Violence Against Kenyan Women

By Jan Stoner

Today we drove to COVAW, a group we have supported for many years. It was set up in 1995 by a group of women's rights advocates from all over Kenya that determined that violence against women was the largest issue facing the women of Kenya. I expected a group with this type mission would be headquarted in the deep slums, instead we drove to a beautiful neighborhood with a lovely garden and house and gated yard.

Violence against women happens, like in America, to the rich and poor. If you have even a normal imagination you can name all the ways men and husbands physicallly and emotionally abuse their wives, sweethearts and children. It is the same in Kenya. I am choosing to not give the examples of the violence that we were told about. Some of the stories were so horrible that I wondered how these committed determined women can carry on. And the necessity of that lovely space became abundantly clear.

COVAW has not been in the space for long and the group's leaders were afraid the ladies would not be able to find them. Yet the day after they opened they came to work to find a long line of ladies waiting...

Kenya has good laws which prevent men from abusing and stalking women. The problem is getting the laws enforced. In the civil court system a divorce can take no less than two years and commonly takes six years or more. It is a very expensive process and many women give up and just walk away from their property.

Criminal cases have to be followed up on, but too often women refuse to prosecute or change their minds in the midst of the proceedings. The judges and police feel frustrated with the whole situation.They told one story of a man who was seriously threatening his wife. The police arrived in riot gear and surrounded the house but refused to go in. They told COVAW they were afraid to go in and that the COVAW women had to. They did and two hours later got the man to give up to the police. The woman wasn't harmed.  

COVOW organizers have found that the most effective conclusion and best results seem to happen when the women choose the empowerment route and strike out on their own and make  life over for themselves. COVAW offers counseling and group support while they create new lives for themselves. Yet even then men find ways to torment them, trying to get custody of the kids etc.  

COVAW has tried to create regional centers and train volunteers throughout the country. They want to decentralize. Unfortunately this has led to an even greater volume of clients and the need to rescue even more women. They are commited but stretched.

After visiting the facility, our group spoke with COVAW leaders about why there is violence against women? They explained that churches take stands about the constitution and other political issues, but largely stay silent about this issue. Their silence implies that violence against women is not a priority or major issue. Some pastors make the situation worse as they demand women "pray for their husband so that God will change the man." COVAW' has a term for this: "Suffering Saint Syndrome." So often all these years of prayers leads to flowers on a grave.  

Other reasons COVAW gave for violence against women in Kenya: Culture/tradition which promotes wives being inherited and considered property, poverty, ignorance and women's perception of themselves -- they have no sense of worth and of the possibility of anything else. They have a comfort zone and fear leaving it  even when they suffer so much. Also the Asian and Muslim communities are very closed societies and when women from those communities come forward they tell the same horrible stories of abuse, but they never come for more than two sessions. Then COVAW gets a call saying it is being handled inside the community. They fear for the women but are powerless.  

COWAV does so much with only a staff of 11 and volunteers. When you hear their mission and daily agenda they need to be 800 to dent the workload.

Jan Stoner is a donor to the Global Fund and travelled with our delegation to Kenya.


It's All About Water

It's all about water. That would seem to be the starting point for the "Water For Life" project of Groups of Women in Water and Agricultural Kochieng in Kisumu, Kenya. Working with small communities and schools, the staff have as their goal empowering rural poor populations through gospel outreach, enabling maximum availability of safe and affordable domestic water, the enhancement of food security, and the creation of change required to enhance women's economic powers.

These friends of the Global Fund were able to visit Odienya Primary school, one of the neediest of the twenty two primary schools served by GWAKO. Elizabeth, the GWAKO health hygiene coordinator, has structured health clubs for the older students in which she teaches the facts of life, AIDS prevention, and everyday hygiene practices. Global Fund grants have helped support a program for teen girls that includes supplying them with free sanitary napkins when they have this period. This is very important because the girls used to use rags and leaves, which contributed to infections. Because they felt unclean, they stayed home from school, and lost ground in their education.

The school has a student body of four hundred, very basic classroom buildings, including  one built from mud and dung over forty years ago, disintegrating daily, and dilapidated human latrines, among the many needs. The water and sanitation needs are especially extreme.

Located only two kilometers from Lake Victoria, Odienya School was built on grounds where the water table is close to the surface. Recently this area has endured heavy rains, creating swamp-like areas within the school grounds and leaving the road close to impassable. Pat, Michal and I, along with Elizabeth from GWAKO, were able to reach the school, thanks to driver Renee's amazing car maneuvering skills. He drove around and through cavernous washed out areas and over three foot high rural "speed bumps" under which water flowed from one side of the road to the other. The van bringing the rest of our group plus a few GWAKO staff members became mired in mud about 1/3 of the way down the access road, though Felix, our photographer and Gideon, project administrator, were able to catch rides on the back of two bicycle taxis passing by. This narrow road was actually a busy thoroughfare for men and women carrying wares --  from baskets of clothes to bags of rice, to and from the market. Two cows passed by tethered to each other, the experienced one backing up the other, guiding it home.

When, at last we reached Odienya, the students poured toward us in droves. Elizabeth told me some of them had never seen a white person before and like children everywhere, they were eager to pose for a camera.

We were shown around the grounds, including an impressive twelve foot high round brick well given by the Kenyan government. Quoting a male teacher, "The government loves our children."  If the government loves the children so, why has nothing been done about the state of the latrines, utterly unhygienic with no place to sit, partially tin roofed, and one even missing a door. We were told by the school chairman that $1100 would provide a new, state-of-the-art double-sided brick latrine. Two of them would be sufficient, they felt, to meet the needs of these students.

While we were seated like royalty at a long narrow table under the eaves of a low-slung school building, we were treated to songs and poems sung and recited by member of the Odienya Health Club. Dressed in colorful uniforms - blue jumpers over pink shirts - they performed with intensity and pride. The poems minced no words.The children performed the poems, using arm motions to dramatize the words:

You sweep our continent
From east to west
From north to south
Do you have no mercy on our health?


We all need latrines
To answer the call of nature
To dispense waste
for a clean environment
when inside, the latrine
relaxed like a king
feel free to let go
Always remember
Keep it off the floor
For a clean environment

For the three friends of GFW, privileged to be present, it was the sharing song that truly gifted us. It will be shared with congregations, family and friends. The children performed the sharing song while standing in two lines, one moving clockwise, the other counterclockwise, each child greeting each of the others with a handshake and smile, all the while repeating the refrain.

We are happy to share
Happy to share
One another's burdens
That's why we are here

You turn around and meet your neighbor
That's why you are here.

The school motto - printed on a sign in Kiswahili, other Kenyan languages and English is,"Education is Light." On one brilliant afternoon on the grounds of Odienya Primary School in an impoverished rural area in the western legion of Kenya, light became grace.

Judy Gordon has been a donor to the Global Fund since 2000 and is travelling with the Global Fund's delegation to Kenya.


At the World Social Forum


Yesterday as part of the Global Fund's delegation in Kenya, I attended a deeply empowering workshop at the World Social Forum on youth, women's rights, and activist democracy. The four hour workshop was led by Salma Maoulidi, Director of the Sahiba Sisters Foundation, a current grantee of the Global Fund.

Over fifty participants gathered to engage in passionate consciousness raising, organizing, and mutual inspiration. Several countries were represented, including Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, with a few of us from the UK, the US, and Canada. The workshop was in Swahili and translated quietly to those of us who needed English.

Salma is a galvanizing leader--able to get us working in small groups on the immense challenges before us, and later, tremendous in engaging the group in feminist, radically democratic discussion. About half of the participants were youth, with a slight majority of young men. One team modeled for us a presentation duo featuring a young woman and a young man working together as equals.

Salma emphasized the importance of youth leadership since by 2015, more than 60 percent of African people will be below 25 years of age. Some of the issues we grappled with were war and peace, human rights, fundamentalism, lack of tolerance for the views of others, HIV/AIDS, and the need for activist, socially just democratic practice, including in religious organizations. She challenged us:  "Do you have democracy in your home, at your family table?  Democracy must take place at all levels."

The feminist message was expressed in Salma's strong leadership, in the voices of several women who belong to the Sahiba Sisters, in their brochure, which was handed out, and in Salma's closing statement:  "If you disrespect a woman, you disrespect your own being."

Sahiba Sisters' mission is "to enhance the leadership and organizational capacity of Muslim women and youth" and to be sisters seeking a common cause, our development, while remaining true to our spiritual values--Islamic values, grounded in the search for social justice.... [according to] the principle of shura'a (mutual consultation)."

During introductions and discussion, the Global Fund for Women was recognized and thanked for providing funds for this work. In the middle, during a break, we danced!


The Sound of Singing

As our van entered the dirt access road to Bridgeway Centre Trust's small office, we heard the sound of singing. Sixty children of all ages were gathered in neat rows outside the door, singing and clapping a welcome song for us! After the presentation of a beautiful bouquet of flowers to our Global Fund for Women group, we were led in by the children and found more than 20 women awaiting our arrival.

Bridgeway Centre's many programs to fight HIV/AIDS are indeed an inspiration. The children they assist, both girls and boys, are orphans whose parents have died from AIDS, and vulnerable children who live in the Kwangware slum or whose parents are HIV+ or sick. The Centre currently works with over 200 children every week.

An inspiring presentation demonstrated the empowerment of women and girls that Bridgeway is accomplishing. There were songs, dances, dramatic poems, and testimonies by children, youth, and adults, all sharing how their lives had been transformed by the compassionate help and training they receive at Bridgeway Centre. Young people demonstrated for us how they have learned to make detergent and soap, as well as to silkscreen and paint by hand beautiful t-shirts for sale. Women presented their knitting, rug hooking, and bead projects that enable them to "keep busy, reduce stress, and earn some money to support themselves."

We drove to Kwangware slum, accompanied by Caroline Muigai Executive Director of the Centre, to see how one young mother has been supported in opening a small business there. Dolly Kigamwa operates out of a tiny "phone booth" constructed of corrugated metal and painted bright green. From her bag comes a green wireless telephone that she activates. For a few shillings, residents of Kwangware can make telephone calls. This is a great community service as well as a way for this young woman to support herself and her family.

I felt very humbled in the face of the wonderful people-staff, volunteers, children, youth, and adults-who work together at Bridgeway Centre. The cobalt blue t-shirt I purchased has their motto:  Turning scars into stars. As we prepared the leave, after enjoying a lunch cooked by the teenagers, the children again broke into song. . . we all joined in and were once again led by the children to the parking area. There all of us gathered for a group photo before we departed.

As a donor/activist with the Global Fund for several years, I can indeed witness that our contributions are being put to powerful use in Africa: lives are being transformed, girls and women are being empowered, people with AIDS are being enabled to live and die with dignity and respect. Let us keep these beautiful songs going . . .

Michal McKenzie has been a donor to Global Fund since 2002.

Hope Blooms in the Desert

At 6 a.m. Karachi is slowly awakening - our taxi speeds through empty roads that are normally crowded with cars, donkey carts, auto rickshaws, and the brightly painted trucks for which Pakistan is so famous.

Shahnawaz, the man who will chaperone my daughter and I on our visit to Rural Women's Welfare Organization, has spent a whole day traveling in order to be with us. Since 1999, the Global Fund for Women has funded this organization serving women in the most remote parts of interior Sindh province, but we have never had a chance to visit the group in its own office or to meet with the hundreds of rural women who see the tanzeem (Urdu for organization) as a beacon of light and hope.

Today, my 13-year-old daughter, Mira and I are en route to Sanghar, the small Sindhi town, where the founders of RWWO live and work. It is two days before the festival of Eid ul-Adha (the celebration of sacrifice), better known in South Asia as Bakri Eid (celebration of Goats). It commemorates the sacrifice the prophet Abraham was willing to make and the miracle that substituted a lamb in place of his son at the moment of death. Today, all over the Islamic world, goats, sheep, cattle, camels, and oxen are slaughtered in a graphic re-enactment of this devotion to God. For over a month, families have been feeding and decorating the animals in their care. Goats are festive with paint, henna and colorful ribbons. It is said that a true sacrifice requires you to part with something that you have truly come to love. As we travel further away from the urban metropolis of Karachi, we notice goats in their finery everywhere - stuffed into the backs of small cars, paraded in small herds along the side of the roads, peering out from the backs of small trucks and lorries.

Goats are actually much more visible than women in Pakistan, especially here in rural and extremely conservative Sindh. Women are the backbone of the rural economy, performing over two-thirds of the agricultural labour, yet their contributions are neither included in assessments of gross national product nor a guarantee of their physical safety. RWWO works in a region with one of the highest rates of female illiteracy and violence against women in all of Pakistan. In the reports that fill our files in the Global Fund office, we know how hard RWWO has had to work to raise awareness and challenge traditional practices that reduce women to the status of private property. Karo Kari, Urdu for honor killings, are routine in the province of Sindh - last year alone some estimated 100 women were victims of murder perpetuated by male relatives. Women are murdered in retaliation for feuds between families, they are murdered because they are "presumed to be unchaste," they are murdered because they dared to marry someone of their own choice, they are murdered because they are the victims of rape and then considered to have brought shame on the family, they are murdered because they are vulnerable and no-one speaks out on their behalf.

No one that is, except RWWO. It is not until you actually visit the intensely provincial and conservative town of Sanghar, that you realize how incredibly brave and idealistic the founder of RWWO, Imam Zadi, must have had to be to embark on the path she has chosen to blaze here in her own small town, not in a big city. A soft-spoken woman in her sixties, Imam Zadi has eyes that shine with a passion for women's rights. She has an unshakeable conviction that her work on behalf of women's emancipation is no less an expression of her faith than those who have formal titles of mullah or priest. Her husband is a remarkable partner to this firebrand for justice. A graduate of Karachi University's philosophy program, he is the first man I meet in Pakistan to introduce himself as follows, "Greetings, I am a lifelong feminist."  This is followed by a tour of his remarkable collection of classic Hindi, English and Hollywood films.

Although we have just negotiated street vendors selling bangles, donkeys on the street, and loud arguments in Sindhi on the busy main street that is just outside their door, as you walk up the narrow stairs to the RWWO office and the home of the Zadi family, you can distinctly hear strains of Verdi - its one of his 300 vinyl records of Western Classical music that he has lovingly preserved. Surrounded by his grandchildren, whom he insists must learn English, he pulls out an extraordinary compilation of newspaper cuttings on crimes of violence against women.

"This is what is wrong with our world, this is what we have to change. This is why RWWO is so critical in our lives," he says as we look at photographs of brutally mutilated bodies.

Between them, Shah and Imam Zadi are a couple who have launched a small revolution. Products of a lower middle class, landed family, their marriage stands out as an example of true partnership and equality. He recounts how the jirga or local town council wanted to censure Imam for "promiscuity unfitting to a woman of her class" because she was "consorting with people of poor reputations, unmarried women, Hindus, tribals, and low caste villages."

He went to the Jirga and demanded to know what they had done during their tenure to improve the lives of those who most needed their help - the poor, the dispossessed, the Hindu minority of Sindh.

"My wife and the organization she has started have dug wells, provided clinics, built schools, and improved the lives of hundreds of people in Sindh. Until you show me that you have done a tenth of what she has, I refuse to accept your condemnation as anything but talk."

The council was silent and RWWO continued its work among the women of the neighboring villages of Sanghar.

As we walked into our meeting in the RWWO office on the third floor terrace of the Zadi home, it was clear how many boundaries RWWO has dared to cross. A diverse range of Pakistani women were present to greet us as we entered - Hindu Bhil women with brightly coloured Rajashtani veils and bangles all the way up their arms; an older Muslim woman who has dared take on the priest in her local mosque; younger unmarried Muslim women who work as teachers and activists and leaders of their local women's associations; women ranging from 72 to 14 years of age with a shared passion: transformation of their shared oppression and opening doors to a better future for all the women in their communities.

Hindu and Christian women are rarely included in organizations in Pakistan - they are a small minority in most parts of the country, except here in Sindh, where Hindus comprise about 10 percent of the population and Christians another two or three percent. We were greeted with colorful floral garlands and songs. The Bhil women were delighted to learn Mira's name, because they revere Mirabai the 16th century Rajasthani princess who turned her back on her comfortable life and abandoned her husband to become a mystic.  We were promptly regaled with Mira bhajans (hymns in praise of Mira!)  Other women shared with us their own stories of empowerment, the roles they played as members of the board of RWWO and the changes that they have been able to implement with the help of funds from the Global Fund for Women and other grantmakers.
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