks to provide helpful information on the subject. The discourse is based on the daily domestic gender relations in its social-economic context and its implications to the environment. The author hopes that any initiative whether policy, advocacy, or social action can consider these situation in its conceptualization, planning or action.
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