Wednesday, August 18, 2010
Poor Women Beset On All Sides By Violence
"My daughter had repeatedly tried to describe to me what her step-father would do to her when I was not home," says Wanza*, a 28-year-old mother resident of Nairobi's Mathare slum. "On this particular night I pretended to be asleep and watched as he left our bed and went for my eight-year-old daughter."
Sexual violence is endemic in Nairobi's slums, says Michael Njuguna. He works in a gender-based violence clinic run by humanitarian group Médécins Sans Frontières in Mathare.
The majority of the victims are children and women; the perpetrators of violence almost invariably men, frequently well-known to their victims.
"In Kenyan slums, the way of life is weighing down on most of the men who are breadwinners in their families," says Alfred Makabira, national secretary of Men for Gender Equality Now.
"And when they realise they cannot live up to societal demands, they become frustrated and vent it on the next person which is often the women and children in their lives."
Boys from a young age learn to believe that violence is part of being manly, Makabira says; both genders are also socialised to believe that women are property of men.
Drug and alcohol abuse - especially of traditional brews - contribute further to the high levels of violence in the informal settlements.
The geography of the slums amplifies gender inequality. A July 2010 report by Amnesty International, "Insecurity and Indignity: Women's Experiences in the Slums of Nairobi", draws attention to how the lack of basic amenities such as toilets and bathrooms, exposes women and children to danger when they venture out to use communal facilities.
When night falls, the 100 or 300 metres to the nearest latrine are charged with danger.
"We had just finished having dinner and it was about 7.30 pm when my eight-year-old son left our one-roomed home to go and relieve himself. Within minutes, a neighbour knocked on my door and asked me to go and fetch my son who had been sodomised by another neighbour," Mathare resident, Irene* told IPS.
Fear of assault is one of the reasons residents resort to relieving themselves in plastic bags, which they then dispose of in the open - the infamous flying toilets of Nairobi. Many women recount the indignity of relieving themselves or bathing in a single room shared with other family members.
But the women also said that the greatest threat of violence came from within their own homes. Watching horrified from her bed, Wanza chose silence over reporting the crime of the father of her two other children.
"I lay there recoiling in disgust, hurt and betrayal and watched the man whom I call husband, rape my daughter. It was the most painful ordeal… but I was powerless because he is the sole bread-winner in the home."
In addition to often being economically dependent on the men who assault them, poor women in Nairobi say there is little or no police presence in the slums, and they do not believe rape survivors will get any justice from the legal system. And so many remain silent, for fear of reprisals by perpetrators.
Improved policing is among the principal recommendations by Amnesty International.
To help victims of crime seek justice, the report also recommends improving awareness through civic education on legal rights and provision of legal aid to support women seeking justice. The government is also urged to institute measures - including speedy attention - that will improve the confidence of the people in the justice system and policing so that it is easier to report crimes.
Observers acknowledge that economic independence for women is key to addressing gender-based violence, underlining the importance of reducing poverty through improved access to education, jobs, credit for women's businesses.
For MEGEN's Alfred Makabira, there is a need to change society’s attitude by transforming the understanding of gender roles.
"The central idea is to educate boys from the earliest age that violence against anyone is wrong, and that the traditional definition of what makes a ‘man’ in society is not the only alternative, and that even though they are physically different, girls are entitled to the same rights and opportunities as men," Makabira says.
He says this can be achieved through both genders working on awareness creation and education which will change the mindset and promote values that encourage communication and equality between men and women.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Violence against women is a worldwide yet still hidden problem. Freedom from the threat of harassment, battering, and sexual assault is a concept that most of us have a hard time imagining because violence is such a deep part of our cultures and lives.