Women in Kenya are subject to discrimination and disadvantage in all areas of their lives. Levels of gender-based violence and culturally harmful practices are egregiously high. Women experience inequality of opportunity and outcomes in relation to education and are at greater risk of poverty and landlessness. The Equal Rights Trust works with the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA - Kenya) helping to provide legal assistance to women through local organisations such as Kibera Justice Centre. In 2014 we spoke with John Paul Makere who works at the Centre.
I coordinate the legal assistance services provided at Kibera Justice Centre. After my education, I began working in community development. I organised community members to work towards finding solutions to the problems we faced in Kibera1. Through this work, we came up with the idea of a youth group. Different NGOs provided training to members of the youth group on the issue of community funding. Initially our main role was to inform the community about development and to teach them their rights in relation to accessing funds. We were then trained as paralegals to deal with tenancy and land issues as these issues went hand in hand with our community development work.
We see clients in legal aid clinics every Tuesday. We keep to this time to ensure that women know that we will be available. On Thursdays we do follow up work. We try to advise women on all of the issues that they face, which include: inheritance of land, tenancy problems, child neglect and difficulty obtaining identification cards.
We did not initially realise that women faced so many difficulties in obtaining identification documents. When we started to see women in the legal aid clinics, we found that most of the women that sought our assistance didn’t have identification cards or birth certificates. Most of these women do not have the knowledge on how to apply for these documents and the procedures are also very lengthy. This problem affects women in all areas of their life; without an identification card, a woman cannot open a bank account, she cannot get employment, she cannot do any business.
For those women who have had children out of marriage, the difficulties obtaining documents for their children are exacerbated because they require information from the father of the children and they have difficulty getting that information. This results in women being unable to obtain identity documents and birth certificates for their children. Without a birth certificate, children cannot be admitted to school or sit for examinations. In turn, these children will then have difficulty obtaining identity documents for their own children.
We decided to create a one stop centre to address this problem because it is so widespread and because it affects women in every aspect of their life, including their ability to ensure access to education for their children.
Women are also affected by the lack of stable and adequate housing in Kibera. Tenancy disputes and problems affect many, many people in Kibera. Landlords take advantage of people’s vulnerability. Rents are being set at exorbitant rates and people just cannot afford them. Landlords also evict people without any notice. Women are particularly affected when they cannot find suitable housing or are evicted. If you have a problem with your landlord and your door is locked, as a man you can survive that – you can sleep somewhere else, but imagine it is a woman and a child, where do they sleep?
While many of our clients are now able to claim their rights because of the new Constitution of 2010, some new challenges are emerging because attitudes in society about women are not changing to reflect the Constitution. For example, my aunt was the only daughter in her family. My grandfather shared land only amongst his sons and my aunt did not receive any land. Once the new Constitution came into force, she went to a court of law and won the case so she was given back the land. After getting that land, she sold it and went back to where she was married. The community view was that the land should have stayed within the family and that my aunt should not have been given the land because she would return to her husband’s family. When this happens the community questions why they should give their daughters land.
Examples like this show us that we need to be able to change people’s perceptions so that they understand why women’s rights, including inheritance, are important. This will allow women to exercise their rights fully with the support of the community. In Kibera, we raise awareness by visiting different groups and giving talks on these issues. While people wait for formal employment, they are often eager to join us and work voluntarily. In this way, more and more people in Kibera are becoming involved in the project and aware of their rights.
In addition to raising awareness, we also need more capacity building in order to be able to overcome these problems. Women have not previously been given the opportunities to learn about their rights and have often been denied an education. We need to give women those opportunities so that they can gain knowledge and the capacity to defend themselves in a court of law or anywhere. Women need basic knowledge of laws on property and succession. In addition, we need many women to be trained as paralegals so that women are better able to work together to assist each other. It is a great success for us when women who have been assisted by Kibera Justice Centre, like Jane Mulanda, choose to stay involved and use their knowledge and experience to become part of the solution for other women.
- This testimony was originally featured in volume thirteen of the Equal Rights Review. Click here to read more and to download the Review.
- Click here to read the testimony of Jane Mulanda, a woman helped by the Kibera Justice Centre.
- Click here to read more about the Equal Rights Trust's project in Kenya.
- Click here to learn more about FIDA-Kenya.
- 1. Kibera which is a densely populated area of Nairobi that is one of the largest informal settlements in Africa and suffers from extreme poverty.