The connection between poverty and gender-based violence in Kibera: Lessons and Opportunities

by Barbora Holicka

Kibera is one of Nairobi’s 16 slums, located only about 3 miles from the Nairobi downtown. It is estimated to be one of the largest slums on the African continent with an estimated population between 240,000-270,000 inhabitants. On the tourist map of Nairobi, the slum is represented by lavish greenery and a relatively small residential area nestled between the Ngong Road Forest and Nairobi National Park. This seemingly small oversight has significant implications on the lives of the Kibera residents. The fact that the settlement is not officially recognized by the authorities means there is hardly any infrastructure. Over 80% of Kibera does not have electricity, sanitation, garbage removal, running water and other public services. All these necessities are arranged ad hoc, resulting in hazardously installed illegal electricity supply, open sewers and inability of many residents to access education or healthcare.

For women this is a particularly difficult environment to live in. The context of poverty further exacerbates gender inequalities that still prevail in the rest of the country. Forms of male superiority embedded in social and cultural norms mean that women in Kenya are often treated as second class citizens and gender based violence is an institutionalised and culturally embedded problem. A survey in Kibera revealed the rate of women who have experienced either domestic violence committed by intimate partner or sexual violence perpetrated by non-partner to be 84.5%, double the national rate. Apart from that many women have to make their living by offering sexual services in exchange for money or food to sustain themselves and their dependants. This practice is commonly understood as ‘survival sex’ and, distinguished from prostitution, is often socially accepted in Kibera. This goes to show that the Westernized perception of gender issues is not always applicable here. It is quite common for the survivors to know the perpetrator personally and even depend on him for sustenance. Seeking help in such circumstances can be difficult, sometimes even outright dangerous.

Women in Kibera experiencing gender-based abuse have developed different coping strategies with majority relying on their own ability to endure, turning to their faith and God in the times of need. Some seek partial partnership with a man or men for financial support and protection but without a promise of marriage. Others turn to impulsive escapes which based on their own narratives hardly ever lead to an improvement of their situation. Regardless what strategy is chosen, the majority of women in Kibera continue to be propelled to enter or return to violent relationships due to their economic deprivation. Those without an intimate partner are often forced to practice survival sex or prostitution and are therefore also exposed to the risks of sexual violence, unwanted pregnancies or contracting STD’s. However, research shows that women’s attitudes are in conflict with their selected coping strategies. This indicates that their choices are likely resulting from survival and economic necessity rather than attitudinal preferences. It seems that if social services existed in Kibera there would be a much higher rate of resistance than is currently evident among the population.

However, in 2010 the Global Alliance for Africa reported there are only 4 viable health clinics in Kibera. All other healthcare is delivered either by NGO’s with limited resources or by private providers for a cost. Supportive networks are therefore scarce and majority of the survivors cannot access healthcare meaning that their physical and psychological trauma can often have life-long consequences. Recent research among survivors revealed that only about 25% of respondents sought medical care, 14% discussed their experience with a counsellor and 20% of women had nobody to talk to at all. Apart from that rape has only recently been criminalised in Kenya by passing of the Sexual Offences Act in 2006 (does not include marital rape) and surveys show that there is minimal awareness of this law among the Kiberan population. This fact together with inadequate and inefficient system for reporting which can more often than not further worsen the victim’s trauma, means that only absolute minimum of cases get recorded and even less lead to persecution.

What is urgently needed in Kibera is therefore a greater provision of acute physical and psychological care for the victims as well as an efficient system for recording evidence of sexual violence. New technological advancements in the area of secure data collection bring some hope in presenting an alternative to inefficient systems that perpetuate impunity for perpetrators - one of such innovations, the app MediCapt, is currently being successfully tested in DRC. Apart from tools enabling prosecution we also need improved protocols for acute care of the survivors. First responders providing medical and psychological first aid can significantly mitigate the number of future diseases and mental health problems. There are ways of delivering this basic vital care discretely by trained mobile community workers even in low-resource settings where survivors cannot access health clinics due to a multitude of practical as well as security reasons. For these solutions to work well they have to be carefully developed and integrated within very particular circumstances, involving all stakeholders in the process including the authorities, locally-based NGOs and first and foremost the targeted population.

Currently, there is a number of innovative projects in Kibera, demonstrating that there is a great potential within the local community that should be both respected and utilized. For instance, challenging the neglect of the authorities, the Kibera residents are using the OpenStreetMap platform to literally put themselves on the map. The Kibera News project runs a YouTube news channel, opening an opportunity for the residents to report on and discuss issues that matter to them. What we need now is to work collaboratively on defining where and how can expertise from the outside be combined with the local expertise and used in a helpful way to encourage this creativity and design locally-sensitive ways of addressing some of the pressing issues such as sexual violence.

Barbora Holicka spent 6 months in Kibera in 2010, working for a local NGO on public health related projects. She continues to support the same organisation, contributing remotely from London where she lives and works as a freelance researcher and writer.

Where to go next: Kibera News Channel on YouTube



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