The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been devastating. In this documentary we feature untold stories of the lived experiences of women working in the horticulture sector in Kenya and ways some farm management are responding, coping and recalibrating amidst the uncertainties. Since 2017, FEMNET in partnership with Hivos have been implementing the Women@Work Campaign with an aim to empower women working in the horticultural sector and advance decent work. Through various interventions in pilot farms in Kenya, FEMNET has been enhancing the leadership capacities of women and men leading committees and trade unions, by equipping them with necessary skills to influence individual and workplace decisions. FEMNET has also been supporting farm management to review and adopt gender-responsive policies and practices as well lobbying for gender equality and decent work at national, regional and international policy spaces. Watch here
BY MAY 24, 2020
It is no longer business as usual for women at work in flower farms as production slows to about 30 percent and hundreds of thousands of workers are laid off. COVID-19 pandemic is having its share of pain on women workers. Read More
Everything is a story and every one of us has a story inside of us waiting to be told. FEMNET continues to stand in solidarity with teenage girls across Africa and offers a brave space for African girls especially teenage girls to share their unique stories of joy, proud moments, heartaches and hurts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this brave space teenage girls echo the wise words of Maya Angelou “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you”
In pursuit of ensuring that teenage girls have their agency, FEMNET conducted interviews with various teenage girls to find how they have been affected by the pandemic, whether they are managing to continue with their studies and the self-care techniques they have adapted to cope. These are personal stories highlighting teenage girls’ activism, optimism and reflections in the midst of a deadly pandemic. Read their insightful and inspirational experiences below:
Meet Maimuna from Kenya. She has been terrified by COVID-19. Many girls don’t really know if they will go back to school any time soon. She is sad and scared due to the high rate of death happening each day. During this season, Maimuna does not go outside so she keeps herself busy through online learning. Due to the lockdown, Maimuna has been close to her family than before. She misses learning in a classroom set up and interacting with her friends. Her message to other teenage girls is “Everything is going to be okay. Abide by the government directives, maintain good hygiene and stay indoors. Use social media for communication”.
Kate Faraj from Liberia has been feeling frustrated and bored because of the coronavirus pandemic. She misses going to school and church. She has been keeping herself occupied by raising awareness about COVID-19 in her community through an initiative called “Girls Ending COVID-19”. However, her efforts are limited because she has to be home by 3:00pm to catch up with her studies. One of Kates’s achievements during this season is being recognized in Liberia as a result of “Girls Ending COVID-19” awareness campaign. Some new lessons that Kate is carrying in the future are: unity is strength and honesty pays. She believes that it is important to be hard-working at home, at school and most of all in the society. Her message to the world is “stay safe, stay at home and follow all preventive measures. Together we can fight and conquer COVID-19”.
Jennifer Gatheca from Tanzania shares how on one hand she has experienced a lot of happiness when having fun with her family and on the other hand she has experienced sadness when she misses her friends and her usual routine. At times she is even frustrated with online classes and learning from home. Sometimes she is stunned. The pandemic has provoked thoughts of how everything can change overnight. Jennifer never got to say goodbye to her friends because she thought she would see them the next day. She has been busy with classes, following her usual school timetable and attending online conference calls with her teachers and peers. She also spends time reading her favourite novels, working on assignments and watching movies. One positive thing that has happened to Jennifer during this season is understanding the importance of being grateful. She is grateful that she used to go to school, having a family and friends who care for her and simply a person to laugh with and share good times together. Grateful for having a home and food especially during this pandemic. Jennifer says she appreciates even the slightest things she has that other people are not privileged to have. When the pandemic is over Jennifer wants to continue being grateful even for every hug or handshake that she shares with her friends. Her greatest achievement in this season is being part of the Pan African Women and Girls COVID-19 Response group led by FEMNET. Some habits she will carry along in the future is the concept of always keeping her hands clean and avoiding to touch her face. This because she believes that even though the virus might be under control by then, it will still be very important to maintain hygiene. Her message to the world and other teenage girls is “always be grateful in everything. I understand that at times we may forget, which is completely okay, but I think what is really important is always finding a way back to being grateful, knowing and understanding who we are and where we came from and where we are going which is quite unknown to us. I believe it’s important to be grateful because it is worthwhile to appreciate the slightest of things leading to happiness! Also remember it is not enough to want to make a change, you must initiate the journey towards it” Follow Jennifer on twitter: @jennifergatheca
When the COVID-19 pandemic was reported in her country Algeria, Besma Arbaoui was sure that it was going to be hard for the government, citizens and the healthcare system. However, she believes that if people remain optimistic and observe self-quarantine they will survive. Besma has been enjoying quality time with her family, helping people to stay positive, studying and volunteering even though it is a bit challenging. The good thing is she got a chance to start online pre-med school courses in readiness of joining school of medicine next year. She has also become a good cook, a social media influencer and writer. Bessma is proud to be connecting with great female leaders and having good time with family during this season. She is happy to be staying at home although she misses the kids and colleagues she works with as a volunteer. Her message to all girls is “Keep up, we can make our voice heard even from home and heal the world”. Follow her on Instagram: Katiaxrb and Facebook: Bessma Katia RB
Michelle Gwaikolo from Liberia has been feeling empathetic for the millions of people suffering today because of the novel Coronavirus pandemic. In her words the pandemic has been “terrorizing the entire world”. She continues to witness thousands of Liberians who don’t have the means to support themselves and their families during lockdown. Michelle is the founder of “Girls Ending COVID-19” a campaign that seeks to enlighten her community about the coronavirus pandemic. She does this in partnership with two other teenage girls and together they have been helping other teenagers and elders to maintain safety precautions against coronavirus. Michelle has made it her obligation to raise awareness about coronavirus by dedicating two days per week to do this. Along with her friends she has reached many communities and she is happy to be influencing her country in this time of need. Michelle has experienced a lot of positive things in this season including receiving positive remarks from the community around her. Her low moments during this lockdown was dropping out of school and the closing down of her church. However, she has learnt that working as a team helps in coping with whatever difficulties a person may face. Follow her on Instagram: Michelle16gwaikolo and Facebook: Michelle Gwaikolo
Yvonne Evy is from Uganda but she lives in Nairobi, Kenya with her family. She has been experiencing mixed feelings. On one had she is happy to be at home but on the other hand she misses physical interactions with friends at school. Her daily routine starts at 7.00am. By 8:00 am she begins online classes till 3.00pm. After classes, she takes time to do school assignments, go out for a walk in the evening, watching movies, catching up with friends, helping with house chores and sleeping. She has been able to connect with a lot of people whom she had not talked to for years and bond more with her family. Sadly, she lost a family member during the lock down. It was a sudden death and a traumatizing experience especially due to the travel restrictions. It was difficult for her family to maintain social distancing and be emotionally strong. Fortunately, Yvonne has maintained high productivity levels and she is always getting things done. “I’m proud of that” she emphasized. During the lockdown, she has been able to engage with other adolescent girls from organisations such as Polycom Development in Kibera, Kenya. She is also in touch with 13 girls who participated in ICPD25 summit, her former classmates and a few close friends who are studying in foreign countries. Through social media (WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram) they share views and experiences about the effects of the pandemic. Her key highlight during this deadly pandemic is when she successfully passed her mock exams which she did online. In addition, she has increased her knowledge and awareness on COVID-19. She encourages other adolescent girls to use the internet to develop new life skills. Her message to all teenage girls is “treasure and cherish each and every moment as if it is your last chance because no one knows what can happen at any moment. Be patient with others and lend a helping hand where needed. Keep a positive spirit at all times and follow the all safety procedures.” Follow her on twitter @yvonne_evy and Instagram @yvo_ev
Yvonne from Kenya is little stressed but she is managing. School has been keeping her relatively busy. As a result of online learning, her computer skills have improved significantly. Other than that, she has been taking time to explore new skills. She enjoys having more time to read, something she had missed.
Being away from all her friends has been difficult. “Being separated from them is probably the worst thing about this pandemic” she said. Her advice to other teenage girls is “don’t force productivity on yourself or convince yourself that you have make a lot of significant achievements with all this extra time. In addition, you don’t have to lose weight or become an expert in something new unless you want to. Take time to relax, spend time with your family and yourself.”
Laura from Kenya has been feeling sad for those who have lost their loved ones during the pandemic. She often wakes up quite late and this has affected her daily routine. She has been procrastinating a lot hence submitting her assignments late. She is intentionally spending more time cooking hence refining her hobby of cooking and trying to come up with new recipes. She also watches YouTube videos and still discovering other things that she is passionate about. She has also been intentional in establishing a closer relationship with her siblings.
Her message to all girls is “let us embrace optimism and use the opportunity to establish bonds amongst us. This pandemic is just temporary. It will soon wither away. During this season let us better ourselves and reflect hence have peace of heart, soul and spirit”.
Gloria from Kenya has been trying to adapt to the new normal. She spends time studying and learning new skills. She now has plenty of time to focus more on her studies as well as engage in some fun activities she likes to do during the holidays.
However, Gloria finds it stressful not being able to freely go out and socialise with her friends. Her message to the world is “stay strong, stay safe. Once this season is over, never let your guard down and do not allow yourself to get carried away by the material things in this world”.
Neema Ngesa from Kenya has been feeling many things – frustration, boredom, sadness but at times happy. Since the closure of all schools in Kenya as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, Neema has been doing a lot of art because art helps her keep calm. “I LOVE art” she emphasizes. She has established a daily routine of waking up to make herself breakfast. Sometimes she spends time rearranging her room over and over, watching or making tik toks videos, drawing, painting and working on her school assignments. She pointed out that her artistic skills have improved to the extent that her mother supported her to get a personal tik tok account so that she can be sharing her art work videos online.
Neema shares one of low moment during this pandemic “I have lost many friends during this lockdown only because people started showing their true colours. Well I guess people never change, its only that the mask fell off. I have then learnt to be true to myself”. She has taken time to enhance various skills and reflect. So far, she has achieved her goal in learning how to make over ten foreign dishes. “I’m quite proud of myself”. She has learnt that God is her best friend and giving up is not an option and believing in yourself is all that it takes. She really likes sharing her experience because it helps her go back and look at how she has been fairing on during the on-going quarantine and discover that she can do much more to keep herself calm and sane. Her parting shots to fellow teenage girls “always be yourself, if you are not yourself around someone that person is not and never will be your friend”. Follow @_.artandcat._ tiktok to see her art work
Compiled by Esther Nyawira, Project Lead for Young Women and Teenage Girls, FEMNET
Hope Chigudu (HC): Wake up RC and service your vehicle known as your body. It is the only one you have; once it gets grounded or overloaded, it will not serve you maximally. Your vehicle enables you to do everything including your activist work; it is your medium and hope. Servicing your vehicle is extremely important especially now when we are living in a harsh terrain and your vehicle has to cross rivers of volatile rapids and deep whirlpools. It has to navigate twists and turns of transitions and disruptions, the corona virus is just one of them. The vehicle needs to be extremely strong and remain in good repair; on top of other responsibilities, it has to continue puncturing the huge tyres of a trailer known as patriarchy.
Rudo Chigudu (RC): Your poetic language is beautiful but why have you chosen to harass me today, of all days?
HC: Now, more than ever, we must pay attention to the vehicle. Doing so on a normal day has been a challenge for you and for many others; imagine trying to protect your emotional health amid a global pandemic. Well, we are in this together and for now, this is our new normal. Today is the time to come together, build a community supported by rituals, and do our best to support and uplift one another, daily.
RC: Rituals? I associate rituals with pagans and indigenous communities.
HC: And what are you if I may ask? Were you imported from heaven? Colonialism built its house on your brain! Healing, rituals and community-these three elements are vitally linked. Community is important because human beings are collectively oriented. The general health and well-being of an individual are connected to a community and are not something that can be maintained alone or in a vacuum. I am talking about the gathering of people with a clear healing and wellbeing vision. Some of the problems experienced in some countries; (which I won’t mention) from the pain of isolation to the stress of hyperactivity are brought on by the loss of community.
RC: Seriously HC, I was taught that the word ritual refers to some sort of dark, pagan and archaic practice that has no place in modern society. As far as I know, the only accepted ritual is what we see in the Sunday church service of organised religions.
HC: When I talk about rituals in this conversation, I am talking about something much deeper. As much as our bodies require food for nourishment, our souls and spirits require rituals to stay whole. Without the spirit being nourished in us, the body pays for the consequences. Rituals are also necessary because there are certain problems that cannot be resolved with words alone. For example, the pain of abuse that someone carries within, the trauma of unfilled dreams and the sorrow of loss are not the kind of feelings that go away easily over time. Whether we deny them or not, they remain as part of the weight that keeps our bodies tensed and our spirits constricted. When they are addressed in rituals, we get the chance to heal them.
RC: Am a private person, why would I want to be part of a community and expose myself?
HC: Expose yourself to what? Being in a community leads to a health sense of belonging, better distribution of resources, a greater generosity and awareness of the needs of the self and others. In a community, the needs of one are the needs of many. In this way, being part of a strong community strengthens one’s individuality by supporting the expression and enjoyment of one’s unique gifts and talents. A community can flourish and survive only if each member flourishes living in the full potential of her purpose. So in a way, when you take care of your vehicle and I take care of mine, we are both bound to benefit.
RC: I am not convinced that a community is important.
HC: I won’t convince you if you don’t want to be. But let me share this information with you. In my culture, when women wanted to make pots, they would sit together in a circle and sing until they were in some sort of ecstatic place, and it’s from that place that they would begin moulding the clay. It is like the knowledge of making their pots is not in their brains but in their collective energy. The product became an extension of the collective energy of their circle. The product of their work, the pots, embodies the intimacy and wholeness experienced by the women over the course of the day. They understood that it was important to reach that place of wholeness before they could bring something out of it. I think that you know that farming worked the same way in many cultures. In short the point was not just to get the work done but to feel nourished by it. So RC, keep yourself plugged in friendship circles or in a community of people who share your well- being values.
RC: Taking care of my vehicle is on the list things to do. But for now, I have reports that I am finalising, am fundraising for my organisation, Healing, ritual and community-these three elements are vitally linked. Our organisational clients are asking me for help, I have demanding bosses and impossible work schedules, bills that continue to pile up regardless of how much I save, drama with my family and friends that seem to never end, and the challenge of raising children. Then there are all the other million stressors I encounter every day; sometimes I feel as if I am holding my hand over a burning candle…
HC: Set boundaries because if you don’t stop and take care of yourself, the candle will surely burn not just your hand but the whole body. This is why it makes sense to strengthen your body’s ability to support you no matter the situation. You have been procrastinating on servicing your vehicle for the past three months. Why? Did I not see a sticker stuck on the area around your navel, the seat of power, (solar plexus) that says; ‘exercise your will everyday’. Why do you put stickers on your body if they mean nothing to you? Go read the sticker again and it should remind you that will is the means by which we overcome inertia; it’s the special spark that ignites the flames of our power. Filling our emotional reserves takes intentional effort.
RC: Tomorrow I’ll go to a sports store and buy a funky, gym sportswear. Then I’ll start exercising.
HC: You always talk to rural women about harnessing their power for their own self-empowerment. Yet here you are failing to harness yours. Let me remind you that personal power without will is limited. Will is the combination of mind and action, the conscious direction of desire, the means through which we create our future. It is through daring to use our will that a stronger sense of self is born and through that strength, the will is further developed. Like a muscle, we can’t strengthen our will without exercising it. It serves us better when we exercise it wisely.
RC: Are you saying I am not empowered just because I am too busy to service what you are calling my vehicle. I have plans of doing so, I keep telling you. How do you expect me to go outside during this rainy season?
HC: You keep buying gym clothes. When will you have enough? Its work, its rain, you have overeaten and fear bursting, the gym instructor is sweaty…the list continues to grow longer. Who says there is one way of servicing your vehicle? The vehicle has many parts; emotional, physical, spiritual, intellectual, psychological; they all need to be well for the vehicle to function smoothly. Just as there are many parts of the vehicle (body), there are many ways of servicing it
RC: Why are you taking me on a guilty trip as if I don’t know what you are talking about? Servicing my vehicle or self-care is one of the things I prioritised two months ago, when I was in Ghana, attending a feminist retreat called Flourish, organised by the African Women Development Fund (AWDF). I even created my well-being ‘passport’ which sits comfortably in my bedside drawer. I will retrieve it when the time comes. During the retreat we were told that self-care is a political act. I am an empowered feminist, very political, the power within me shines bright, and it can burn you. Go away. It’s my body, I I’ll take of it.
HC: You can send me away but you can’t send away your body. It’s your body alright but when you are not well, we all suffer. You go around with your mouth wide open looking for someone to devour. A small comment makes you curse every feminist in the world. You get into depression and expect all of us to be depressed with you. You accuse us of not caring. How many times have I heard you say, ‘I have given up on the feminist movement, sisters don’t care…women pull each other down … no one has visited me’, yet when I come to you in the spirit of sisterhood, you dismiss me without like a dog dismissing money.
RC: Let me confess, I have turned my shame into anger. I have been creating one excuse after another until I believed them. I make many plans, they are sitting in my head; I can visualise and almost touch them today but come tomorrow, nothing happens. I procrastinate. I postpone, and I wait. If it’s walking, I pray for rain. There are times when I have pleaded with the goddess to make the day shorter so that I have a legitimate reason for not doing that which I planned to do. When its yoga time, I lie down and pray to the universe to lift my legs. My part of the body that stores the spark of enthusiasm, that which ignites fire needs to be activated. I am convinced that the fire of my will is not strong enough to propel me forward, and to liberate me from fixed patterns so that I can create new behaviour. I have failed to take strong, difficult, and challenging actions related to my mental health and my wellbeing, so that I can move towards something new.
HC: Don’t despair. Power within is an openness to the flow of power around us, and our wills wrap themselves around our purpose gracefully when these powers are aligned. Once we know our will, we should return to the practical level, how do we effectively exercise it?
First, we need to carry out a scan and identify those things that unground us, find ways of replacing them with those that ground us. Without grounding we are not plugged in, we do not have the force of the liberating current running through us. We are more easily pushed around, often responding to other’s wills or spending our time castigating other people as if they control our lives.
If you treat me well, I’ll share some of the strategies for strengthening your vehicle. Don’t look at me as if am about to order you to carry Kilimanjaro mountain. The strategies are not difficult. I’m not going to ask you to live like a monk, buy a new house on top of a mountain top, stand on your head or on one leg for 20 minutes, completely cut yourself off from society and meditate 12 hours a day. No, the strategies are easier. Listen to your soul, listen genuinely, it knows what your body needs.
For starters, join a community of believers. But for today, we are going to look at your wellbeing ‘passport’ and implement at least one thing. Even if it is just a gentle walk around your house.
Note: RC exists but in this case, she is most of us
The Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has disrupted people’s way of life across the world, since the virus was discovered in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. Women are not spared from this crisis given the reproductive roles they undertake in their families with limited support from the state especially in Sub Saharan Africa, Zimbabwe included. The crisis has negatively impacted on women in mining communities given the already existing inequalities between women and men in mine affected communities.
The shutdown has negatively affected women’s ability to sustain their families during this crisis, as they are supposed to stay indoors in order to curb the spread of COVID-19. Media reports have reported recently that whilst is expected for everyone to stay indoors, the majority of women in the informal sector, have constantly defied this directive and continued to engage in the sale of their goods, being aware of the risks that they take ,in the event that they get caught by the state security agencies.
Zimbabwe, like any other African country, has ‘progressive’ gender equality policies and laws in place, though their implementation is yet to be realized in the context of COVID-19. An analysis of the gender composition of the National Taskforce on COVID-19 is an indication that Zimbabwe needs to put its aspirations into practice. A fifth of the National Taskforce consist of women political leaders in the cabinet, with no representation from the Ministry of Women Affairs, Community and Small and Medium Enterprises. Yet during a crisis, leadership within national gender machineries needs to be visible in order to ensure that the needs of women are adequately addressed by policy makers.
Human rights instruments and agreements such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW),Beijing Declaration, Sustainable Development Goals, the African Union Agenda 2063, the African Union Maputo Protocol and the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, emphasize the need for prioritizing women’s rights agenda in key interventions aimed at restoring the dignity of humanity. It is during crises such as COVID-19 that calls for authentic leadership across the continent that puts the above stated policies into action, to ensure that marginalized women, especially those living in the rural areas have access to basic needs.
The Constitution, which contains the Bill of Rights, is the only document that protects the rights of women, especially during such trying times like these. Women living in mining communities, who the majority reside in rural areas, have limited access to basic water and sanitation, energy, health care and food, given the fact that mining communities have been greatly affected by the impact of drought due to climate change realities over the past few years.
Gender Based Violence (GBV) incidences have been on the increase since the shutdown was instituted by the government. The shutdown has further increased women’s vulnerabilities, given the limited alternative access to justice and remedy measures for survivors of GBV. These include counselling services, gender friendly shelters for the survivors and other forms of support.
Women’s right to basic health care is a nightmare during the COVID-19 shutdown, given the fact that women, including pregnant women will be denied access to basic reproductive health care. The plight of women living with and affected by HIV and women with disabilities will go unnoticed by policy makers, unless women in decision making processes at the national level put gender sensitive measures in place to ensure that the needs of the above group are taken care of.
It is ironic that women living in mining communities are the ones that are in great need, yet the natural resources extracted from underground by mining companies are supposed to contribute to relief efforts for women and their families. Nevertheless, member states must continue reminding the private sector, especially the mining companies, to contribute to the national COVID-19 relief efforts, starting at the local level where there is greater need.
Whilst the shutdown has disrupted the way of life for many citizens, the role of information technology cannot be underestimated as it bridges the communication gap, of which this is not possible in most mining communities. The current crisis calls for women in political leadership, to identify innovative ways of engaging with their constituencies, the majority being women, to ensure that current and prospective policies and statutes are gender sensitive and respond to their needs.
Women’s rights activists must strengthen their advocacy efforts on calling their governments to be transparent and accountable in the management of revenue from natural resources need to be prioritized in the current context, towards strengthening public health centers. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the state of public health systems in Africa, thus calling African states to fulfill its obligation towards allocating 15% or more towards strengthening the health budget as stated in the Abuja Declaration of 2001.
Cross learning among women’s rights activists across the continent is important in order to learn on how women encountered and responded to previous pandemics such as Ebola which took place between 2014 and 2015 in West Africa. It is critical for women’s rights activists to first take care of themselves, introspect everything and be bold enough to support other women in the communities. This is the time where women should be engaged in writing about their personal experiences and what women from the community are encountering. Such insights are important to fill in the policy and legal gaps identified at national, sub regional and continental level. Leadership is critical at times like these and African leaders need to stand up to the task, bearing in mind the need to uphold the dignity of women, in implementing COVID-19 preventative measures.
Written by Tafadzwa Muropa, Zimbabwe
Shirika lisilo la kiserikali limeanzisha campaign ya kuhamasisha jamii ili kusaidia wanawake wenye ulemavu na watoto wa kike katika kipindi hiki cha ugonjwa wa COVID-19.
Mkrugenzi wa Peace Life For People Disability Foundation, Sophia Mbeyela amesema wameanzisha kampeni inayoitwa “Tusimame Nao” ili jamii ijitokokeze kuchangia chochote na kuwapa mahitaji maalumu.
“Mara nyingi janga lolote lina potokea nchini au nchi nyingine wanawake na watoto wanaathirika sana naomba tusimame pamoja nao katika kipindi hiki cha Corona kwa changia kitu chochote,” amesema.
Anasema jamii isimuache mtoto wa kike wala mlemavu katika kipindi hiki cha ugonjwa hatari. “Kuna familia nyingi za watu wenye mahitaji maalumu. Katika kundi hili wanakosa hata sabuni ambayo wewe unayo. Hakuna mwingine wa kuwasaidia ila ni jukumu langu mimi na wewe tuungane pamoja katika hili mchango wako utaokoa maisha ya wengine. Jilinde na uwalinde wengine”, amesema.
Imeandikwa na Hellen Nachilongo, (23 April 2020) – Dar es Salaam
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”
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
My name is Marie, a final year student in college. I began my academic year with all hopes that by this time I would be finalizing my revisions and preparations for the end of year exams. If only someone could have alerted me that the anxiously awaited 3rd term would be interrupted with restrictions to mobility and my daily commute to school and library will be curtailed. I am worried and concerned about the life of students like me in my community who rely on college library for empowerment and education.
My name is Samira, a young woman and medical student working with the elderly and persons with disability particularly women and girls. Each day I check and keep in touch with all these people, many of whom are vulnerable and susceptible to COVID19.Though it feels very scary knowing that the virus doesn’t distinguish between caregiver and care receiver. I continue to stay hopeful for the safety and health of all my patients including women and girls in need of reproductive services and care.
My name is Jordan. My observation and experience in the early weeks of the #CoronavirusLockdown in #Cameroon is that while some people took the preventive measures very serious, others overlooked some of the recommendations such as physical distancing in the public. Forgetting that coronavirus doesn’t discriminate in its attack. It doesn’t look at class, status, gender, sex or age. Though, it’s most likely that COVID19 is highly felt among the poor population because of their lifestyle and overcrowded environments. In addition, poor people, especially girls from poor families must be extra careful & given special attention at times like these.
I am Kinkoh Raissa. COVID 19 has caused a lot of changes in my community. I see many women, especially single mothers who work in sales, marketing and hair dressing having difficult to make a living these days. The #CoronavirusLockdown has caused scarcity and upsurge of prices of essential commodities. There is limited accessibility and availability of sanitary pads in most rural communities which now forces some girls to use their used clothes as sanitary pads while using some for facial masks.
My name is Sakinatou. When news around COVID19 pandemic broke, many of us in the Muslim community never imagined that there will come a time where there is total lockdown. We only began to understand the intensity when mosques in Saudi Arabia were closed. That is when some of our people started accepting that there is a disease because since creation no mosque in Saudi Arabia has ever been locked up. We faced the challenge of incorrect/false information. It became difficult to decipher the right information from wrong. Such disinformation is dangerous for a child who rely on education from their elders.