Fighting for Their Lives

Last April, 10 civil society organizations across Kenya, under the banner “Gender 10,” initiated a rather unusual mass action: a sex strike. In the wake of the post-election violence that rocked the country in early 2008 and produced a coalition government with two chief executives, the government was mired in inertia and public bickering, while vigilante groups still roamed the countryside.

Fed up, Gender 10—which encompassed women’s policy and advocacy groups, children’s rights organizations, and the Federation of Kenyan Women Lawyers—urged all women in Kenya to abstain from sex with their husbands and partners for an entire week until the politicians got their act together. A special appeal went out to both first ladies, Lucy Kibaki and Ida Odinga. “An extraordinary situation calls for an extraordinary measure,” the Gender 10 press statement read.

The result was that Parliament was convened one week after the boycott, while the cabinet met the second week. A government task force was set up to address the insecurity caused by the vigilantes.

And there were other benefits, according to Ann Njogu, executive director of the Centre for Rights, Education, and Awareness in Nairobi. “What the boycott did was to create a debate in this country. People actually talked about sex in public for the first time.” Apart from breaking the political impasse, the boycott “brought out openly the prejudices that exist in our society: that women have no right to say no, that women can be raped in marriage, and that divorced women are less of a citizen.”

These are just a few of the issues that Kenyan women’s groups are facing in a country where only 10 percent of Parliament is female; where rape victims seeking justice have faced daunting legal as well as societal hurdles; where widows and other vulnerable people are often deprived of their legal inheritances; and where women in HIV-affected families are too often stigmatized and marginalized.

Kenyan women's groups have had to learn the hard way how best to create political space for themselves. They invest in civic education programs, build strategic alliances, mentor and train young women leaders, and ultimately gain the respect of fellow community members while gracefully elbowing their way to a seat on a hospital board, in a district office, on the city council, and eventually, albeit slowly, even in Parliament.

It is grueling work that requires a staunch commitment and a healthy dose of realism. The victories can take years, but the rewards are immensely gratifying: “I [am] extremely satisfied when the work I do brings about real change. If I make one woman smile, this gives me encouragement,” says Njogu. “When I know what I do is for a just cause, I know that God will work with me.”

And the cause is certainly just, on many fronts. For example, until just a few years ago, rape and other sexual offenses were not considered normal crimes in Kenya but rather “offenses against morality”—which meant that a trial first tried to determine if the victim had “good character.” If the victim was a virgin, the law would be less lenient, but if not, it was presumed that it was not so bad for the person to be raped after all.

Clear sentencing guidelines were missing; some magistrates let rapists go free with a warning, while others would jail them for three years and others for life. Much was left up to a subjective interpretation of the situation, which led to abuse; women and children were often treated as liars, especially in cases of sexual violence. One judge was recorded by children’s advocacy group The Cradle to have said that “when it comes to sex, women have a tendency to tell tales.”

That changed when Kenyan women from all walks of life, women’s groups, and human rights organizations across the country scored a historical victory: the Sexual Offenses Act, sponsored by legislator Njoki Ndungu. Even though two major aspects of the original bill, female genital mutilation and marital rape, were scrapped at the last moment by male legislators, Kenyan women were overall satisfied with the passage of the act: “Many women we work with are beaten and dehumanized in their own homes. At the very least it was an opportunity for women to discuss their personal issues,” explains Esther Mwaura-Muiru. She is national coordinator for Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood (GROOTS) Kenya, a movement and network of more than 2,000 women’s self-help groups and community-based organizations.

Among the many civil society organizations that worked on the draft of the Sexual Offenses Act and supported Ndungu in championing the bill inside Parliament were the Federation of Women Lawyers, The Cradle, and others. “We organized peaceful rallies and wore T-shirts that read ‘Stop Sexual Violence, Support the Sexual Offense Bill,’” says Tonny Odera, countertrafficking program officer with The Cradle. “We also sat in the public gallery in Parliament and made sure that [lawmakers] knew we are watching how they voted.” In addition to rape, the act covers trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, recruitment of commercial sex workers, and child sex tourism.

The Sexual Offenses Act came into force in July 2006—just in time for the 2007 elections, which went terribly wrong. The post-election violence in early 2008 included, along with more than 1,300 deaths and hundreds of thousands of displacements, many rapes. That year 20 rape survivors testified at the Waki Commission for Inquiry, set up to investigate the violence.

“The very act of testifying,” says Millicent Obaso, an HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence expert now based in Tanzania, “asserts women’s rights in a male-dominated society. Testifying can empower survivors of gender-based violence to take on the role of activists in promoting better treatment of women.”

In all of the issues where women’s groups are active, working at the grassroots—empowering women from the bottom up—is critical. Jael Amati is one such woman: “I come from a poor family. I was told to go and work as a house girl, but my mother insisted that I study so that I could have a profession. I want more girls to be able to make a difference in their lives.” Amati, who grew up in Kakamega district in western Kenya, got a scholarship from a nongovernmental organization. When she got to university, she studied social work and community development. Today, she is a program officer in Kakamega for GROOTS Kenya. Amati is inspired by her work with other women: “I am motivated by seeing the sustained transformation in the communities we work in.”

One problem GROOTS Kenya en-counters in many communities is the disinheritance of widows and their children. When a husband dies—an all-too-common occurrence because of the AIDS pandemic—a widow’s in-laws often illegally claim all his possessions. So the network created community-based property watchdog groups in five out of eight provinces in Kenya. These work closely with local leaders and are de facto whistle-blowers when there is attempted property theft or disinheritance. By gathering evidence of such violations, the groups help change community attitudes.

GROOTS Kenya is also very active in “action research,” which is conducted by women on the ground and bridges knowledge gaps between policymaking at the top and the lives of grassroots women. Ideally, such efforts can increase the effectiveness of the essential help offered by international aid programs such as the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) or the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria—both of which are funded, in part, because of the advocacy efforts of grassroots activists in the U.S. and elsewhere.

GROOTS Kenya’s action research has contributed to the country’s 2010-2015 National AIDS Strategy Plan. And, in alliance with the Health Global Access Project, the women of GROOTS recently investigated the interplay between health initiatives and national health systems. The research, presented at a meeting organized by the World Health Organization in Italy last June, found a strong need to accredit, recognize, and support community health workers and home-based care providers, the majority of whom are women.

“Although it takes time to influence global policy, the fact that home-based care providers conducted the research themselves and interviewed health-care workers in the formal system has improved their standing in the eyes of others; many have been asked to sit on the AIDS committee of their constituency,” says Mwaura-Muiru of GROOTS Kenya. “We also presented the research findings to the PEPFAR representative in Kenya. We will see, in the next round of PEPFAR funding that starts in January 2010, whether or not our recommendations have been integrated.”

International aid such as PEPFAR often provides key support to local groups. Raphael Kariuki, speaking of her experience as program coordinator for Twana Twitu, a Kenyan organization that helps orphaned and vulnerable children, especially rural, HIV-positive ones, reflects: “PEPFAR was very useful for us because we were able to ensure that children did not drop out of school. We also provided income-generating activities for the guardians of the children, which is critical in an area that suffers from prolonged drought spells.”

Women at the grassroots find that, on top of medical problems, the AIDS pandemic causes social ones: those infected with the virus often experience rejection, stigmatization, and discrimination. This situation led a group of HIV-positive women to come together in 1993 to form Women Fighting AIDS in Kenya (WOFAK). The seven WOFAK centers offer antiretroviral drugs and treatment for opportunistic infections. The group also helps orphans and vulnerable children by providing nutritional baskets, vocational training, psycho-social support, and home-based care.

Maureen Murenga of WOFAK recalls a case of a married woman named Beatrice, mother of two children and pregnant with her third, who found out she was HIV-positive back in 2005. “Her husband packed up his bags and left her. She did not have a job and turned for help to her family. They were scared of the virus and closed the door on her. She spent several nights in the street, and then a friend took her to WOFAK. We gave her food and psycho-social support. When she came to terms with her HIV status, she started to feel better. We helped her set up a greengrocery shop and paid her rent for a while. She is now happy, in good health, and can provide for herself and her children.”

Ironically, such women’s situation can be made worse by legal provisions that seem reasonable in the abstract. On an advocacy level, WOFAK works not only to advocate for HIV management to be available inside prisons, but also to discourage involuntary HIV testing for pregnant women who give birth in hospitals and to fight the recent criminalization of HIV transmission.

“We must ensure that [the 2008 AIDS Act] does not pass as it [is],” says Murenga. “In our centers we see many women who are left by their husbands or kicked out of their homes when they find out their HIV-positive status. If the 2008 AIDS Act passes in its current form, these women risk going to prison for seven years because they are forced to take an HIV test while pregnant and are later accused by their husbands or family of bringing the virus home.”

WOFAK also works to help change community attitudes that maintain “wife inheritance,” a cultural practice in which, as in inheritance theft, economic disempowerment helps spread HIV. In places such as Nyanza Province, WOFAK is working closely with widows to ensure they can avoid being “inherited” by their late husbands’ male relatives. “We support women’s groups through economic empowerment so they do not depend on the inheritance. We have widows who have been with us for more than three years, are economically independent, and are talking to other women. If even 30 widows in a small community manage not to get inherited, that is a great achievement for us,” says Murenga.

Murenga, who is herself HIV-positive, says it took her a while to overcome stigma and discrimination. “I am a very staunch Christian and have been active in the church since my youth. We used to bury our head in the sand on many issues. In 2003, I got tested and I found out that I was HIV-positive. I faced a lot of stigma and I suffered silently. One day I opened up to a pastor who really helped me and gave me the strength to go on.”

At the end of the day, what Kenyan women must confront is still a very male-dominated society where the system remains skewed against them.

“In a country like Kenya, we need to dismantle barriers that make it impossible for women to develop their own nation,” says Njogu of the Centre for Rights, Education, and Awareness. “I am starting to become clearer that what we need now is not just action for women and other groups. We need to ask ourselves how can we dismantle the current system and create policies that are truly people-centered.”

Beatrice M. Spadacini ( is a writer based in east Africa. For 20 years she has worked for international aid agencies and written extensively on issues of social justice and human rights.

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