Death, Violence & Desperation as Women Suffer the Brunt of COVID19 Pandemic   

Bra face mask- Editar wearing one of the masks made from one of her old bras

This was the last thing they expected – two women dying in a food aid distribution stampede in Kibera slums right in the midst of fighting the COVID19 pandemic.

This has by far been Editar Ochieng’s worst nightmare. Right in the middle of the COVID19 pandemic amidst efforts to try and safeguard hundreds of thousands of residents of the sprawling Kibera slums, her worst fears came to being. “We knew things could turn worse in the scenario but what could we do? How could we prevent all these people from scrambling for the food aid? People are hungry! People have no money! Yes, there is a curfew and there is a lockdown but what do people eat if they cannot go out to look for work and earn something small and even worse, it is the women who are suffering the most!?”

 

Editar Ochieng’s voice breaks in the pent-up frustrations she has been harboring since Kenya announced her first COVID 19 case in early February.  A women’s rights activist and feminist from the largest slum in East and Central Africa – kibera, Editor was amongst the very first responders to the COVID 19 pandemic as Kenya struggles to contain it.

Then a week ago, when a local politician delivered food aid to the sprawling slums without a solid distribution plan in place, hundreds of dwellers jostled and fought for access causing a major stampede which resulted to the deaths of two women and injured scores of people involved.This unfortunate event has marked one of the grimmest scenes from Kenya as the world battles the COVID19 pandemic.

Taking action, fast!

Kibera slums is home to over 1 million inhabitants. It is densely populated, poorly ventilated with clogged drained systems, garbage crisis and hardly has much flowing clean water.    In contrast though, it is in Kibera that the largest population of Nairobi’s hard-working people live. It is where those who give essential services such as guards, cleaners, vegetable vendors and health workers reside.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kibera like most parts of Nairobi lies on the crevices of a huge time-bomb waiting to explode. With this knowledge, Editar Ochieng sprang to action the moment COVID-19 became inevitable to Kenya like in many other countries across the globe. She is the founder of a feminist organization Feminists For Peace, Rights & Justice Center (FPRJC).   The organization is a community collective of brave young women who relentlessly fight against gender-based violence, sexual violence and largely the gender discrimination of women and girls in a patriarchal society.

“The first thought that went through my mind when the government announced the curfew is that more women and girls will be battered and more women and girls will be raped. Some might even die and there is nothing much we can do about it”. Editor explained.

But being the fighter that she is, Editar refused to be paralyzed by this scary reality. “When we work in Kibera, our focus is wholesome. We know that the main issue here is poverty. People live literally from hand to mouth and most of the time – many times actually, there is nothing in the hand for people to eat! So here is a disease to add on to the misery of the already disadvantaged people of Kibera. There is hardly time to reflect. We had to act and act fast”

editar distributing soap donations to resident in Kibera

Despite the massive challenges, Editar was one of the very first and fast responders to the COVID19 pandemic in her community in Kibera.   Long before the government started active civic education on the disease, Editar alongside her compatriots was already out mobilizing the community and sharing much needed information.

“It was hard to start airing our concern to the people. Sometimes we were hassled and chased away by those who thought it was a waste of time and or a joke. What saddened us is that some thought the disease does not affect poor people in the slums such as out, that it only affected the rich.  We first got together contributed some money and hired a pick-up vehicle for a few days to go around the settlements trying to educate the masses.  We had our gloves and masks on to indicate the seriousness of this issue.  The kibera terrain is difficult to navigate because the shanties are all packed closely together with hardly room to pass so we tried as much as possible to pause in spots with social amenities like makeshift markets and sports grounds. We then raised our loudspeakers and talked ourselves horse.  People listened and I am glad the momentum to start taking care and being more hygiene started building up.”

Even though this information dissemination part was important, the more difficult bit was to get to the practical aspect of behavior change and to get people to take extra hygiene caution and social distancing to prevent the spread of the Corona virus.

The challenges of the Kibera infrastructure almost makes it impossible to navigate a successful plan to beat the spread of COVID 19.  Implementing a social-distancing policy is almost non-existent because in Kibera, everybody and everything is so closely packed together. “You cannot even imagine sneezing without the next person catching a cold because the house are so tiny and families living within so closely squeezed together” Explains Editar.

Because of biting poverty and lack of social services and amenities, necessities such as water is a much-contested basic-need. The dilapidated state of the structures mirror the fact that even having running water becomes a dream. “This is what our priority is – pushing the Country government to keep bringing in water as much as possible”.   

Editar and her team alongside many other groups operating in Kibera have been pushing for water ever since. They opted to improvise in making soap themselves which they have since been distributing to residents at spread-hand-washing points.  This is however a task that requires resources.

Use your bra as a mask!

Recently, the government made it mandatory for everyone to wear a mask when venturing outside. For many people in Kibera, no matter how cheap the masks can be, it is still beyond reach for most. “Here, you choose between having one meal a day and buying a mask. It is a tough choice and so it ceases to be a priority”.  In this regard, Editar and her team have tirelessly campaigned to have home-made masks from pieces of rags or cut out from old women brassieres. In a move that has been replicated by many and seen as a viable option where resources are unavailable. “We told the women not to panic. If they can just get an old puffed brassier, they can cut it into two parts and there have two masks. It has been working”.

It is now almost three weeks since the government of Kenya introduced the mandatory curfews that run between 7 PM and 5 AM as a compulsory move to curtail the spread of COVID19. With this curfew came new challenges that presented even tougher problems.

“It has been an uphill task especially for those whose businesses thrive from later in the evening like the women who sell fish, those who work in bars and entertainment joints as well as those who worked as house-helps in neighboring estates.  This curfew means that they cannot get their jobs as needed which means they have no money and thus no food to feed their families.  It also means that their husbands or spouses are “trapped” at home and probably frustrated to not being able to earn a living as well then they vent out their frustrations on the women through violence.  This is really a dire situation for us. The cases are increasing by day”.

Sexual gender-based violence on the rise

The curfew has also made women and girls even more vulnerable to sex predators and rapists. On several occasions, the FPJRC has received information of women who have been falsely duped by men towards the end of the curfew to flee from their business operating areas only to later land into the dens of rapists and muggers. It is a tactic of abuse that has been normalized in the slums for a long time.

Editar says that even though they are busy trying to consolidate food to distribute to those in need, they are still trying to also keep in check the rising cases of domestic violence. The cases are increasingly disturbing.

“When the stampede happened, we knew the women would be the ones suffering most of the injuries. Sadly, the two women died. One of them was pregnant. The other is a young woman who is an orphan and had not eaten for some days. It was sad. This is the reality of the situation here even as the government fights the pandemic.  Last night I was alerted of a woman who had just given birth through a Caesarean section and had been battered by her husband until the wound had re-opened. We had to make arrangements to take her to hospital”.  She explained.

The situation is desperate. It is dire for women suffering terminal illness and even for pregnant women. If labor pains come in the night or there are complications, it becomes a huge challenge in the curfew.

“There is one of our women who had to go to the hospital for her ante-natal clinic but delayed in coming back because of lack of transport and she had to walk a long distance. She was afraid to come through to Kibera because of the viscous and violent road-blocks mounted by police who have total disregard of such cases. Because of her fear, she sought help from an operating Fuel Station.  They felt sorry for her and allowed her to spend the night inside one of the parked vehicles in the station until morning after the curfew before she could go home.  It is a desperate situation”.

For Kibera residents, with a history of violence and riots where police are called in to quell tensions from time to time, a curfew for most women also means the possibilities of sexual violence meted out on women and girls either by gangs in defiance of the curfew or even the security apparatus themselves.

With the cases of gender-based violence increasing there is also the specific need for access to contraception and sanitary products for women and girls caught up in the lockdown.  Editor and her group the FRPJC have taken it upon themselves to advocating for access and provision of contraception for women.  They are actively advocating for this.

They say that women have become extremely vulnerable to their spouses and partners especially now that there is a lockdown and curfew because their options to seek redress and seek safety have become more limited.   Those who need to access contraception and other medical services are also constrained because of the new reality that makes movement within a specific time quiet challenging.  This and the fact that fear and apprehension amidst the uncertainty of this pandemic has increased their vulnerability.

Just a few hours before this story was filled, Editar reported her frustrations at what she terms as injustice on female-headed households where landlords are evicting women and their children from their houses for lack of payment of rent.  Because of the presiding situation, it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to foot their regular bills including paying rent.  It is however quite risky for a woman with four small children to be thrown out to the streets amidst the insecurities and current harsh weather during this pandemic.  This is yet another challenge that Editar and her team are desperately trying to address.

“The reality of the matter is that this pandemic heavily affects women and girls. The suffering is beyond comprehension and the needs are diverse and extremely urgent because it involves lives.  It will be counter-productive for us to only focus on the prevention measures of wearing masks and washing hands without specifically looking at how women and girls are suffering.  We must urgently intervene for them”.

Written by Mildred Ngesa, Head of Communications at FEMNET

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