Kenya: the women who stand to be counted

Women in Kenya's second largest slum, Korogocho, face forced evictions, domestic violence and rape as a weapon of gang war on a daily basis. Naomi Vulenywa reflects upon her experience of living in the slum as a women human rights defender.

Naomi Vulenywa Barasa
7 December 2012

Slums are synonymous with women as the effects of poverty are principally endured by women. Many women end up in slums as a result of gender and cultural biases and related prejudices and inequalities: land disinheritance, unequal land ownership, widow inheritance, unequal pay, illiteracy and lack of access to information. This makes women the poorest of the poor.

Nairobi has more than 100 slums and together they house a population of more than 2.8 million.  Their residents remain marginalised and stigmatised, lacking security of tenure and access to basic services and infrastructure such public health centres, schools, police stations, water or road access. They are excluded from the master plan, the document that determines national budgetary allocation and essential services and infrastructure provision in Nairobi. The residents rely on private service providers, NGOs and churches for crucial services and for relief from the rife unemployment, insecurity and violence.

In the midst of the slums, gender based violence takes day-to-day forms. Women spend hours walking long distances to seek water and other sanitation services. Even in pursuit of a toilet several hundreds of metres away we risk rape. As we bear the brunt of this inequality, we must grapple with homelessness caused by force evictions. As I write, Deep Sea village, a slum of approximately 10,000 people, is facing imminent evictions to pave way for a new road construction by the Kenya Urban Roads Authority. Meanwhile, Mahiga village in Kiamaiko slum, home to about 500 people, has again been threatened with forced evictions. In August 2012, homes were bulldozed and flattened here at 5am while rain poured down outside. They had been given no notice, and no alternative.

The demolition of Mukuru Kwa Njenga slum in February this year demonstrated the violence that often accompanies such evictions: three people died, a woman was shot dead, a child was killed in a stampede caused by skirmishes and one person was electrocuted in the process of violent demolition. Women human rights defenders were especially targeted during this demolition and some are still receiving threats from unknown people. In defending their homes, women I know have been repeatedly battered and thrown into police and city council cells, sometimes with their children nestled on their backs.

‘Crushing my home is crushing my human rights’ – organising to prevent slum demolitions.

Nairobi’s slums are home to many human rights defenders fighting for better conditions and many amongst them are women. Together we promote the respect, protection for and fulfilment of universally recognised human rights and fundamental freedoms and seek to express and institute a just society.

My own development as a human rights defender was determined by my experience growing up in the second largest slum in Kenya, Korogocho. As a young girl I witnessed a lot of violence, mainly against women and children. Three incidents in particular will always stay with me.

A young girl who lived in my neighbourhood continuously experienced domestic violence from the gangster ‘husband’ she lived with. To this day I refuse to call him her husband because she, the ‘wife’ was a child at 12 years old; to call him her husband would, to my mind, be legitimizing violence against children. The girl went to her aunt who had brought her up on several occasions, complaining that she could no longer bear the pain of living with her abuser. The aunt, who had lived in similar circumstances, would persuade her to persevere as she had done and convince her to go back to him. One afternoon in 1989, while chopping meat for lunch, a quarrel ensued between the girl and this man and the same knife she had been using to shop the meat was used to slaughter her. This incident remains vivid in my mind, as though it was yesterday.

The second pivotal incident occurred in 1992. A leper and blind woman who earned her living through begging in the streets of the city was attacked when returning home one evening, robbed off her day’s income and gang raped to death. It is at this point that I decided to organize for I had agonized for too long. With the help of the local priest I was able to mobilize residents. Together we held a huge demonstration and liaised with women human rights organizations and lawyers as well initiating a huge women rights initiative in Korogocho.

The following year, in 1993, I learnt a cruel lesson about the costs that come with defending women’s human rights when my elder brother was brutally stoned to death as a result of his activism. An alarm had been raised that he was a deadly thug who had been terrorising the community. An angry mob descended on him, killing him instantly. The mob learnt afterwards that the alarm raiser had a grudge against my brother, since he had intervened on several occasions to stop him battering his wife. In fact, this man had recently been driven out of our neighbourhood for that very reason. After my brother’s death, my family was still supportive of my work; they never regretted or castigated me for the attention it was causing. My brother’s death reenergized my desire to organize. Since then I have continued to respond to the multiplicity of abuses that happen daily in the slum. 

My experience has taught me that women carry the heaviest burden in their defence of human rights in the slums, since their peculiar circumstances - including a lack of enabling policy and legislative frameworks, soaring inequality levels in resources, information and access to justice - make us more vulnerable than our male counterparts. Most women active in the slums are single mothers with children to feed, educate, love and protect. Due to the soaring unemployment, they thrive on casual labour, garbage collection and the domestic work economy. Illicit trade, crime and grime are all part of their daily routine.

Balancing your human rights work with multiple roles, expectations and pressure to provide for your family subject you to unkind experiences. You need to prove yourself twice over. Your reproductive and productive roles compete with your calling of human rights defence so much so that it often impacts negatively on your marriage and family life. When pregnant, you’re vulnerable to many hostilities. In 1996, when I was expecting my first born, I spent days in police cells at a time. Whilst there, I was ridiculed for not being at home with my family, and for intruding in ‘male affairs’. You don’t only suffer a physical disadvantage as a woman human rights defender, but psychologically your voice is gagged by those who perceive you as untamed.

A woman human rights defender is arrested in a protest against sexual violence in Nairobi

Women human rights defenders defy societal structures and norms as prescribed by religion, culture and economics which may lead them to be ostracized. The marginalization they face predisposes them to repeated arrest and physical, sexual and psychological gender based violence. This harm includes the threats, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty which may directly afflict loved ones. A friend of mine who is now deceased was subjected this kind of torture. Her children’s voices were recorded wailing and these recordings were played to her while she was detained. She was told that they were being tortured and that she would be killed if she did not drop her involvement in human rights. This susceptibility to such abuses of authority affects women’s ability to engage with authorities which, in turn, puts them at an even greater risk. We have seen this time and time again, for example, during the campaign for the enactment of the Sexual Offences Act and during protests against single party rule.

Even with legal frameworks in place, as instituted by the Sexual Offences Act which women human right defenders fought hard to win in 2006, sexual violence is still considered a weapon to bring women human rights defenders downs. Rape continues to be used as a weapon of war among particular warring communities in the slum and for the most part impunity reigns, since the administration of justice is a nightmare. The cost of accessing justice for the illiterate, poor and economically hampered women is just too high. The gradual and painstaking court processes leave women hopeless of ever getting justice. As such, they are not viable options for the recognition and protection of the work of women human rights defenders.

At the international level, efforts are being coordinated to protect us. EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders, for example, acknowledge the role of women human rights defenders and appreciate the need to ensure our safety and protection. The guidelines note “...the obstacles to exercising their socio-economic and political rights increase women’s exposure to violence”. Yet a more detailed gender inspection of economic, social and cultural rights is critical to activism against gender violence and for the defence of human rights. Similarly, while the guidelines acknowledge the state’s responsibility to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls, they do little to ensure that the right to adequate housing is protected. Protection from forced evictions and other violations of the right to adequate housing is fundamental. It should go hand in hand with a national policy to fight inequality and the mainstreaming of urban poor in urban planning.

Capacity building for law enforcement institutions is also an urgent need. Women human rights defenders need state counsels to represent them in courts and the formation of independent oversight organs to investigate police where they are the perpetrators of persecution. The important work of peer-groups and networks for solidarity and self-care should be more widely recognised. I know first-hand how far they go in providing solidarity as well as denouncing and documenting violations. When the City Council Officers assaulted me and fractured my four fingers after I intervened to stop them brutalising a group of street hawkers, it was peer support networks that denounced my ill-treatment. This strengthened me to move on.

As we strive towards these goals, we have to choose to live with constant threats as we fight for human rights or to succumb to the day to day challenges which test our lives from the day that we are born. As woman human rights defenders in Nairobi we are unsung heroes who have had to formulate our own safety and security mechanisms to deliver the ‘promised land’, even in the wake of police brutality, societal hostility and security: sharing information on threats, alerting relevant authorities, avoiding unknown phone callers, always informing someone on our whereabouts, temporarily moving out of our homes and avoiding visiting, or being accompanied to visit, certain places. We wade through life shrugging societal prejudices and hostilities against us as we reach out to the women who stand to be counted.

While this article is based on the experience of the author, Naomi Barasa, it represents the many women human rights defenders in the slums of Nairobi and Kenya at large who endure suffering in pursuit of justice. It is dedicated to all those who have put their life on the line for a just society.

Read other articles in this series, 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence.

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