Group of girls

Why girls' roles in pastoralist communities matter during times of drought

On Earth Day, new research from the global humanitarian organisation Mercy Corps shows the unique role pastoralist girls play in the face of extreme weather events, and why they should be prioritised.

Spring brings back painful memories for 16-year-old Christabel Ang’omo. Four years ago, like so many others in Turkana, Kenya, her life was turned upside down by a disastrous drought.

“Our livestock died, our farm dried up and we had nothing to eat,” says Christabel. “During this time, I lost my grandfather to starvation. I had to stop going to school so that I could collect firewood and trade it to get food for our household—one basin of charcoal for seven plates of rice, sorghum, beans or maize.”

I had to stop going to school so that I could collect firewood and trade it to get food for our household.

As the beginning of the rainy season approaches again this April, people in Turkana pray that the rains do not fail them again.

Christabel Ang'omo from Namorungole, Turkana

Referred to locally as “Lomoo”– a word to describe the condition of animals slowly wasting away – the 2011 drought, which threatened the lives of 750,000 people across the Horn of Africa, was said to be the worst drought East Africa had faced in six decades. The catastrophe prompted the international community to question efforts to date and shift their focus from relief to resilience.However, even as better solutions to environmental disasters such as drought are trialled, one group is not being reached.

Adolescent girls, like Christabel (pictured left).

To fill this knowledge gap, Mercy Corps undertook an in-depth study: ‘Wealth and Warriors: Adolescents in the face of drought in Turkana, Kenya’ to better understand the roles, opportunities and constraints facing adolescent girls living in pastoralist communities in Turkana. Through dozens of interviews and discussions with adolescent girls and boys, parents and service providers in various villages in the region, the global aid agency found not only that adolescent girls play a central role in the resilience of their families during times of crisis, but also that they are increasingly vulnerable when households experience stress.

As girls take on an enormous number of additional duties to support their families – from fetching water miles away from home to scavenging for food and earning money – they are exposed to a multitude of dangers, including violence, exploitation and abuse. In worst-case scenarios, some families are forced to marry off their daughters when they are as young as 12. This is done to replenish their herds through the traditional dowry system, in which a groom must present gifts, often in the form of livestock, to the bride’s family.

The Turkana describe adolescent girls as 'the wealth of their families'.

Despite these challenges, few organisations, government policies or donor actions are addressing the specific needs of adolescent girls and leveraging their potential. Mercy Corps’ research points to the following recommendations as ways forward for strengthening the role of girls in building resilience, while also empowering them to pursue their own goals:

  • Understand the contextual and age-specific challenges that pastoralist adolescent girls face. Between pastoralist societies, stages of vulnerability for girls vary from group to group. Programmes should therefore address the risks and vulnerabilities girls face at each stage of their development, and harness the means they have to confront them.
  • Reinforce pastoralist girls’ capacities to diversify their sources of food and income during times of crisis. Safer, more lucrative income-generating activities, such as involvement in small businesses, reduce girls’ exposure to violence and provide them with improved networks and relationships. Programmes that broaden girls’ livelihood skills contribute to the food security and resilience of their household.
  • Address the social and economic drivers behind early marriage. Boys and men play a key role in ending child marriage. Educating them about the negative effects of early marriage and childbirth, and improving their sources of income so that they are not as vulnerable to drought, will ultimately protect girls.
  • Leverage opportunities offered to girls in communities transitioning out of pastoralism while overcoming protection challenges. For families transitioning out of pastoralism during times of crisis, new opportunities for girls, such as access to education, are available. These must be balanced with recognition of – and protection from – new risks including sexual violence and child labour. Programmes must address these specific protection concerns while simultaneously encouraging girls’ empowerment, development and security.
  • Establish basic social service provision. To increase opportunities for girls’ education in pastoralist areas, future research may be required to better demonstrate the benefits of education for long-term resilience. New models for education and health should be developed, balancing quality with an appropriate outreach structure to best serve the needs of mobile populations.
Turkana huts

Over and over again, Mercy Corps heard communities in Turkana describe adolescent girls as “the wealth of their families”. If given the opportunity to develop and reach their potential, girls can use this power to become agents of change within their communities in a way that benefits them at the same time. Christabel, for example, is now back in school and dreams of a better future.

“I would like to be a nurse, because in the future I would like to come and give back to my community, since we don’t have any health facilities and people die of treatable diseases like malaria, typhoid and tuberculosis.”

Girls play a critical role in their households and communities. And understanding the complex relationship between gender, youth and resilience is essential if we are to leverage the potential of girls to strengthen the capacities of vulnerable pastoralist households and communities. Mercy Corps’ Wealth and Warriors report on drought in Turkana is the first step in making that happen.


Beza Tesfaye is a research and learning advisor at Mercy Corps, providing technical expertise and guidance on designing and implementing rigorous research and impact evaluations on resilience, conflict management, and youth

Sandrine Chetail is a senior advisor on agricultural developments and food security at Mercy Corps. She's responsible for assisting country teams in strategic programme development, external representation, and staff development.

Greg Scarborough is a senior technical advisor on nutrition and food security at Mercy Corps, with a specific focus on the relationship between youth livelihoods and protection in complex crises.