Shelters for Battered Females Are Scarce in Kenya, But One Woman's Group Works to 'Rescue a Sister'
Technology : Wednesday 21st October, 2015
NAIROBI, KENYA - In a small house in Eastlands a slum on the eastern outskirts of Kenya's capital, Njeri stands on the bottom level of a double-decker bed. She mumbles a barely audible greeting.
Njeri's 6-year-old daughter rocks against the bed, a black suitcase beside her. Njeri, who asked to use a pseudonym, and her daughter have been staying at this house, a privately run domestic-violence shelter, on and off for about a month. They come to escape Njeri's husband when he becomes violent.
Njeri is one of the dozen or so women and children who come to this shelter each week. In Kenya, where there are no government-sponsored shelters for abuse victims, private havens are the only option.
Diana Okello, a human-rights activist, rented the house where Njeri is staying to shelter abused women and children through her foundation, Okoa Dada, a Swahili phrase that means "Rescue a sister."
"Because most women in this situation do not know where to go when they are abused, they stay put, even when they have been seriously injured," Okello says. "At the safe house, we ensure that the case is not only reported to the police but that the survivor receives medical help."
Okello's shelter, also called Okoa Dada, is one of few in Kenya.
That might have changed in May, when Kenya's president signed into law the Protection Against Domestic Violence Act, 2015. The draft bill had a provision that would have compelled the government to provide temporary emergency shelters for domestic-violence victims in every county, but that provision was removed before the bill was approved by Parliament.
Nearly 41 percent of Kenyan women ages 15 to 49 who have married have been physically or sexually attacked by their partners, according to the Kenya Demographic Health Survey of 2014.
That's higher than the global average. According to a 2013 report published by the World Health Organization, 35 percent of women worldwide have endured physical or sexual violence.
Even so, Kenya's leaders opted not to create government-run shelters.
Members of Parliament wanted to absolve the government of the responsibility of setting up shelters, says Winfred Lichuma, the chairwoman of the National Gender and Equality Commission.
The approved law says police are required to tell a violence victim about relief measures, including available shelters run by private organizations, Lichuma says. If a police officer directs someone to a shelter, that shelter is obligated to take that person in, she says.
"This is the weakest link in the act," she says. "It means that the organization, whether run by civil society or another private entity, will be forced to commit to taking care of the person whether or not they have the capacity to do so and with no contribution from the government."
Jane Serwanga, a human-rights lawyer working with Equality Now, an international nonprofit, says establishment of shelters is important because in most cases, survivors of domestic violence have nowhere to go and the perpetrator may have made threats to hurt or kill them.
"The shelters act as a halfway point to start the survivor on the healing process," she says.
Scars from her own painful past motivated Okello to open the shelter. Raised in a dysfunctional family, Okello remembers longing for a place of refuge to escape the conflict. Her father spent money on women, she says, and left nothing for her family. That caused endless fights, she says.
"My mother broke down because of his infidelities, and so did the rest of the family," she says. "Eventually, he left my mother for another woman, and everything he had went to her."
Okello says her mother, left with a paltry teacher's salary, found it difficult to feed and educate her six children. Okello's father died when she was 9, and her mother died a decade later.
Okello, homeless, sought solace in marriage. The man she married was initially abusive, she says, but he changed after Okello left him. She says the marriage is a happy one now, but the experience combined with her upbringing showed her how oppressed some women are.
"It is this suffering that gives me the motivation to fight for women," she says.
Okello founded Okoa Dada last November, after she was involved in a campaign, tagged MyDressMyChoice, protesting vigilantes who publicly stripped women they deemed to be dressed inappropriately. In response to that campaign, police in Nairobi set up an Anti-Stripping Unit, which caught several people alleged to have been involved in the incidents. Okello was ranked in August among the top 40 women under 40 in Kenya in for her involvement in the campaign.
Okoa Dada started as a Facebook page, where women reported cases of abuse. The page became more widely known through word of mouth.
"Initially when someone would write a post about their plight on the page, I would rescue them and bring them to my home," Okello says.
In April, she rented a house from a friend and opened the shelter.
Other friends donated mattresses, cutlery and food. Five volunteers staff the shelter, and a supporter in Australia pays the rent and other utilities. The house is guarded day and night.
The longest a woman has stayed at the shelter is three weeks, she says. Most women stay for three or four days.
Some women don't want to press charges against the abusers, but those who do can get counselling and legal assistance. Two lawyers volunteer at Okoa Dada, providing initial legal counsel before referring the cases to other attorneys.
Okello is strict about which women are admitted to the shelter. Only women fleeing violent situations are allowed, she says, not those who are enduring ordinary marital spats. She also requires the women to report their cases to the police before they're admitted, and those who are injured must seek treatment at a hospital.
Okello says she established the shelter in Eastlands because of the poverty there. Poverty, lower education levels, witnessing family violence, alcohol abuse and societal attitudes can contribute to domestic violence, according to the World Health Organization.
"In most cases, the man is unemployed but his wife and children are demanding money," she says. "The little money he did have was spent on alcohol. When an argument ensues, he asserts himself through violence."
The men whose partners she assists often insult her, Okello says. They call her a prostitute or accuse her of interfering with their marriages.
"They think that a married woman understands the violence in marriage and therefore cannot fight against the abuse," Okello says.
Julia, who asked that her real name not be used, says she sought refuge at the shelter in June after she went to a hospital following a beating from her husband.
"After I was discharged from hospital, I went to stay with a friend," she says. "I decided not to go back because the fighting had become too much. My husband drinks all his money and then turns violent. My friend told me that there was a new shelter for women. She gave me Diana's number, and I contacted her."
While at Okoa Dada, Julia found a job as a hairdresser, as well as a home for herself and her 2-year-old daughter. Okoa Dada is still part of her life; she collects soap and other essentials from the shelter.
"Most of these women are poor, so even after they leave, they might still not afford food, or might lack a place to stay. We cannot turn these women away," Okello says.
The shelter also helps women from wealthy families if those women's abusers have cut them off financially. Emily, a French citizen living in Kenya, was looking for a way to escape more than a decade of violence perpetrated by her husband.
"He wants to force me to go back to France without my children by depriving me of the money needed to survive here in Kenya," she says.
Emily says she would have been homeless were it not for the shelter because she doesn't have any close friends in Kenya.
Okoa Dada also helps women deal with the psychological effects of violence. Lillian Achieng, a counselor at Okoa Dada, says some women become withdrawn or are violent toward their children because of stress.
"Once we help her recognize the problems, it is now up to her to decide what the next step should be," Achieng says.
Okello believes the shelter has saved lives.
The safe house has helped to break the cycle of violence in homes, especially when the victims decide not only to leave their abusive partners but also to press charges.
"From what I have seen, once there is a court case, the perpetrator stops the harassment," Okello says. "And even when there is no case, the abuse ends because most survivors do not go back to their husbands."
And the women at the shelter show other abuse victims that it's possible to leave those dangerous situations and report their abusers to the police.
"The main problem with domestic violence is few women report the abuse, but with this little knowledge, more women know they can do it," Okello says.
Okello plans to open a second shelter in Kibra, a constituency in Nairobi that includes its largest slum, Kibera. As she works to expand her organization, the original shelter continues to change women's lives.
Njeri, the woman who comes to the shelter to escape violence at home, says her husband kicked her and her daughter out of their house.
"He lives nearby, but he won't let me pick up my things," Njeri says.
Njeri hopes that her second-hand clothes business will enable her to provide for her daughter.
This time, she says, she has decided not to go back.
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