The power of women organizing – Kenya at a crossroad that can change access to justice as we know it in Africa.

UN WOMEN estimates that 1 in every 3 women has experienced gender-based violence at least once in their life. According to the 2022 Kenya Demographic Health Survey, 34% of women have experienced physical violence in their lives, and 15% have undergone FGM. UNWOMEN further asserts that the rate of child marriages in Kenya is 22.9%. According to a recent status report by Kenya’s Generation Equality secretariat, the country has only 54 functional GBV shelters in 18 out of the 47 countries – of which only 2 are government-run. While the president of Kenya is on record committing to improving the financing of GBV prevention and response, very little has been felt at the community level. It is up to the women in the different communities to support themselves.

Sauti ya Wanawake sensitization meeting on GBV. Photo Credits: ActionAid Kenya

Sauti Wanawake (women’s voices) is a national movement of phenomenal women in Kenya who, after being fed up with the gross social injustice women in their communities faced, decided to come together and fight for social justice. The movement is currently at its peak, boasting of high membership, high community rating and support from development partners, including ActionAid Kenya. The Magarini chapter (Sauti Wanawake- Magarini sub-county) was formed in 2011 with just 19 members – as it grew and defined itself, it was registered in 2013 as a Community-Based Organization (CBO) with the help of ActionAid Kenya. 10 years later, the CBO now boasts a membership of 1900 women in the Magarini sub-county, contributing to an equally massive national membership under the flagship movement. Their interventions are rooted in their dedication to defending the rights of women and children through awareness raising and facilitating access to justice by survivors of violence.

Accessing justice in their community is by no means a walk in the park. By virtue of Magarini’s distance from key public services such as health care facilities, police stations and courts of law, survivors of violence in the community are often demotivated to seek justice. Women of Sauti Wanawake volunteer their time and sometimes material resources to accompany survivors in their journeys to access these critical services that are over 10km away via a bodaboda (motorcycle public transport) or a matatu (vehicle public transport). In instances where cases are further referred to the courts, the distance traveled triples as the nearest court is in Malindi, 30km from Magarini Centre. In many cases, the survivor of violence will not have adequate funds for transport to Malindi hence, Sauti Wanawake provides for these trips – a cost that can disappear if the Kenyan government invests in mobile courts or builds more localized court houses.

In addition to these structural challenges to accessing justice, the COVID-19 pandemic further negatively impacted communities as they saw increased domestic violence and child abuse cases. For example, during the lockdown period, child abuse cases rose, and it was not uncommon for children as young as 9 years old to fall pregnant in this sub-county. Members of Sauti Wanawake had to work twice as hard to fight abuse using innovative ways, such as taking in survivors of sexual abuse until they received support from the government system. Their resolute stance and fearlessness, even in the face of a pandemic, earned them respect within the sub-county as they proved to be a dependable pillar of support for survivors of violence as well as unwavering advocacy for strengthening the referral system for survivors of violence.

While ActionAid Kenya supports them in securing funding and engaging in income-generating projects to sustain their interventions, the demand is far greater than the resources available and goes beyond development aid. Sauti Wanawake – Magarini sub-county has a strong advocacy component that is pushing for a publicly funded social protection program from the Kenyan government. An innovative blend of donor financing, income generation and advocacy for gender responsive public services is what keeps Sauti Wanawake functional, providing a wholistic approach to advocacy for women’s rights at the community level.

Through ActionAid, the women have been empowered on various participatory methodologies and skills in Economic Literacy, Budgeting, accountability, and governance. This has enabled the women to attend budget making processes to demand for government to prioritize funding for the provision of gender responsive public services. The movement has grown organically and proven that it is unshakable as they are sustaining their operation beyond donor support and pushing for publicly funded social protection programs for the domestic and child abuse challenge in their community.

By virtue of its nature, Social Protection is a public good and, therefore, requires government intentionality for its operationalization. The Kenyan economy is ranked 3rd in Africa with a GDP of US$118 billion. Key economic drivers are agriculture (tea, coffee, flowers) and tourism, where women provide the majority of both paid and unpaid labour. It is only fair that their contribution to this great economy be recognized through providing public services that work for them.

 Sauti Ya Wanawake members in Marafa, Magarini Kilifi County. Photo Credits: ActionAid Kenya

The situation presented now has all the conditions for the sub-county leadership to take advantage of and provide the much-needed social security financing for a flagship referral system that could serve as a lighthouse for other African countries to follow. The world, including Kenya, is on a build-back better agenda post covid, Kenya has a recently elected government that should show beyond any reasonable doubt that Kenya voted wisely by voting for them and, most importantly, an enlightened and supportive community of women that wants to see the end of domestic violence and child abuse.

Author: Rumbidzayi Makoni, ActionAid.  Edited by Lina Moraa and Ezra Kiriago, ActionAid Kenya

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