Kenya’s women fight back

Kenya’s women fight back

Female activists and politicians in Kenya say misogyny and violence against women are an all-too familiar aspect of political campaign periods

“They threw raw eggs at me as they abused me, saying I am a woman and therefore not fit to be their leader. At a shopping centre, where I was holding my final campaigns before the voting in the 2017 elections, an elderly man stood up and angrily shouted at me: ‘So you want to be a member of parliament? Who will take care of your family? Your place is to bear children and cook for the family.’ Then he sat down amid cheering from the crowd.”

Janepher Wanyonyi, who ran for a parliamentary seat in western Kenya in 2017, is describing just one of the interactions she faced every day during her eight-month campaign; none of them attracted the condemnation of the authorities. In Wanyonyi’s view, the old man’s statement is typical of a view of women that is common in Kenyan society. Women should be seen and not heard, she says; they are not expected to lead. Their place is on the periphery – mainly in the kitchen and on the farm.

“Women are not only discriminated against, they are beaten by their husbands, while some are denied education,” says Wanyonyi, who has since started the process of registering a non-governmental organisation, Sauti Ya Mama (The Voice of Women) to help tackle violence against women.

The organisation aims to champion the rights of Kenyan women, particularly in remote areas where violence against them is prevalent. The plan is to train women to know their rights, and the organisation will also act as an SOS centre that offers women help, including counselling in cases of sexual violence, while also seeking to empower them economically. Sauti Ya Mama plans to have regional offices in all 47 of Kenya’s counties, making it easy for women to access its services.

Entrepreneur and politician Esther Passaris, who won the women’s representative seat for Nairobi county in 2017, says political campaign periods appear to offer men the opportunity to display overt misogyny. The 2013 general election in Kenya, in which she unsuccessfully contested for the same seat, provided her with first-hand knowledge of this. She was faced with physical attacks and attempts at sexual assault, as well as attacks against her on social media, which, Passaris says, women in politics constantly have to endure.

“There were thousands of fake Twitter and Facebook accounts assigned to attack me,” she told Africa in Fact. “The accounts would carry feminine names so as to give the public the impression that it was a women-women affair. Despite the attacks, I did not give up. Neither did I respond to their abuse. You fight your enemy with love. That is how I won the seat last year.”

A December 2017 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report observed that widespread sexual violence against women and girls was a feature of the 2017 elections and the post-election violence that followed. According to the report, the violence involved rape (including vaginal and anal rape), gang rape involving two or more perpetrators, mass rape, attempted rape, rape with an object, putting dirt into a woman’s private parts, unwanted sexual touching, forced nudity and beatings on genitals.

Many of the affected women, HRW said, reported that their rapists were policemen or members of Kenya’s security forces and militia groups. About half of the assaults, HRW said, involved gang rapes, with the majority of the victims contracting sexually transmitted diseases as well. “Many women and girls said they suffered incapacitating physical injury or experienced other health consequences that left some unable to work or care for their families,” according to the HRW report. “Most had not received post-rape medical or psychological care, including medication to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 35% of women globally have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence. Violence against women is a major public health problem and a violation of women’s human rights, it argues. In Kenya, meanwhile, cases of physical violence such as wife battering have declined, but intimate partner violence and sexual violence are on the rise.

The causes of violence against women are many and complex, according to WHO. But its research shows that men are more likely to perpetrate violence if they have low literacy levels, a history of maltreatment and neglect as children, were exposed to domestic violence against their mothers, are subject to alcoholism and exposed to gender norms that tolerate violence and a sense of entitlement over women.

“Dress nicely and just walk around the streets of Nairobi or any other major town – men will give you funny looks,” says Dr Joyce Laboso, the governor of Bomet county. “They will attack your modesty. Sometimes they will ask, not politely, for sex. To them, there should never be a ‘no’ from a woman.” Whereas domestic violence against women mainly involved physical beatings, more recently it had increasingly involved intimate and sexual violence, she says.

This is something that Suzie Kimeu, a mother of five in Nanyuki, central Kenya, experienced for herself in 2013. “(That day), I had just come from a farm, where I worked as a casual labourer, when my husband asked for food,” Kimeu told Africa in Fact. “I said I had not prepared anything because there had been no food at home. He slapped and kicked me while my children wailed, and then he ordered me to go the kitchen and prepare the food that I had brought from the farm.”

Later that evening, Kimeu says, her husband, who was drunk by then, asked for sex. “I told him I was tired, having been in the fields for more than eight hours, but he did not listen. He forced me to have sex. I remember bleeding a lot. He threatened to chase me from our matrimonial home and said that he would marry another woman if I did not sleep with him.” After a series of similar attacks, Kimeu says she divorced her husband three years ago and is now “happily single”.

Women governors, MPs and senators are now partnering with non-governmental organisations to deal with the increase in cases of intimate partner sexual violence, says Laboso. “From past experience, we know that sexual assault in a relationship does not occur in a vacuum,” she says. “It often occurs alongside other abusive behaviours. For instance, the majority of women who are physically assaulted by an intimate partner have also been sexually assaulted by that partner.”

One of the non-governmental organisations addressing sexual assault and other abuses against women in Kenya is the Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW), which was founded in 1995 to respond to “the silence of Kenyan society” regarding violence against women and girls. COVAW chair Carolyne Odula-Obonyo says the organisation supports research on gender-progressive policies and legal and institutional frameworks, as well as their implementation, besides providing input on critical social themes relating to gender.

“We generate and share new knowledge relating to the development and well-being of girls and women, as well as solutions to the problems they face,” says Odula-Obonyo, a gynaecologist and obstetrician by profession, who works at the University of Nairobi’s College of Health Sciences. She notes that the biggest challenge in the fight against men’s violence are deeply ingrained cultural practices, which forbid women from revealing what they go through (such as being beaten by their husbands) in public.

Kenya’s global scores on gender-related violence paint a gloomy picture. Some 43% of married women have experienced sexual violence, while 32% of young women aged between 18 and 24 have experienced sexual violence and an estimated 23% of girls are married before their 18th birthday. Violence against women and girls, UN Women says, can be arrested by expanding women’s access to services that deal with their sexual and reproductive health needs – including post-rape care and counselling if needed – and facilitating their access to the justice system and safe-house networks.

The UN Women’s Safe Cities Initiative is an example of how this can be achieved. The project, which the global body conducts in partnership with other UN agencies, local and national governments and community groups, works to create safe public spaces for women and girls. It has been established in 21 cities across the globe so far, including Cairo, Cape Town, Kigali, Maputo, Marrakech and Rabat, and that number is growing. These include environments that are sexual harassment-free and safe public spaces.

But Odula-Obonyo says there is still much more to be done. As the late UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan observed in a speech to the Inter-Agency Video conference for a World Free of Violence against Women in New York on 8 March, 1999: “Violence against women … knows no boundaries of geography, culture, or wealth. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development and peace.” 

CHARITY CHELIMO is a current affairs analyst based in Nakuru, Kenya. She holds a masters degree in finance for the University of Nairobi and has more than six years’ writing experience.
Dying to work

Dying to work

Unemployed youth, Nairobi Photo: Peter Kongo Mwaura

Reginalda Adhiambo’s first-born daughter, Akinyi Onyango, left their Nairobi home in 2014 after she was offered a “lucrative” job in Saudi Arabia. Her mother helped to raise the money for her passport and an air ticket. The family reckoned on Akinyi’s return to Kenya a year later; the money she would have earned would offer the whole family “a new lease on life”.

But in March that year, Adhiambo bid her daughter farewell at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport little knowing that she would never see the young woman again. “That chilly night was the last time I saw my 24-year-old daughter alive,” she told Africa in Fact.

Adhiambo, a mother of eight, who has lived in Kibera, a Nairobi slum, for more than two decades, says she learned of her daughter’s death in the media three months later. Though she learned that the body had deep cuts, indicating torture, she has never been informed of the cause of her daughter’s death. To make matters worse, Adhiambo’s husband passed away the following year, in 2015.

Christine Njeri lives in Githurai, “one of the toughest places to live in Nairobi”, according to Tuko, a Kenyan news outlet aimed mainly at younger readers. She underwent a similar trauma in October 2016 when she learned that her young sister, Mary Magdalene Wamuyu, who was working as a domestic worker in Dubai, had died several months before. The young woman had worked in Dubai for three years.

Mary was forced to seek menial employment abroad despite being a university graduate. She had complained that her employer treated her as a slave, but her older sister had urged her “not to give up”. Now, looking back, she feels stricken by guilt. “I did not know it was that bad,” she said.

These tragic stories point to the struggles of Nairobi youth, who must somehow make ends meet, and often also provide for their families, in an environment where there are no jobs. The situation has been made worse by a deeply ingrained culture of tribalism, nepotism and corruption in the country’s politics. Job seekers must anticipate having to part with a huge bribe if they are actually offered a job.

Given the limited employment opportunities in Kenya, young people, and especially young women, are leaving the country to work overseas – often in oil-rich Middle East countries. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates that between 85,000 and 100,000 Kenyans are living in Saudi Arabia alone, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics data on employment released in April this year. About 70% of them work as domestic help. In that capacity especially, they are likely to face abuse and exploitation, says the International Labor Organization (ILO) in a 2013 report on domestic workers around the world.

Despite their significance to the local economy, as well as those of other host countries, Kenya’s domestic workers are employed in a sector with none or weak laws, a general lack of interest in the sector, and little coordination between government agencies and partners such as the ILO, says Jacob Omollo, a senior lecturer at the Department of Applied Economics at Kenyatta University in Nairobi. The result: frequent mistreatment, he told Africa in Fact.

Omollo argues that to address this situation, Kenya should ratify the ILO’s Convention 189, which came into force on September 5, 2013, and sets labour standards for domestic workers. This, he says, would enhance protection for Kenya’s domestic workers, and would also represent the first steps to addressing a history of domestic workers’ exclusion from labour and social protection.

While some of Nairobi’s young people continue to seek employment abroad, others try to battle it out at home, often unable to find employment despite having invested in expensive university studies. Maryanne Nyaboke, 26, a resident of Mathare slums in Nairobi, says she worked hard at the University of Nairobi’s School of Medicine for six years with the aim of achieving a well-paying job.

“When I opted to pursue medicine at the university, I was sure of getting posted to a health facility where I would use the knowledge I have gained in treating the sick in our society,” she told Africa in Fact. Yet, two years after graduating she is still unemployed. “It is ironic that we see so many hospitals and dispensaries in Kenya complaining of a shortage of doctors, yet we are idling.”

Nyaboke’s plight is not unqiue. There are more than 1,200 unemployed doctors in Kenya, according to Kenya’s Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union (KPMDU) Secretary General Ouma Olago. And yet, claiming the country has a shortage of medical practitioners, the government has recently employed at least 100 doctors from Cuba, he says.

While the union appreciates the fact that the government is under pressure to fulfil its universal healthcare promise to Kenyans, he argues that the country should ensure that it employs all the doctors who graduate from its education system. KPMDU estimates that there are currently some 2,400 foreign doctors working in Kenya.

While the Kenyan government does not provide a breakdown of youth unemployment, statistics from the Kenyan government’s Economic Survey 2018 released in April shows that some 16.9 million people were employed in 2017. Meanwhile, some 110,000 new jobs were created in that year, as compared to 84,800 in 2016. The new jobs included the extra personnel engaged by the public sector to serve in the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, as well as in the health, education and security services, Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich told Africa in Fact.

Unemployed youth working on a garden project Photo: Peter Kongo Mwaura

Meanwhile, the informal sector created 787,800 new jobs in 2017, or 83.4% of total employment, and the total number of self-employed workers increased from 132,500 in 2016 to 139,400 in 2017, said Rotich. The rise in self-employment was due mainly to government programmes such as the Uwezo Fund, which assists business start-ups by women and youth by providing access to low-cost credit, he said.

Young people and women were fast “losing appetite for formal jobs”, Rotich added, although he declined to provide exact figures for the number of young people in formal employment. Business-friendly policies coupled with technological innovations had generated conditions that encouraged young people to create their own jobs. “Having appreciated this new trend, the government has come up with different platforms that make it easy for these young people to access capital,” he said.

These sentiments are echoed by Deputy President William Ruto. In May this year, during the launch of the first Microsoft Software Testing Centre in Nairobi, he said young people needed to be “ambitious and innovative”, rather than waiting for jobs to be created for them. The government was committed to making Kenya an exporter and producer, rather than a mere consumer of technological innovation.

“The Government wants a vibrant technology sector in this country, a Silicon Savannah, and we believe if we can build a proper community of engineers, developers, coders and designers, we can deliver the innovations that will define the prosperity of this country in the future,” he told the listening dignitaries and business people.

But Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU) Secretary General Francis Atwoli says youth employment in Kenya is in crisis. He said young people were tired of the “usual lies” that the country’s economy was not growing, and that this limited opportunities to create jobs for young people. The peaceful 2017 general election had ushered in an era of macroeconomic stability, and this had been strengthened by recent conciliatory gestures between President Uhuru Kenyatta and the leader of the opposition, Raila Odinga.

In such a context, Atwoli argued, employers should be looking to achieve higher outputs, and that this aim should translate into more jobs for young people.

Moreover, a tendency had been observed where international firms were hiring non-Kenyans to carry out even the most junior duties, which was helping to lock talented Kenyan youths out of work. In April this year, the Internal Security Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i called for a “thorough” audit of foreigners working in Kenya. “There is no need for some firms to hire outsiders when Kenyans can carry out the same work at a relatively lower wage without compromising output,” he told a press briefing in May.

Nevertheless, Michael Nalianya, a fifth-year engineering student at Moi University, located in the west of Kenya, sees some prospects for the future. When he graduates he is looking forward to working for the Friends of Lake Turkana (FoLT), an NGO that promotes environmental responsibility, with a main focus on conservation efforts around Lake Turkana in northern Kenya.

In addition, the organisation aims to help young people in need by offering training and jobs, when available, Ikal Angelei, a co-founder of FoLT told Africa in Fact. “The greatest contributor to environmental degradation is poverty, which is a result of a lack of income,” she said. Other organisations in the NGO space share this approach. One Acre Fund, an American NGO that supports smallholder farmers, says that it encourages young people to consider a future in agriculture, which is proving that it can yield high returns in Kenya, according to its website.

Caleb Karuga, a former television journalist, now CEO of Wendy Farms, a commercial farming operation that focuses on chickens and vegetables, says he himself is an example of this. “Farming is cool. I can attest to this, having left a good job in media to go into farming,” he told Africa in Fact. He urged young people who wanted to make money to follow in his footsteps. 

CHARITY CHELIMO is a current affairs analyst based in Nakuru, Kenya. She holds a masters degree in finance from the University of Nairobi and has more than six years’ writing experience.