Many thought her bravado was pure madness, that unknown young woman on the television screen. “Why do we have to keep on being tear-gassed because of you? We want to work!” She screamed at the leaders of the opposition party outside Nairobi’s Stanley Hotel as they prepared for a banned protest march against the disputed victory of the Mwai Kibaki’s presidency.
“Ask Kibaki!” William Ruto and Najib Balala retorted. “No! Don’t tell me about Kibaki! I am tired of being chased around. I want to go on with my life…”
“Ask Kibaki!” A crowd of men shoved the poor woman to the ground, and she had to run away, as they slapped and threw kicks at her. A few moments later, paramilitary police rendered the city of Nairobi un-inhabitable.
That moment symbolises the situation of our mothers, our sisters, of women in Kenya during these ethnic cleansing sanitised as “post election violence.”
“800 people dead, and over 250,000 people displaced in their own country” drone international news channels. Cold statistical figures that do not show how Kenyan women are suffering rapes, murders, lack of food for themselves and their family, and loss of property.
Kenyan women have been stoic despite patriarchal inhibitions of our society. They head families; they kick off their husbands from illicit brew dens, and hawk vegetables and foodstuffs to feed us. They vie for political posts despite the violence and intimidation. But now, they are the envelopes upon which messages of hate are delivered to enemy camps.
How else can you explain 1 January 2008? Location: Kenya Assemblies of God Church, Kiambaa, Eldoret Town. Scene: a group of people runs into the church under attack from their neighbours, only to be locked in, and burnt alive. Fade out on charred remains of 35 people, mostly women and children, including the smoldering wheel chair of an ailing woman whose sons had taken here there in the hope of sheltering her from the violence.
It is neither a film, nor a reality television. It is real news.
As the violence entered the capital city guarded by hundreds of paramilitary police, the gender based violence that had characterised the pre-election period where women political leaders and voters suffered assault now exponentially spiraled out of control.
Nairobi Women’s Hospital issued an alert that the reported number of rapes had more than doubled, from an average of four rape cases per day to more than ten. News abounds of young girls, under the age of 18, to women over 70 years old, being gang raped as they flee conflict areas.
Most of the quarter a million displaced people lucky enough to flee have been hurdled in refugee camps in football fields, police stations, churches and schools. Reproductive health facilities here are not readily available, and for the pregnant women childbirth is a matter of life and death. The Rift Valley Provincial Hospital reported at least six women arriving there for delivery within the first week of the camp being set up.
Sanitary towels are not available. There is no money to buy from the surrounding shopping centres as the refugees have nothing. Leading supermarkets already post appeals for well-wishers to buy sanitary towels and deposit in special bins for donation to refugee camps.
Food has fast become an issue. The Red Cross is having problems reaching some refugee camps as rowdy youth barricade roads, and at one time even overwhelmed relief trucks and looted the food. Even when the food does get to the camp, the women and children have to wrestle and jostle in the queues.
In “safer” residential areas, women now fear to go out to buy food for fear of police and violent demonstrators. Towns like Nakuru and Naivasha towns are under a 7 p.m to 7 a.m curfew. Food prices have rocketed countrywide. Sukuma Wiki, a staple vegetable, now costs ten shillings a small bunch up from five shillings.
In the low-income housing estates of Nairobi’s Huruma and Mathare, women landlords went to collect rent from their tenants, only to be told by rival tribesmen that “the building now has its owners, we are the landlords.”
A pregnant woman was flung from the fifth floor of her own block to her death. As one of the women put it, “it’s unbelievable that there are people living in the comfort of my houses while I am a refugee being rained on in a Police Station’s yard.”
Tired of it all, some 200 women refugees evicted from Kibera slums decided to go back to their homes and appeal for peace across tribes. Just like the unknown young woman who dared stand up to the political leaders and ask if there is any justification to this violence and chaos, they too ask WHY Kenya has succumbed to this anarchy and breakdown of order.
However, Mr. Politicians do not want to hear them, or do not care. Women are invisible to the political class, but very visible to the aggressors seeking targets.
*Simiyu Barasa is a Kenyan filmmaker and writer. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.
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