“…Heavy smoke is rising from the ground and a horrible stench fills the air. More people are streaming up the hill, some of them with firewood and maize stalks. Suddenly an old woman breaks from the crowd, screaming for mercy. Three or four people go after her, beat her and drag her back, pushing her onto - what I can now see - is a raging fire… the lynching of people accused of being witches…I personally saw the burning alive of five elderly men and women in Itii village (in the fertile lands of Kisii District, located in Nyanza Province). As a stranger, I felt I had no choice but to stand by and watch. My fear was that if I showed any sign of disapproval, or made any false move, the angry mob could turn on me.” Odhiambo Joseph of BBC News, Kenya recently reported. “…Suspects were found in possession of property and livestock belonging to some of the victims and will be tried for violent robbery…” Deputy Police Spokesman said. Witch lynching, which has gained popularity in Kisii District, is, simply put, scapegoating! The victims, who are mostly children and elderly widows, are burnt alive by their greedy relatives, who intend to enrich themselves. This is murder to allow for property theft. This is the extent of Violence Against Women in Kenya.
Have you ever wondered what ‘improving the quality of life’ of a people really means?Well, THIS IS WHAT WE ARE UP AGAINST!
Kenya is a low-income, food-deficit country. The 2007 UNDP Human Development Report ranked Kenya under the “medium human development index”, placing it 148th out of 177 countries. More specifically, 1 in every 2 Kenyans lives below the poverty line (UNDP, 2007). Ironically, 10 percent of the richest households control more than 42 percent of the incomes, while the poorest 10 percent control only 0.76 percent! The number of those living in abject poverty is rising every day. They include Kenyans with no access to health-care, water and proper nutrition and sanitation.
Further, rain-fed agriculture is the backbone of our economy. But, the 2009 long rains have failed. The severe drought, which is in its third year running, is the worst since the year 2000. The government in retaliation has had to declare a countrywide water and electricity rationing. Currently, 1 in every 10 is in need of food aid until the next harvest (World Food Programme -WFP- 2009). Many have resorted to more and more desperate survival strategies: pulling children out of school to work or beg for foods, eating just one meal a day; name it, they are doing it!
Significantly, the degree of poverty and food insecurity soars in urban slums and among pastoralists and farmers in remote, arid and semi-arid lands (the rural poor). Most of the working poor are in the informal sector (casual or manual labour and odd jobs, that are neither taxed nor monitored by the government) of the economy. More than half of them are women and girls, who are also more marginalized along gender roles and control of resources. For most, education is not a priority. “The women provide labour in the plantations and households to subsidize the meagre resources of their families.” (Ministry of Education. Gender Policy in Education. Nairobi. July 2007).
The Rural Poor
According to a 2006 (but also affirmed in 2009) baseline survey report by Coalition on Violence against Women (COVAW- Kenya), cultural and traditional practices such as parents preferring to educate boys over girls, contributes to underdevelopment of human resources in rural Taita-Taveta District, which is located at the Coastal region of Kenya. Generally, girls in rural Kenya are forced into early marriages and thus denied access to education. As a result, women’s ability to respond to economic opportunities is constrained. Stored wealth like livestock or land is usually in the hands of men. Women therefore have little control over cash income, thus remaining at the periphery of decision-making in their homes.
One pastoralist area, Mukogodo in Laikipia District (North Eastern Province), has the lowest levels of literacy. Nomadic pastoralism is a farming system and way of life, where animals such as cattle, goats and camels are taken to different locations in order to find fresh pastures. This is the main source of livelihood for pastoralists,who treasure animals as their most valued possession. Very few of these people can read a word or even write out their signature. A thumb-print is their preferred signature mark. Consequently, Mukogodo is the poorest division in the District. As a result, women have poor access to land and livestock resources. Inheritance of property is the preserve of men. Women in the pastoralist ranches are not registered or enumerated as adults in the group ranches. They are considered children, and thus incapable of making decisions on the sale of livestock, except goats!
Similarly, among the Maasai, who are nomadic pastoralists, men regard women as minors incapable of taking care of their own property without male supervision. The Maasai men are largely unapologetic about the violence they inflict on women, emanating from property ownership/ management disputes. When women break out of a traditional circle of property relations by owning and managing their property independent of male relatives, the men term them 'prostitutes'. ”They are not role models for our girls or wives”, laments one.
Ironically, elderly women attribute an improved status to the support they expect from their children, more specifically sons. “Boys are traditionally recognized as protectors of women, inheritors and managers of family property”, confirms one.
Therefore, violence against Kenyan women seems to rise, as they attempt to protect their property. Within modern Law in Kenya, most women are unable to prove ownership of matrimonial property, which is often assumed to belong to the man. For instance, the Court of Appeal in the famous case of Echaria vs Echaria (Eklr) set a precedent by departing from the accepted position. The precedent failed to acknowledge woman’s contribution (such as through labour) to matrimonial property, unless it is a financial one. Maasai customary Law leaves women at the mercy of male relatives, failing to protect women’s property. Therefore, this alienation of women from their property is a major form of the violence that women in Kenya continue to face.
The Urban Poor
The helpless state of poverty and violence against women is similar among the urban poor. About 60 percent of the residents of Nairobi alone (Kenya’s capital city) are slum-dwellers. One such slum is Kibera, which is also Africa’s largest slum. Although a planned Kibera can only accommodate about 440,000, the slum houses about 1 million people (more than one quarter of Nairobi’s total population). Houses are mainly characterized by a lack of basic services, illegal and inadequate housing (most are dilapidated shanties made of mud, carton paper or corrugated iron sheets), overcrowding, unhealthy and hazardous living conditions, insecurity of tenure or property rights, poverty and social exclusion.
Often, rural poverty in Kenya fuels rural-urban migration to cities like Nairobi. The migrants often end up in slums, hoping for employment opportunities that may raise their living standards. The result is a multi-ethnic community, which has made Kibera a site of small ethnic conflicts throughout its near 100-year-history. This has resulted in a Kibera that is the epitome of city politics. Its residents are restive, as was seen during Kenya’s Post Election Violence in 2007-2008, when the country plunged into absolute mayhem that left thousands brutally killed and hundreds of thousands injured, women and girls sexually violated and/or displaced.
I recently met a mother of four, living in a typical one roomed shanty sized 9 feet by 9 feet at Kibera. At her doorstep is an open sewer which one has to cross over, to enter into her house. Its stench is suffocating! The pit latrines nearby, rarely cleaned, are often shared by hundreds of people. Inside, her shack is the living room, kitchen and bedroom shared by the household. How safe her girls are whenever she is out, to do some odd job in order to provide for them! With rape prevention tips, one is required to “always lock doors” or “never to open the door to strangers”. But, is this practical for a resident of Kibera where doors and walls are made of paper, mud or thin plywood; or when you can clearly hear the sound of sneezing or that of a domestic row next door?
No wonder the HIV/AIDS prevalence in Kibera is so high! It ranges from 10-25 percent. Domestic violence, rape and physical assaults are a common part of life for women in the slum. The women tell tales of how they are treated as property and given little or no opportunity to make decisions regarding their lives or bodies, by the men in their lives. They further lack resources and education to fend for themselves and their families. Some have had to drop out of school due to lack of school-fees. Others are statistics of early marriages or early/ unwanted pregnancies. Without property or means, they remain voiceless in their homes, at the mercy of poverty and lack.
Further, wife (widow) inheritance is common in Kibera. A widow is expected to continue reproducing in order to maintain the legacy of her deceased husband. This requires her to engage in unprotected sex with a brother of her late husband, for conception to take place. Protected sex (or the use of a condom) is not considered a fulfillment of the cultural requirement of wife inheritance.
Clearly, the practice denies women their right to sexual autonomy and sexual health, the right to property and the right to equitable inheritance. Its rituals also involve a degree of exposure to STD’s and HIV/AIDS.
In most situations, the widow who refuses to be inherited is considered an outcast and a bad omen and is sent away from the community. Where a widow declares that she does not wish to be inherited, she is blamed for the death of her husband and accused of being disloyal and disrespectful to the customs of her people and to her in-laws. Such grounds deny widows their property rights, and most are therefore disinherited and thrown out of their matrimonial homes. This is yet another means to property theft, especially where a woman has toiled so hard to acquire some property for her family. She has to watch helplessly as relatives take away her hard-earned sweat.
The Beginning of an End to 100 Years in Filth
This past September, at least 1,300 residents of Kibera were moved to new blocks of flats under a slum-upgrading programme. The government provided trucks and workers to help the residents settle into their new homes, which they have dubbed `Canaan', the Promised Land . Is this the beginning of change? Maybe so!
However, despite these efforts, most residents resisted moving into the new homes, clearly experiencing future shock- the premature arrival of the future! Previously, with the impending drought, women and girls had to travel long distances in search of water or resorted to using filthy water for domestic chores, and even drinking. Now, they have tapped water streaming into their homes. "I can't believe I have left Kibera for good! My new home is so clean, we have a toilet inside the house; it is a dream come true," Pius Okello, 46, father of six, said.
But, land politics, aimed at perpetuating the status quo have met mixed reactions of landlords at Kibera, who desperately want to remain relevant and wealthy by continuing to exploit the poor. Gathering a few thousand shilling from each of the one million poor tenants of Kibera, must be enriching; But they are despairing now! Their thinning fortune will soon end, thanks to the ongoing $300,000 Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme (KENSUP), which was started in 2000, and jointly funded by the government, UN HABITAT and the World Bank Cities Alliance.
Kenya’s Premier Hon. Raila Odinga, also the Member of Parliament for Langata, in which Kibera falls, participated in relocating the slum-dwellers to their new homes. “This is an initial step towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals," he assured.
The UN HABBITAT had this to say: "The objective of the programme is to improve the overall livelihoods of people living and working in slums through targeted interventions to address shelter, infrastructure services, land tenure and employment issues, as well as the impact of HIV/AIDS in slum settlements.”
Efforts by the Women’s Movement
Even though the mainstream media has tried to discredit the work done by women groups by associating them to political parties and extortion schemes, a lot has been done by these organizations and the people on the ground can tell a different story. Since women in Kenya are overwhelmingly the majority among the working poor in the informal economy, there is an increased need to position them to access opportunities, assets, skills and markets that enable their participation. Tremendous challenges remain: since the formal banking systems in Kenya has largely failed to meet the financial needs of poor, low-income and vulnerable women. However, the women’s movement is in the forefront in creating institutions that advance credit to women. One such firm is the Kenya Women’s Finance Trust (KWFT). The organisation supports over 100,000 women through the more that 64 of its centres countrywide. The method of lending is to individuals who are part of a group. Each individual member acts as guarantors for outstanding loans of another.
In addition, over the last number of years, Centre for rights Education and Awareness (CREAW) has been implementing community awareness/empowerment programmes in Kibera with a focus to end Sexual and gender-based violence. CREAW established networks with community members and disseminates information and materials on women human rights.
Further, in April this year, CREAW set up Outreach Centre in the slums and a pool of paralegals based at the community level. The paralegals who are residents of Kibera, are spread out throughout the corners of the slum, are working with CREAW to holds legal aid clinics which extend free legal advice and psychosocial support to women and youth.
These efforts, including those initiated by the government to upgrade slums, are indeed baby steps to the long road ahead. These efforts can only be effective if sustained. The issue of liberating women is a societal responsibility. It is of essence to note that most of what development entails cannot be achieved if women are not involved. Each of us should help in making the Kenyan woman’s dreams of participation come true by offering support and not sympathy because she does not need sympathy!
Meanwhile, the women of Kibera have hope: that their young will have a cleaner and safer tomorrow. Empowering one woman at a time is having a ripple effect! More and more of them are seeking redress from their misery, as they are empowered to enrich their lives and those of their neighbours. They are encouraging their young to embrace formal education, which is the key to a better life. No matter how long it takes, every little effort is so vital for the change that this country needs. It simply starts with me, holding another woman’s hand into the ‘Canaan’ that we hope for – first empowered, then, free women! Join me.
- Kenya has a GDP per capita of US$34.51 (2008 World Bank)
- Currently, over 3.8 million Kenyans are in need of food aid until the next harvest (World Food Programme - WFP- 2009)
- An in-country food shortage saw the price of maize (our staple food) in September 2009 shoot to the range of 100 to 130 percent above the normal rates.
- 80 percent of Kenya’s land mass comprises arid and semi-arid lands. These areas are mainly inhabited by pastoralists such as the Maasai, Samburu, and the Pokot
- Most women residing in rural areas of Kenya are illiterate, mostly due to early marriages (2001 statistics)
- 45 percent of Kenyans live in slums (approx 13.5 million). About 52 percent of these are women and girls
- The demographic trends of Kibera show a high population density of approximately 300,000 persons per hectare, distributed over a mere 600 acres
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 31 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most forgotten corners of the world. Meet Us.
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