Kiengu village in the outskirts of Maua town in Meru County, epitomizes the tranquility of a normal Kenyan village. The welcoming lush green vegetation breaths a sense of fresh air and calmness. The streams of water crisscrossing the village create a serene ambience of a village endowed with natural resources.
On this cold chilly morning, a group of women met in Mchanganyiko social hall in Kibera. As I approach the hall, I am welcomed by murmurs. A group of 12 women, seat pensively, trying to create a rapport in pairs.
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, government enforced social distancing restrictions among them the stay at home order in a bid to suppress transmission of the Coronavirus and keep people healthy, but for many women and girls home became a ‘danger zone’ as they were forced to be in the ‘lockdown’ with their abusive spouses, partners and family members and cut off from supportive network and resources that could help them.
The ordeal of one evening morning in early July, brings gloomy memories to 38 year old *Nafula (not her real name). Her husband of three years had turned against her; what started as verbal insults progressed real quick into physical leaving her bruised.
“It was not the first time that he was abusive to me. At one point he hired goons to beat me up,” recounts Nafula.
Nafula’s own abusive experiences form part of the statistics of countless women and girls whose lives have been affected by the wave of gender based violence during the pandemic. In December 2020, a report by the National Crime Research Center indicated that incidences of gender based violence had increased by 92 percent in the period of January and June compared to that of January and December in 2019, with murder, sexual offences, defilement, grievous harm, physical abuse, child neglect and child marriages taking the larger chunk of cases.
Similarly, the Center for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW) has received increased cases of women and girls reporting violations. On average, CREAW would received 20 cases in a month, with the Covid-19 pandemic, the numbers have spiked to 34 cases necessitated by the social and economic effects of COVID-19 on women and girls. Consequently, the demand for legal and counselling support was on the rise.
Amidst the surge, CREAW rolled out a 24 hour hotline-0800-720-186 to help survivors like Nafula to access support services virtually including legal information, counselling, access to safe shelters and referrals to other GBV services.
With the support from grassroots community champions and messaging on community radios and social media, CREAW has been able to publicise the hotline that now have over flow of cases reported even from the counties in the outskirts of Nairobi.
“Through the hotline, survivors are able to get timely legal aid services, information and psycho-social support to rebuild their lives,” says Nereah Oderah, the lead Counsellor who supports survivors through the helpline.
With the support from UNDP, CREAW has adapted its interventions to provide free tele-counselling and pro-bono legal services to survivors of gender based violence among them, women and girls who reside in the informal settlements of Nairobi. A total of 597 GBV survivors benefitted from pro-bono legal assistance & advice during the pandemic period.
We meet Neema* (not her real name) in the informal settlements of Kawangware where she has been living for six months since her husband of 10 years beat her and threw her out in the cold in the wee hours of the night with her two children.
“For the last 10 years I have been married to him, there has never been peace in our home. Occasionally, we would fight even on the slightest provocation,” she says, adding that everything changed when she lost her job; her husband threw her and her two young children out in the cold, and she was left to fend for her children with no income in sight.
Sadly Neema* is not the only one facing domestic violence: her experience mirrors that of many women and girls who are increasingly being trapped with their abusers at home.
With the raging cases of COVID-19 pushing households into economic slumps, women and girls “locked” with their abusers are also finding it difficult to seek safety away from violence marred homes- cutting them off from their supportive networks and resources that could help them.
Like Neema, Kadija ( not her real name) is also another survivor of domestic violence from the informal settlements of Kibera. It has only been a month since she left the shelter where she had sought refuge after receiving constant abuse from her husband that only worsened during the pandemic.
“I am unemployed and depended on my husband. Because of the pandemic, he received a pay cut and we could barely afford to pay for food and rents. Many times we would fight even over minor things. I feared for my life and that of my children,” says 29-year-old Kadija who is now separated with the husband.
As the pandemic keeps raging on, CREAW’s owned hotline-0800720186 has been a buzz with women and girls making frantic calls to report violations and seek legal and referral services. On average, the hotline receives 90 cases in a month, this compared to 20 cases during the same time last year. Similarly, the rising incidences of violence against women and girls have been further affirmed by the data from the National gender based violence (GBV) hotline 1195, indicating a 55 percent surge with women accounting for nearly 70 percent of those cases.
With the pandemic disrupting access to essential support services to survivors of GBV, CREAW, with the support from UNDP Kenya, adapted its intervention in the community during the pandemic to ensure that women and girls- survivors, especially those living in the informal settlements of Nairobi receive the much needed support to heal and build resilience beyond the pandemic.
This includes, free legal information and representation, psychosocial support to help survivors heal from their traumatic experiences. In-addition, CREAW also integrated the survivors to the existing livelihood cash reliefs intervention supported by the European Union in Kenya and shelter services as they reorganise their lives.
The last time *Sarah (not her real name) had a domestic scuffle with the husband; he nearly took life out of her.
“He came home drunk in the wee hours of the night, beat me up and stabbed me with a knife,” recalls Sarah as she chokes back tears. It was then that she made a decision to leave her matrimonial home.
Sarah recounts that it was not the first time that she had been abused by the husband; on several occasions, she was subjected to a slap, a punch, a kick… and to tap it all intimidation and coercion that only become worse during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Our first born daughter couldn’t take the abuse, she ran away from home. It got to a point where my husband wanted to rape her,” says the 55-year-old mother of four.
Before the pandemic, Sarah was a laundry woman, she would move from house to house doing laundry and other domestic chores, when the pandemic struck, no one was willing to employ her even for other menial jobs. She says, the Covid-19 pandemic is one of the worst moments in her life.
Sarah is however not alone, her experiences mirror that of many women and girls across Kenya whose lives have been affected by the wave of intimate partner violence during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Like Sarah, *Pendo (not her real name) was gang raped on her way home from the market. She had crossed over to Mombasa mainland from Likoni where she usually hawks cassava and coconut to make ends meet. The event of that fateful night left her with a life threatening hemorrhage.
In April, the government and women rights organizations, CREAW among them issued an alert of the increasing cases of gender based violence meted on women and girls. The recent study by the National Crime Research Center indicated a 92 percent increase in cases of GBV in the period of January and June 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. The nature of cases reported include, rape, assault, murder, sexual offences, defilement, child marriage, psychosocial torture and child neglect.
In the wake of this, CREAW with the support from Oxfam in Kenya adapted its intervention in Nairobi and Mombasa to provide support services to survivors of gender based violence like Sarah and Pendo. Mainly, the intervention targeted women and girls from informal settlements with cash reliefs to aid them in meeting basic necessities such as food, water, rent and healthcare for them and their families.
“The first thing I did when I received the cash from CREAW is to pay rent and the rest of the monies I bought food, mask and sanitizer,” says Sarah who has also received a resilient fund from CREAW to establish a business that would sustain her and her four children.
Currently Sarah and Pendo also receiving continuous psychosocial support services to enable them heal and build resilience during the pandemic and thereafter.
Each and every Wednesday of the week Saumu Mwadime and Eunice Baya sets out to traverse through the villages of Kilifi North Sub-County with a mission to hold conversations with the communities and get an in-depth understanding into the issues that bedevils communal coexistence; of core concern to them is gender based violence which has a damaging impact on the education of many girls around Kilifi County.
Despite legislative measures, Kenya is still facing great challenges in curbing illicit alcohol consumption more so, in rural communities where alcohol and substance abuse is easily accessible some of the most visible effects is the productivity of men and young people, increase of gender based violence and crime in the community.
“I had a vision to be a member of the County Assembly of Meru not because of the money but because I had mission to take the women agenda forward.”
These are the words of Lucy Mukaria the chairperson of the Meru Women Legislative Association (MEWOLA) who believes that leadership is about goals and the ideals of the community. She says that despite the societal barriers, women must rise up and take up leadership positions; be it elective or appointive.
As a young widow, she deserted her in laws and matrimonial properties taken away and left without any support. She was left without a penny to fend for her three children. What was so agonising to her was the cultural stigmatisation that widows went through in the village; they are taken as outcasts.
“When I started living as a single woman and with no much support, the thought of the other widows crossed my mind. What about the single mothers that were not working? What about women in the community whose lands are taken away by the elders or clan and never made to be part of the decision regarding the community or their families? I asked myself why women aren’t getting opportunities like men? ” She explains while noting that the disparities are as a result of the imbalanced power relations.
In Meru County where Mukaria ails from, women are disadvantaged when it comes to land ownership. This is despite the progressive and robust legal frameworks on land ownership in Kenya; a clear indication on the of the non-balanced power dynamics and cultural inequality when it comes to land allocations between men and women. This inequalities are also transited to the political governance even at the village level up to the highest governance levels.
“These experiences however put me at a better place in understanding the challenges women go through. All these are not ‘women issues’ but societal issues,” she says.
For Mukaria, the Constitution of Kenya 2010 was a game changer towards the right direction. Its provisions on the two-thirds gender principle was a step forward in pushing the equality agenda which for a long time has been underpinned by patriarchal systems where political engagement has for a long time been dominated by men.
Her leadership journey has been on the glimmer for decades; she started off her career in the civil society but the climax she says is when she got involved in the The Katiba Sasa! Campaign during the clamour for the CoK 2010. The campaign advocated for the speedy enactment of the constitution to ensure a free governance space. This placed her at a position to engage with the governance system and penetrate through the party structure.
As a figure that was now well known and recognised in the civil society as well as the grassroots political arenas, she got elected to be the Councillor of the then Meru Municipal Council in the old constitutional order.
“I made a name out of the campaigns. I was known for social justice but I wanted more than just the connotation of ‘flower girls’ for women leaders. Coming into the County Assembly of Meru in 2017, she galvanised the support of other 23 women to form a caucus that would ensure that the operations and policies enacted by the County Assembly are engendered,” says Mukaria.
She adds: “As women we must know how to manoeuvre through political spaces, for me one of the best strategy I ever made in during the 2017 general elections was to align myself with a political party. I got to understand what how the political party systems work. I made male politicians my alias and even though I lost in the elections, I was specially elected to sit at the Assembly based on my track record.”
With the technical support from CREAW through the Wajibu Wetu project, Mukaria and other female MCAs under the banner of the MEWOLA developed a Strategic Plan with an aim to champion and advocate for gender sensitive policies at the county level.
Through the MEWOLA, the MCAs will continuously advocate for stronger women movements to champion for equality in development processes