In Kenya, as in many countries around the world, women have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 crisis. They have borne the brunt of the social and economic fall out of the pandemic.
Women make up the bulk of frontline health workers and thus are most susceptible to health risks. They perform the majority of unpaid care work in households and face violence, exploitation, abuse or harassment.
A recent study by UN Women found that reports of violence against women, and particularly domestic violence, have increased in several African countries as concerns over security, health, and financial worries have created tensions and strains in homes exacerbated by the cramped and confined living conditions of lockdowns. (Kenya was part of this study).
But thanks to the pandemic’s often overlooked frontline responders – valiant and dedicated social workers and legal experts supporting victims of domestic violence through an array of services; help has been available for many working class women in Kenya.
The Centre for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW), is a national feminist women’s rights Non-Governmental Organization. It has been instrumental in providing help for victims of domestic violence around the country, and especially in Nairobi during the pandemic
No one can explain this better than the frontline responders themselves. Nereah Akoth works as a Counsellor with CREAW and explains that before the pandemic, on average, the CREAW GBV desk would receive about 20 cases in a month. Since the advent of COVID-19, the numbers have spiked to up to 34 cases. To put this in perspective, this is more than one case a day. And these are only the ones that get reported.
The pandemic brought the front lines much closer home for Nereah and her colleagues. From the community centres they used to attend pre COVID-19 to the mobile phones in their palms. CREAW rolled out a 24 hour hotline-0800-720-186 that Nereah and her team manage in order to respond to, and help victims.
The hotline gives the caller access to and support remotely to legal information, counselling, information about safe shelters and referrals to other GBV services. Close to 600 women have contacted CREAW through the hotline since it was launched.
Here are some of their stories:
Cynthia, is 31 years old and a mother of two. Since 2013, she’s been physically and mentally abused by her now estranged husband. ‘We got married in 2010. Everything was fine at first until he started beating me 3 years into our marriage,’ Cynthia explains.
‘His mother used to come over to our house a lot and threaten to throw me out because she did not approve of inter-tribal marriages. This would cause a lot of friction between my husband and I because he never stood up for me.’
Cynthia admits that she did not have a close relationship with her relatives and her husband had deliberately further isolated her from friends and neighbours. ‘For years, I had no one to talk to. My husband had forbidden me from working outside the home and talking to anyone. He controlled every aspect of my life.’
Cynthia tried to reach out to her elder brother who offered to help but under one condition – that she moves to Kisumu and leaves her kids behind.
‘I chose to stay with my kids in an abusive home instead. There was no way I could abandon them. My mental health was in anguish. I felt trapped and frustrated.’
One day in 2017, Cynthia’s mother-in-law showed up abruptly to their home and threatened to kill her. ‘Her son beat me up that night until I passed out… I even temporarily lost my eyesight and had to seek treatment in Kisumu.’
Cynthia’s husband moved out in late 2017 abandoning her and her two children. ‘I had nothing to my name. I didn’t know what to do. I started doing odd jobs to support my sons.’
Despite not living in the same house with them, Cynthia’s husband would still come over to the house to harass her and the children. Cynthia endured violence for the rest of the year and says she had almost become numb to it. ‘I had four near death experiences and had developed anxiety and would be startled by the slightest of things.’
‘One morning in 2018, he choked me just outside the house while I was preparing to take my kids to school. It was early so people were still in their houses, they heard me scream and came to my rescue. My husband fled the scene and I was persuaded by my neighbours to report the matter to the police. It was my first time reporting to the police and for a while, it kept my husband at bay.’
All through 2019, Cynthia was on antidepressant drugs struggling to support her children when he showed up again and started harassing her. ‘He even once broke all the windows in our house. He was unhinged and didn’t seem to fear the police. I was also overwhelmed and didn’t know where to turn for help.’
The pandemic came with serious complications for Cynthia. She couldn’t work every day because of the social distancing orders put in place. Not working put her and the children in a precarious position.
She was struggling with rent and food and her husband was still threatening her. She ended up at Nairobi Women’s Hospital GBV department after being injured by her husband. She was discharged and referred to CREAW where she received counselling and money to start a small grocery business.
‘2020 was a terrible year but CREAW provided me with counselling and legal and financial support. My ex-husband was reported and a restraining order issued against him. I am slowly getting back on my feet and this is the best I’ve felt in many years.’
Moureen, 37, spent most of 2020 in hospital. Her last born daughter became seriously ill in March 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic crisis began.
‘My daughter started convulsing suddenly and developed some form of paralysis right around the period the pandemic had started. I struggled to get her medical attention at Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH). It was hectic getting anyone to attend to her as almost all resources were being channeled towards COVID-19.’ Her daughter did finally get admitted but everything was upended when the first case was reported at KNH.
‘We were put on quarantine in the ward and barely got any help. They ran some tests and found out my daughter was HIV positive and also suffering from tuberculosis. I was shocked! To date, I don’t understand how she contracted the virus. I was also tested and found positive. I am sure I was infected by my now estranged husband.’
During this time, like many workers across the country, Moureen was furloughed and lost her source of income. ‘I was in a terrible situation. My daughter was now incapacitated and needed full time care. Her medical expenses were spiralling out of control. To date we have a medical bill at KNH that’s close to Ksh 600,000! I was struggling with rent and my estranged husband was not offering any help.’
Moureen became terribly ill and was admitted at Kenyatta Hospital when a friend referred her to CREAW.
‘CREAW summoned my estranged husband to their office. They coaxed him to offer me financial support at least for my daughter’s sake. He started sending me a small stipend and CREAW also chipped in to help me offset my rent arrears.’
Moureen has recently started working at a furniture store. She is on antiretroviral drugs and her health is getting better.
Both Moureen & Cynthia narrated that many women in their neighbourhoods are victims of domestic violence but the stigma that hounds victims prevents them from seeking help.
The pandemic has thrust up a mirror on how Kenya’s economic, social and political system functions along the lines of class and gender. For the sake of millions of women like Moureen and Cynthia who have nowhere to turn to, we must demand better.
*I am grateful to CREAW and the survivors featured here for sharing their stories and images, which were collected with informed consent, to convey the importance of gender-based violence programmes despite, and in light of, the challenges presented by COVID-19.