Over the last year I have been conducting interviews with activists around the world about their experiences of organising in the time of COVID-19. Here, I‘d like to share some of what I have learned from women activists in Nairobi — although it is striking how similar their stories have been to those whom I spoke to in India, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Brazil and elsewhere.
Usually when we speak of COVID-19, we tend to view it purely as a health problem created by a virus that is spreading rapidly. It’s an emergency that requires action from the government to ensure the safety of the people, and to provide a solution in the form of vaccines or other technical interventions.
But how is the pandemic experienced by those who live in the ghettos / barrios / slums / informal settlements, the sacrifice zones of our cities? For the women I spoke to, this isn’t just a health crisis; it is an exacerbation, an amplification of the inequalities, injustices, and repression that has been a part of daily life of the sacrifice zones. Even before COVID, they said, people were forced to live in crowded shacks where there is inadequate supply of water, often non-existent sewage services, poor access to healthcare and education, and a constant threat of violence from the police, landlords, and local authorities. Patriarchy dominates the settlement as it does the state. Violence against women is taken for granted, whether in the home, workplace or the street.
‘Things have only got worse since the lockdown. We’ve seen a growing number of cases of police brutality as well as of extrajudicial executions since COVID,’ Maryanne Kasina from Kayole told me. When the pandemic started, the government imposed a lockdown and advised people to wash their hands, use hand sanitizers, wear masks and maintain social distance. That may be do-able for the ‘haves’ (‘We don’t have middle-classes, only haves and have-nots’) who live in large houses, drive cars, and have large gardens. But in the informal settlements, these measures are just impractical where people live in crowded shacks with almost no space in between, no easy access to water, and hand sanitizers simply unavailable.
For many, the introduction of the curfew felt like being imprisoned. There has been a militarization of the streets, with armed police herding everyone together and using the pandemic as a way of social control. ‘To begin with,’ explained Wanjira, ‘there was tear gas and gunshots in Mathare and it wasn’t even curfew time yet … So this violence is still happening. And it’s been caused by the history of police in our country…. it’s because when our country was colonized, that was the role of police to clamp down on the natives or to beat them to discipline them. And unfortunately, that culture has never been addressed. It is still the culture we live in today and the police forget that they’re also oppressed people.’
Curfew has been about intimidating especially young people, Ruth Mumbi told me. It’s got nothing to do with protecting people or preventing the spread of the virus. It’s a way of repressing people. ‘The police arrest people and you are only freed if you pay. Otherwise they are imprisoned in crowded cells and at great risk of being infected. To begin with, a lot of police brutality and beatings. There is widespread extortion and arrests if you are not wearing your mask properly, and then they ask you to pay. Or they say that you have to go into quarantine for 14 days which will be costly. So you end up calling people to send you money by SMS to avoid being locked up.’
The complete impunity of the police and local authorities is widespread. In Kayole, Maryanne told me, the women managed to organise to oust the chief because he refused to deal with the situation, but he soon got reinstated using corruption. ‘The chiefs always intervene to protect the perpetrators of sexual violence. Sexual violence is common in the police stations, but the perpetrators get away with things as a result of the support of the chiefs.’
The pandemic has been used to carryout evictions and land grabbing. Some 5000 households were forced out of their homes in Kariobangi and the houses were demolished by bulldozers, Ruth Mumbi told me. This happened despite the fact that many women had title deeds to their allotments. The women organised protests, but any opposition to this land grabbing was faced with repression and threats. The lockdown is accompanied by the criminalisation of protest. Ruth herself had death threats made against her for her courageous organising. Hundreds of families have been left homeless and destitute, trying to care for their children on the streets. And with the lockdown, it is not possible for them to go home in the rural areas.
Each of the women I spoke to told me about the increasing reports of domestic violence and gender-based violence. Wanjira explained: ‘So imagine a household where both mother and father have no jobs, and their children have to eat. That is why we are seeing an increase in insecurity….Yes, violence is because of financial constraints in the nuclear family.’ So, when both the mother and the father have no job, ‘there are frustrations day-in day-out. The children also need to eat, you need to pay rent, so it becomes a lot of pressure and now the violence kind of happens —horizontal violence, but it really has been perpetrated because of lack of enough resources….I think the men take it out on the women because there’s an expectation that you’re supposed to be providing for the children but if they are sleeping hungry, you’re failing in your duty.’
So why has joblessness gotten worse since COVID? Most people in the settlements depend on casual labour that pays very little. But jobs have become scarce as a result of the pandemic as businesses are closed ‘People have been losing their jobs, especially domestic workers — mostly women — as a result of their middle-class employers fearing that they will get infected by the coronavirus,’ Maryanne told me. As a result, ‘they find themselves at home where they are expected to provide for their families and children. Their men folk are also suffering from unemployment, and so they take out their frustrations on the women. And we all understand that poverty is violence.’ Many of the women have stalls where they sell vegetables and other commodities as part of the informal sector, but many have suffered badly as people are unable to pay, or they are unable to get supplies.
Wanjira added: ‘Women really carry the burden of the family. A lot of daughters have gotten pregnant during the COVID-19 break when they were at home — the numbers are outrageous. So there is a whole generation of women who might have to drop out of school to take care of their children.’
So, what are the possibilities for change? ‘No-one is going to save us,’ insists Maryanne. ‘We are the ones to free ourselves from our collective chains that have been tied around us for so long. We have to get people to wake up and realize that we have the right to live a dignified life. So no one is going to save us out of that captivity, but ourselves. And that can happen when the community awakens and realizes that they need to fight for a dignified life and an advocate for a quality life. Yeah. Equality for all…. people must understand that the power belongs to themselves, the power lies in the hands of the masses.’ Wanjira agrees: ‘We want the people to know that they have the power to decide how they’re going to be governed.’
‘So it’s actually … only until women liberate themselves that you’re going to have the revolution in this country … until well, women are free, that you’re going to have the freedom of black people,’ said Maryanne, ‘So we are still organizing the grassroots women to understand that they have to take up their place, because even in terms of political mobilizing it is done by the majority of the women … But it’s high time that women wake up and say we understand that the power lies within us. And we have that power, and we have to take our space, and no one is going to give us our space … Women must lead women actually, a nation that has not empowered its women – it has already failed.’
With the pandemic raging around the world, attention is being focused on the vaccines. When they are eventually available, who will get them, and what will be the order of priority? Will those in the sacrifice zones be considered a priority? I suspect not. But the bigger question is: given what these women describe, to what extent will vaccines change the lives of people in the informal settlements, or will we just see the normalization of the increased violence and misery that the pandemic has nurtured?
 Thanks to Juliet Wanjira, one of the co-founders of the Mathare Social Justice Centres; Maryanne Kasina, a co-founder of the Kayole Community Justice Center, about their experience; Ruth Mumbi, community organiser and social justice activist; and many others who participated in interviews online.