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Have you ever thought of what is meant by ‘improving the quality of life’ of a people?

Well, take a journey with me, into the realm of my country, where the 2009 Long Rains have failed. This drought is the worst since 2000. 1 in every 10 (over 3.8 million Kenyans) is in need of food aid until the next harvest (World Food Programme –WFP, 2009). Many have resorted to more and more desperate survival strategies: pulling children out of school to work or beg for foods, eating just one meal a day; name it, they are doing it! The World Food Programme (WFP) is just one among several humanitarian partners working with the government to provide food assistance to 3.8 million Kenyans.

Worse, high food prices have also taken their toll on us. An in-country shortage saw maize (the staple food) prices in September 2009 were at 100 to 130 percent above the normal rates. To address the deteriorating situation, WFP has expanded its school meals programme to reach nearly 1.2 million children in Kenya.
Kenya is a low-income, food-deficit country with a GDP per capita of US$1,240 (2007 World Bank). The 2007 UNDP Human Development Report ranked Kenya among the “medium human development” countries of the world, placing it 148th out of 177 countries. More specifically, 1 in every 2 Kenyans lives below the poverty line. Ironically, 10 percent of the richest households control more than 42 percent of the incomes, while the poorest 10 percent control only 0.76 percent. 50 percent (1 in every 2 Kenyans) are living below the poverty line (UNDP, 2007). The number of those living in abject poverty is rising every day. They include Kenyans with no access to healthcare, water and proper nutrition and sanitation.

Economic injustices against the woman of Kenya

“…Heavy smoke is rising from the ground and a horrible stench fills the air. More people are streaming up the hill, some of them with firewood and maize stalks. Suddenly an old woman breaks from the crowd, screaming for mercy. Three or four people go after her, beat her and drag her back, pushing her onto - what I can now see - is a raging fire… the lynching of people accused of being witches…I personally saw the burning alive of five elderly men and women in Itii village (in the fertile lands of Kisii district)… As a stranger I felt I had no choice but to stand by and watch. My fear was that if I showed any sign of disapproval, or made any false move, the angry mob could turn on me.” Odhiambo Joseph of BBC News, Kenya recently reported.
“…Suspects were found in possession of property and livestock belonging to some of the victims and will be tried for violent robbery…” deputy police spokesman said. My take is that witch lynching, which has gained popularity in Kisii District is simply put- a scapegoat. The victims, who are mostly children and elderly widows, are burnt alive by greedy relatives with the intent to enrich themselves. This is property theft!
The height of poverty and food insecurity also soars in urban slums and among pastoralists and farmers in remote, arid and semi-arid lands (among the rural poor), which comprise 80 percent of Kenya’s land mass. Most of the working poor are in the informal economy. More than half of them are women and girls. Among these groups, women and girls are more marginalized, more so because of their gender roles, and inadequate access to control of resources. For most education is not a priority. “They provide labour in the plantations and households to subsidize the meager resources of their families.” (Ministry of Education. Gender policy in Education. Nairobi. July 2007).

A glimpse at the rural poor

According to a 2006 baseline survey report by Coalition on Violence against Women (COVAW, cultural and traditional practices such as parents preferring to educate boys over girls, contributes to underdevelopment of human resources in rural Taita Taveta District. Generally, girls in rural Kenya are forced into early marriages and thus denied access to education. Also, most women are illiterate (2001 statistics). As a result, women’s ability to respond to economic opportunities is constrained by their comparative lack of resources. Stored wealth like livestock or land is often in the hands of men. Women therefore have little control over cash income, thus remaining at the periphery of decision making in their homes.

One pastoralist area, Mukogodo in Laikipia District (North Eastern province), has the lowest levels of literacy. This is the poorest division in the District. As a result, women have poor access to ‘resources’ particularly land and livestock. Inheritance of property is the preserve of men. Women in the pastoralist ranches are not even registered in the group ranches and cannot make decisions on the sale of livestock, except goats! Among the neighbouring farming communities, women manage the farm while men herd.

Similarly, among the Maasai, who are nomadic pastoralists, men regard women as minors incapable of taking care of their own property without male supervision. Maasai men are largely unapologetic about the violence they inflict on women, airing from property ownership/ management disputes. When women break out of a traditional circle of property relations by owning and managing their property independent of male relatives, the men term them “prostitutes”.” They are not role models for our girls or wives”, laments one.

Ironically, elderly women attribute an improved status to the support they expect from their children, more specifically boys. “Boys are traditionally recognized as protectors of women, inheritors and managers of family property”, confirms one.

It is a sure thing that Violence against Women is getting worse for women, as they attempt to protect their property. I feel that in the traditional societies, rights of women had better chances of being protected. This is so because, within modern Law in Kenya, most women are unable to prove ownership of matrimonial property, which is often assumed to belong to the man. Maasai customary Law leaves women at the mercy of male relatives, failing to protect women’s property. Therefore, this alienation of women from their property through different culturally determined devises constitutes a major part of the violence that women continue to face.

A peek into the lives of the urban poor

45 percent of urban Kenyans live in slums (approx 13.5 million). About 52 percent of these are women and girls.
In Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, 60 percent of residents are slum-dwellers. One such slum is Kibera, East Africa’s largest slum, which houses about 1 million people (more than one quarter of Nairobi’s total population). A planned Kibera can only accommodate about 440,000. Houses are mainly characterized by a lack of basic services, illegal and inadequate housing (most are dilapidated shanties made of mud, carton paper or corrugated iron sheets), overcrowding, unhealthy and hazardous living conditions, and insecurity of tenure or property rights, poverty and social exclusion. The demographic trends here show a high population density 300,000 persons per hectare distributed over a mere 600 acres.

Rural poverty in Kenya, fuels rural-urban migrants to seek employment in urban Nairobi. But, they often end up in slums. The result is a multi-ethnic nature which has led to Kibera becoming a site of small ethnic conflicts throughout its near 100-year-history. A majority of the fast evolving population earn less than $ US 1 dollar per day.

Let’s visit a mother of four, living in a typical one roomed shanty sized 9 feet x 9 feet at Kibera. At her doorstep is an open sewer which one that one has to cross over, to enter her house. Its stench is suffocating. The pit latrines nearby, rarely cleaned, are often shared by hundreds of people. Inside, her shack is the living room, kitchen and bedroom shared by the household. I wonder how safe her girls are whenever she leaves them alone, to do some odd job!
With rape prevention tips, one is required to “always lock doors” or “not to open the door to strangers”. But, is this practical for a resident of Kibera where doors and walls are made of paper, mud or thin ply wood; or when you can clearly hear the sound of sneezing or that of a domestic row next door?

Estimates of HIV/AIDS prevalence in Kibera, range from 10-25 percent. Domestic violence, rape and physical assaults are a common part of life for women in Kibera. The women tell tales of how they are often treated as property and given little or no opportunity to make decisions regarding their lives or bodies. They lack resources and education to fend for themselves and their families. Some have had to drop out of school due to lack of fees. Others are statistics of early marriages. Without property or means, they remain voiceless in their homes, at the mercy of the claws of poverty and lack.

Further, wife (widow) inheritance is common in Kibera. A widow is expected to continue reproducing in order to maintain the legacy of her deceased husband. This requires her to engage in unprotected sex-for conception to take place. Protected sex or the use of a condom is not considered a fulfilment of the cultural requirement of inheritance. The practice denies women their right to sexual autonomy and sexual health, the right to property and the right to equitable inheritance. The rituals also involve a degree of exposure to STD’s and HIV/AIDS.

In most situations, the widow who refuses to be inherited is considered an outcast and a bad omen and is sent away from the community. Where a widow declares that she does not wish to be inherited, she is blamed for the death of her husband and accused of being disloyal and disrespectful to customs and to her in-laws. Such grounds are used to deny widows their property rights, and most of them are therefore disinherited and thrown out of their matrimonial homes.

A Future shock experience: the beginning of an end to 100 years in filth

Kibera remains the epitome of city politics. Its residents are restive, as was seen during Kenya’s Post Election Violence in 2007-2008, when the country plunged into absolute mayhem. Divisions along political lines began to emphasize divisions along cultural lines. A form of ethnic cleansing began to take place, pushing the country to the brink of civil war, which saw thousands brutally killed and hundreds of thousands injured, women and girls sexually violated and/or displaced.

But, this past September, at least 1,300 of them were moved to new blocks of flats under a slum-upgrading programme. The government provided trucks and workers to help the residents settle into their new homes, which they have dubbed `Canaan', the Promised Land. Is this the beginning of change?

However, most residents resisted moving into the new homes, clearly experiencing future shock- the premature arrival of the future! Previously, with the impending drought, women and girls had to travel long distances in search of water or resorted to using filthy water for domestic chores, and even drinking. Now, they have tapped water streaming into their homes. Land politics, aimed at perpetuating the status quo have met mixed reactions of landlords who what to remain relevant by continuing to exploit the poor. Gathering a few thousand shilling from each of the one million poor tenants of Kibera, must be enriching. But, they are despairing now! This will soon end, thanks to the ongoing $300,000 Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme (KENSUP) was mooted in 2000, and jointly funded by the government, UN HABITAT and the World Bank Cities Alliance.

"I can't believe I have left Kibera for good! My new home is so clean, we have a toilet inside the house; it is a dream come true," Pius Okello, 46, father of six, said.

Kenya’s Premier Hon. Raila Odinga, also the Member of Parliament for Langata, in which Kibera falls, participated in relocating the slum-dwellers to their new homes. “This is an initial step towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals," he assured.

The UN HABBITAT had this to say: "The objective of the programme is to improve the overall livelihoods of people living and working in slums through targeted interventions to address shelter, infrastructure services, land tenure and employment issues, as well as the impact of HIV/AIDS in slum settlements.”

Efforts by the women’s movement

Since women in Kenya are overwhelmingly the majority among the working poor in the informal economy, there is an increased need to position them to access opportunities, assets, skills and markets that enable their participation. Tremendous challenges remain, since the formal banking systems in Kenya has largely failed to meet the financial needs of poor, low-income and vulnerable women. However, the women’s movement is in the forefront in creating institutions that advance credit to women. One such firm is the Kenya Women’s Finance Trust (KWFT). The organisation supports over 100,000 women through the more that 64 of its centres countrywide. The method of lending is to individuals who are part of a group. Each individual member acts as guarantors for outstanding loans of another.

In addition, over the last number of years, Centre for rights Education and Awareness (CREAW) has been implementing community awareness/empowerment programmes in Kibera with a focus to end Sexual and gender-based violence. CREAW established networks with community members and disseminates information and materials on women human rights.

Further, in April this year, CREAW set up Outreach Centre in the slums and a pool of paralegals based at the community level. The paralegals who are residents of Kibera, are spread out throughout the corners of the slum, are working with CREAW to holds legal aid clinics which extend providing free legal advice and psychosocial support to women and youth.


Maria de Chirikof's picture

Wow, a powerful article

I loved reading your article, how it shows the depth of the peoples and the differences in rural and urban poor. I really loved reading how there is a lot of work going to help woman specifically, since that is a must but always so hard to accomplish it seems. I love hearing of the work of CREAW and that it is making a difference and love that it provides both free legal and psychosocial support for woman.

There was so much to absorb that I feel I will need to read it a few more times to take it all in, but think it was an excellent article. I can imagine it is a very hard struggle for woman there and love that you highlight it for us!

It is hard to imagine that statistic of 1 in 2 living below the poverty line, such a vast amount, and trying to picture solutions but you present them beautifully.

Great job!



stella Ndugire- Mbugua's picture

Hey girl... thanks so much

Hey girl...

thanks so much for the very thorough critique. your thoughts have made my final piece richer,



Stella Ndugire- Mbugua
ICS- Africa

dr edonna's picture

Yes, Double Wow

Both stories are powerful, it is hard for me to choose one. You have done a most excellent job on some hard stories to tell. It might be easier for people to stomach the second story vs. the first. It is hard to imagine Africans burning their elders. Sorry you had to witness that, that did you do with your emotions, feelings, trauma? Hope you were able to share them with someone, rather than carry it with you.

Most fabulous job!
Dr. Edonna

stella Ndugire- Mbugua's picture

thanks Doctor, Well, the

thanks Doctor,

Well, the situation in Kenya is not so good. I feel as though bad news is all the news we have. I often feel hopeless when i watch TV or read newspapers! the politics are even worse.

thanks for the input that has surely helped in the final piece....


Stella Ndugire- Mbugua
ICS- Africa

Nusrat Ara's picture

I was really disturbed by two

I was really disturbed by two things, witch burning and wife inheritance. Even today in this modern age we are so helpless.


I really woner about that BBC reporter. She must have gone through hell. she still might be suffering from trauma.


I know!! I had a live footage from the reporter, but i had to delete it. Its is really bad, and the situation is not getting better....
But this is Kenya for you...hoping for better days...


Stella Ndugire- Mbugua
ICS- Africa

Greta's picture

Dearest Stella,

Hello Again Stella,

Your article leaves me somewhat at a loss for words. It reminds us that we are still at the beginning stages of an uphill battle. The descriptions and circumstances you relay to the world thru this writing are tragic. I am here with the image of a tug of war, and imagine a water shed moment when all the efforts for change begin to pour over the landscape of so many global problems.

I was pulled into the article immediately with your lead in, and the way you framed the piece as a whole also was effective. Very descriptive, leaving a picture in the minds eye of a time and place that the world needs to see and not look away. Also, your use of "future shock" seemed so important to me. It really shows how change, even for the better, seems to be elusive to humanity.

I honor the work you are doing with CREAW and I admire your beautiful, caring spirit.


Ohhhh Greta...

You often make me tear. You have a way of exhorting me and lifting up my spirit. I feel as though I can always write cos you will be here to listen and encourage me. This journey would not be the same without your help and support.

Its people like you make me write more. Everything that is so common for me is such "news" for you, because its unfamiliar. I am so glad that I can write it out for you to have a glimpse at what is so familiar ordinary news for us in Kenya. I'm never shocked by anything nowadays....

Many blessings,


Stella Ndugire- Mbugua
ICS- Africa

Greta's picture

Hello Again Stella,

In reply, you often make me tear!

I was up in the middle of the night, worried about some of my own life circumstances, and I thought I would visit the women of VOF for strength and guidance. 3 AM looking at your photographs and reading your words. It is an absolutely amazing experience to interact with all of you. Your resolve, resilience, grace, willingness to meet life head on. You have provided me with a new compass.

I am sending over a few more thoughts privately about your story.

Many and all blessing to you,


stella Ndugire- Mbugua's picture

Thanks so much Greta, I'm

Thanks so much Greta,

I'm about to read your message....


Stella Ndugire- Mbugua
ICS- Africa

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