Women’s peace initiative pays dividends
Informal settlements in Nairobi and parts of Nyanza region felt the full brunt of the recent post elections running battles between protesting youth and armed riot squad officers.
Ironically, Kibra and Mathare constituencies had been identified as hotspots by the National Police Service and National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) where government and non-governmental organisations carried out numerous peace campaigns.
Some faith-led organisations led by Rev Lilian Kamau of the Anglican Church of Kenya and Rev Evans Mutamba of the Nairobi Baptist Church Kibera had parallel initiatives which incorporated the youth, women and elders. Some of them later travelled to Rwanda and visited the genocide museum. They returned to share stories of the ugly side of hatred, ethnicity and bad politics.
Looking back, the efforts were generally successful going by the low number of deaths reported. Cases of sexual violence were also very few in contrast to the 2007 General Election.
In Kibera, one of the biggest informal settlements in the country with six villages and a population of over 500,000, Jane Anyango Odongo, a peace advocate led a team of women in several peace processes with the backing of International Women Peace Group, Joan B. Kroc Institute of Peace and Justice; Woman of Distinction; and Vital Voices Global Partnership.
In preparation for the August 8 polls, they organised women living in different slum settlements to monitor and report any signs of violence.
Says Odongo: “These were women from Kibera, Mathare, Kangemi, Kiambiu, Mukuru and Ngong. What came out was that they were all afraid of the violence.”
She explains: “With support from Peace Pen Communications, we brought a few leaders together and started documenting their stories and experiences. There were quite a number of similarities.”
Their work was not easy and they were ridiculed, threatened and even accused of having been compromised by the Government, leading politicians and political parties.
Odongo recalls major issues that came up and the initiatives they undertook as “people were arming themselves, not just to each other but in self-defence. This made the women very afraid, most of them did not trust our systems and believed that things would not go right”.
Says Odongo: “There were mass movements to the villages, many people were leaving for rural area and the young men who man bus stations would interrogate the travellers wanting to know where they had been registered as voters.”
She adds: “It turned out most women wanted to take their families to their rural areas for safety’s sake and come back to the city to vote.”
By then, members from different communities had been warned and threatened that their choices would have consequences on their safety and lives.
Odongo describes election day as “great”. She notes: “The women leaders had planned earlier to assist the old and those who were sick to go and vote. One young woman in Kibra who had suffered serious burns on her legs a few days earlier insisted on voting and a taxi was hired to transport her to the polling station”
These were women led initiatives. Indeed, some of them started getting very worried and communicated their fear when they started seeing “strange trends on national television” on transmission of results, some opted again to leave town to safer areas, mostly the rural villages.
The police were already in the community when the results were announced they started running battles with the youth as they shot randomly in the air and cocked the tear gas canisters.
“Things were so bad and the women continued to be very afraid,” Odongo recalls. “For days when there were running battles, the youth were burning tyres and hurling stones at the police who would then respond with tear gas and fire gun shots that led to some deaths and several people being injured.”
Sarang’ombe village in Kibra Constituency was one of the worst affected. There was no food, shops were closed as the police and protesting youth went for each other in running battles.
When the IEBC Chairman declared President Uhuru Kenyatta as duly elected on Saturday 12, protest broke out in Kibra and other informal areas in Nairobi and in parts of Nyanza region.
Says Odongo: “The police shot in the air to disperse protesting youth for most of the day. It was worse at night. I reached out to former National Cohesion and Integration Commission Commissioner Alice Nderitu, who managed to connect with the Police Commissioner.
“It was worse when he called me. The gunshots were deafening and I believe it was his intervention that reduced the shooting. People are still affected to date,” says Odongo. She adds: “Older children are still very scared. They relieve themselves on their clothes, wet beds and run to hide under the bed at any loud sound.”
Odongo later organised the women to mourn to show the police and the world that they had had enough. The women dressed in black, carried candles and matched to the main road.
However, their peaceful vigil was cut short by the protesting youth who wanted to join them.
“When we said no, they dispersed the women with stones!”
The women’s campaign continued and with support from the National Women Steering Committee, they brought together 350 women to mourn those who had been killed in the peace process and to demonstrate in their own peaceful way.
Says Odongo: “In a safe space, the women shared and cried, they had a chance to let out their grief. The women then took to the streets where they continued to mourn and chant.”
Kenya Red Cross Society was kind enough to bring food to the people of Sarang’ombe who were truly starving. The distribution was terrible because the stronger youth fought for the food leaving the women, those injured and the children, without any.
They organised another session for women who had been affected by the violence, a smaller group of about 30 women. Each woman narrated how they had been affected by elections.
Looking forward, Odongo says they intend to extend this peace initiative to other informal settlements and urban centres across the country.