State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2013 - Case study: Ogiek in Kenya

by Chelsea Purvis

The plight of the Ogiek community highlights the impact of land-grabbing, displacement and discrimination on health.

The Ogiek are an indigenous group of about 20,000 people in Kenya. The Kenyan government has repeatedly and forcibly evicted the Ogiek from their ancestral land in the Mau Forest and around Mount Elgon. This has left entire communities of Ogiek homeless or without proper housing, in some cases for generations. During evictions, police have burned homes and food stores – exposing the Ogiek to hunger and homelessness – and assaulted Ogiek individuals. Injured Ogiek, fearing the government, are unable to seek medical attention from government hospitals.

Many Ogiek are completely landless and live without proper shelter and food, safe water and sanitation. Ogiek of the Serengonik area, for example, live in an informal settlement along the edge of a public road. Large families crowd into one-room shacks. The sick and elderly must sleep on the bare ground. It becomes very cold in hilly Serengonik, but the community has little clothing and few blankets. As a result, children die from diseases like pneumonia and from exposure. The community has no place even to bury its dead.

Ogiek communities have been pushed into deep poverty. They are cut off from the forest, where the Ogiek traditionally hunt and gather their food, and they are discriminated against in government employment. This leaves Ogiek with no choice but to engage in low-paid agricultural wage labour. Ogiek struggle to pay medical fees and the cost of transportation to hospitals, which may be many kilometres away.

Ogiek with disabilities or major illnesses are particularly vulnerable. Kenya has no national health insurance, so already-impoverished families are left to bear the costs of caring for people with disabilities or major illnesses on their own. Families are forced to take out loans to pay for medical care, leaving them deep in debt. Major surgeries can cost up to 140,000 Kenyan shillings (£1,100), while the average family in Western Mau earns only 2,000 Ksh (£16 per month).

Separated from the forest, the Ogiek cannot easily access traditional medicines such as kapukeriet, to treat respiratory illness, and the African wild olive, to treat . Poverty is so severe in some communities that Ogiek experience chronic hunger. The Kenyan government provides only occasional food relief, which is insufficient to prevent hunger.

Ogiek women and girls are also particularly vulnerable. Women and girls living in informal settlements are at risk of violence due to insecurity from overcrowding, exposure to roads and neighbouring communities, and a lack of toilet and bathing facilities.

In one community, there have been reports of rape and sexual abuse of girls by people from outside the community, in some cases leading to child pregnancy. The local government has done nothing to investigate the crimes or help the girls. When community members reported the crimes to a journalist, local officials finally visited the community – but only to publicly criticize the complainants and the victims, calling them troublemakers and liars.

Early marriage and transactional sex are serious problems among adolescent Ogiek girls. Evictions have broken families apart, leaving girls and young women to fend for themselves. Moreover, Ogiek girls lack educational and work opportunities. Secondary school is expensive, and Ogiek report that local governments discriminate against Ogiek in awarding financial-based scholarships. Seeking income and food, girls are thus pushed to engage in transactional sex with adult men or to marry before they turn 18. Girls who engage in transactional sex or marry early are vulnerable to high-risk pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS and abuse.

Adolescent pregnancy is a major health issue for Ogiek girls. Pregnant girls often hide their pregnancies, preventing them from obtaining appropriate prenatal care. Sometimes communities are not aware that girls are pregnant until they are in labour, when it is too late to take girls to distant hospitals. This means that girls must deliver in unsafe conditions. Ogiek girls drop out of school when they become pregnant and the government provides little assistance to reintegrate them. This locks Ogiek families into a cycle of poverty. Mothers of all ages struggle to obtain pre- and postnatal care because of long distances to hospitals and the high cost of treatment.

The plight of the Ogiek community highlights the impact of land-grabbing, displacement and discrimination on health.

The government of Kenya should cease evicting Ogiek and provide them with secure ownership of their traditional land. The government should also end discrimination in employment and distribution of school funds. To protect women and girls, the government should ensure that girls remain in school; investigate and prosecute gender-based violence; and provide reproductive health care.

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