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Women play a key role in society and family units in Kenya and around the world. Even the bible places the responsibility of home building, and all it entails, on the shoulders of women. In Kenya – particularly rural Kenya – these demands often result in immense pressure being placed upon women as they square up to the challenges life throws at them and what society expects of them. All too frequently, Kenyan women also have to contend with male chauvinism which manifests in a variety of ways. Oftentimes, it feels as though society itself throws a sheer lack of goodwill at the women of Kenya.
In the rural ward of Garashi in Kilifi County, Coast Province, women were largely unable to participate fully in the development and betterment of their community. Their exclusion from key decision making processes that affect women and girls resulted in increased gender based violence, discrimination, poor representation and an unfavourable imbalance of the allocation of resources in what Garashians themselves describe as ‘their impoverished community’.
In truth, Garashi isn’t the only Kenyan ward in this position. According to the National Gender and Equality Commission, as of 2019, there were around 13.1 million women aged 16+ living in rural Kenya. The whole country is highly unlikely to meet its gender equality target if the plight of women is not given greater priority. Addressing the raft of gender inequalities experienced by women across Kenya is an urgent requirement. It requires immediate attention and should be given far higher priority by local and national governments.
Given the right support, women are perfectly capable of boosting the financial impacts felt within their own families and communities, right up to increasing Kenya’s GDP. Many women would welcome a chance to increase the official employment statistics by involving themselves in small scale businesses like dress making, hairdressing, shoe and sandal making, brick making, mat making and producing other craft items for tourists and the hospitality trade. This would enable them to put more nutritious food on the table at home, which would undoubtedly reduce the incidents of domestic violence brought about frequently by domestic financial stress.
However, Kenyan women – particularly those in rural areas – are faced with a number of challenges, including insufficient financial resources to start income generating initiatives, inadequate time to devote to a vocation and retrogressive traditions and beliefs in which they are enveloped by an inherently patriarchal society.
I’d like to share a story with you. It’s a true account from a woman in my area. This example shines light on a typical scenario for a widow and mother. We’re protecting her true identity but for the purposes of this story we’ll call her Kadzo. Kadzo has eleven children and she received no formal education as a youngster. Her parents had a very modest and limited income and when they did have money, they favoured sending her brother to school over Kadzo: boys are frequently chosen over girls to receive an education when money is tight.
Kadzo lacks creative or innovative skills and she has no steady income. She used to work as a casual labourer on a farm but work of this type has dried up over the past few years following the financial crisis caused by COVID lockdowns. Sometimes Kadzo is lucky enough to find a bit of casual work but these opportunities are few and far between.
In confidence, I asked Kadzo how the family coped when she was unable to secure paid employment. She answered: “My children and l used to pray, then go to sleep hungry. I pushed all of my hopes into the next day. I taught my kids how to survive. It was difficult to move around though to do any kind of work with the children always asking for food. During the COVID times, all the villagers were really struggling to survive and it was hard to get help with the number of children l had.”
I asked: “What caused your husband’s death?”
Kadzo replied: ‘’My husband went to work one day as normal. Around 11.00 am I received a phone call instructing me to go to the hospital. Upon reaching the hospital, I was astonished to hear my husband was no more. He had fallen from a palm tree while tapping the fruit for wine. The burial arrangements were done quickly and after one week he was buried together with our happiness, love and care.”
I asked: “What do you mean, your love and happiness was buried together with your husband?”
She paused quietly for some time, tears burning lines down her face, then said: “After my husband’s death, everything changed drastically. We didn’t own much but everything was taken away from us to pay debts. All I had was an empty house and our eleven kids. It reached a time when life was so bad, I attempted to commit suicide only to find myself in the hospital. After many years of struggling, it finally dawned on me that life had to continue. I had to find a way forward.
A lady by the name Eva came to my place and we had a conversation. After three days I got a phone call to pay her a visit at the Word Forest office in Garashi. I went to see her and was asked to narrate my full story, which I did. That’s how I got enrolled in the Mothers of the Forest team. Through their help, I’ve been able to acquire skills and knowledge which has helped get me to this point.
I don’t make much money but I am grateful that we rarely go hungry now. Best of all, I know that I am not alone. I have the love and support of the other Mothers. The Chairlady, Esther, is also a pastor but we call her counsellor because she is the oldest and wisest of us all. With my fellow Mothers, I don’t have to pretend that all is well. I have my safe space with them and that’s how I get the strength to go on.”
In our society today, the people who suffer the most are women and children. As you’ll see from Kadzo’s story, she is determined to take care of her kids despite the hard hand she has been dealt. She is stronger because of the network in this women’s empowerment group and she looks forward with more optimism, always hoping for the best. I have been asking myself what role society, relatives and friends played when this brave and strong woman was suffering together with her children. There don’t seem to be anywhere near enough support systems to help women like Kadzo survive, let alone thrive.
Here’s another true story for you from a woman near here. Again, to preserve her anonymity we’ll call her Mahenzo. She is 30 years old and she has six children. Mahenzo had this to tell me: “I am the eldest of nine girls and in our community girls are not valued compared to boys. Due to pressure from my father’s family, my dad was forced to marry a second wife in the hope she would bear him some boys. She actually bore him four girls, so he married yet another wife who also bore him four more daughters. My father believed he was bewitched and had to move to another village, where he married another wife.
That was how my father came to abandon our family. It has been eleven years now since he left us. We suffered at the hands of relatives who didn’t really have the space or money to take care of us and we were shown no mercy or love. We were slaves in our own home.
I was married off by my relatives to a man old enough to be my father. I was his fourth wife.
In the eighth year of this very unpleasant union called marriage, my husband passed away. I was helpless. I had nowhere to go and, in accordance with our tradition, any wives who can still bear children are inherited by the brother of the deceased.
One of my co-wives informed me of the arrangements and helped me make a plan to escape. In 2021, I was enrolled as part of the Mothers of the Forest women’s empowerment team through some friends and since then my life has changed for good. I use the skills I’ve learned and the knowledge I’ve acquired to make sandals, to knit baby clothes and to make mats that l sell. I am making my own living! My dream is to be a tailor one day.
When I first joined the Mothers of the Forest, they already had a sewing machine. All we need is for our teacher to give us a few more lessons. I cannot wait to start doing sewing classes. I really appreciate Mothers group for bettering my family life. May God reward them abundantly.”
Finally, I’d like to introduce you to another woman from our community. Kache is a wife and a mother of three children. Both Kache and her husband are semi-literate. Kache has been a member of the Mothers of the Forest for more than three years. Through the skills and knowledge she has acquired during training and workshops, she can confidently and proudly say that Word Forest has brought light to her family.
I interviewed Kache and her husband on how the ways Word Forest has positively changed their lives.
Mr Kombe, Kache’s husband, explained to me: “Permanent work is hard to find here but I do casual jobs where I can. Now that my wife has learned different skills, we do not struggle as much as before. Kache makes and sells stuff like soap. The area Sub-Chief calls her to his kitchen garden every week to monitor its progress as she is the one who helped him to create the garden. If we had a source of water like the Chief does, my wife could sell vegetables with the knowledge she has learned about permaculture and organic food growing. I really love and respect my dear wife for her effort through Mothers of the Forest. Our entire life has changed for the better.”
Since its inception in 2017, Word Forest has positively impacted the Garashi community without any doubt. The women here are empowered, they’re more connected, they are stronger because of the sisterhood they have built and they are able to cater for themselves.
We care greatly about the privacy of the women in our group and we will always preserve their identity. However, we can say truly that as a result of this women’s empowerment initiative, which we’re hoping to spread all the way across Kenya, we have noted a great reduction in domestic violence and the creation of stronger family bonds.
The men here view these women with honour and respect and that never was the case. Women are now able to ease the pressures on men’s shoulders since they also contribute to the family on matters pertaining to finance. Women’s empowerment under the umbrella of Word Forest has reduced domestic feuds in the society too, since the women are mostly engaged in good activities.
The different workshops and training sessions Word Forest has offered the Mothers has enhanced economic growth in our community. This has boosted the local economy and that has additionally reduced pressure on the environment. One of the major sources of income here when jobs were scarce was illegal charcoal burning, which poses a great threat to everything in the ecosystem (wildlife, humans, water, our planet.) It hasn’t been eradicated but it has certainly reduced significantly. The Charcoal Burners Rehabilitation Workshops we ran last year were very successful and we hope to do more in the years to come.
Young girls are now accessing basic education on a wide variety of subjects through the Mothers which is leading to fewer teenage pregnancies and early marriages. Education is everything, it is the key to reducing so many widespread problems. Gender based violence has also been contained by a big margin since the men now show a greater appreciation for the effort and contributions from the women in their lives.
When Tracey, Simon and Phil came to Kenya for the annual monitoring and evaluation visit in December 2022, Tracey ran a workshop with the Mothers about periods and menopause and we were given silicone menstrual cups in hard protective cases to keep them in good condition. These ‘hedhi’ cups, as we call them, have truly changed women’s lives and given us more independence, freedom, choice and they’re saving us money too. They will last us for the long term and they’re easy to use and manage. On top of that, we have so much more comfort as we go about our day to day activities.
On behalf of the Mothers of the Forest and the Garashi community, I hereby express our collective gratitude to the Word Forest UK team, donors and supporters. Your continued support is truly a living blessing. Your dedication to making Kenyan communities better places through education about the environment, permaculture, women’s empowerment, crafting, income generation and finances is life changing for more people than you could ever know.
Juliet Anyanzwa and the Kenyan Team