In Kenya, the women said, “NON-NEGOTIABLE: my body my womb my rights”. Nine years later, they were heard. Why did it take so long?

Nine years ago, almost to the day, five women wearing t-shirts walked into a Nairobi court. On the back, the t-shirts read: “NON-NEGOTIABLE: my body my womb my rights.” On the front, the t-shirts read, “END FORCED AND COERCED STERILIZATION OF WOMEN LIVING WITH HIV”. In September, finally, Kenya’s High Court ruled in their favor, awarding each 3,000,000 Kenyan shilling, or approximately $20,000. This is the second such case in Kenyan history. In December 2022, another Kenyan woman was also awarded 3,000,000 shilling, also for a sterilization without informed consent. So, 3,000,000 shilling, or $20,0000, is the going rate of `compensation’ for violence against women.

We wrote about the case nine years ago. We began writing about forced sterilization in 2012, concerning a case in Namibia, a case to which we returned in 2014. At that time, we argued that the decision in favor of the three women who had sued the State was “a victory for HIV-positive women, for all women, everywhere”. A decade later, we wonder if that declaratino of victory was perhaps a bit premature. Why does it take nine years for the High Court in Nairobi to decide the case, especially when one considers that the final decision absolves the State of all responsibility?

In 2014, we wrote, “The news this week from Chhattisgarh, India, is tragic. At latest count, 15 women have .died in a `sterilization camp’. Fifty others are in hospital, with at least 20 in critical condition. At first the operations were widely described as `botched.’ After only preliminary investigations, the response moved from `botched’ to `criminal’ and `corrupt’. Finally, the reporting has landed on how Indian this all is. It’s not. Forced sterilization of women is a global phenomenon, actually a global campaign, and it needs to be addressed, immediately. The women, all poor, of Chhattisgarh are part of a global public policy in which women’s bodies are, at best, disposable and, more often, detritus.” It’s now 2023, moving into 2024. Why did it take nine years for a High Court to decide?

In late September 2014, California formally banned forced and coerced sterilization of women prisoners … again. Then Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill No. 1135 into law. The bill read, in part: “This bill would prohibit sterilization for the purpose of birth control of an individual under the control of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation or a county correctional facility, as specified.” Not forcing sterilization on women prisoners seemed pretty straightforward. Some would even say a no-brainer. And yet, that law took a lot of brains, and muscle and organizing and history. Think about the brains, muscle, organizing and history it took and takes for a group of women, say in Kenya, to discover they’ve been sterilized, without their knowledge much less informed consent; find the means to take the State and so-called health providers to court; and then to wait, not idly but rather mobilizing the entire time, for nine years.

That all happened before the Kenyan women went to court. Since then …

On February 26, 2015 the Virginia legislature agreed to pay $25,000 in compensation to those who had suffered forced sterilization during the Commonwealth’s decades long adventure in eugenics. What’s the rate of exchange between 2015 and 2023? Apparently $25,000 to $20,000.

In March 2015 in South Africa, 48 women living with HIV and AIDS responded to the indignity and abuse of forced sterilization. Represented by Her Rights Initiative, Oxfam, and the Women’s Legal Centre, 48 women who had suffered forced sterilization in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal came forward and lodged a formal complaint. These 48 `cases’ were from 1986 to 2014. Their case has been reported on, fully researched, and documented. As of now, they have received neither compensation nor a formal apology of any sort.

In March 2019, all major parties in Japan agreed to pass a measure that would “deeply apologize” and offer compensation to victim-survivors of forced sterilization. The compensation would be a one-off payment of around $28,700. Now we know the value of life in Japan … and beyond. What is the price of a `deep apology’ when made to women?

On May 26, 2022, Colombia’s newly elected President Gabriel Boric announced, “I would like to start by apologising to Francisca ….  for the serious violation of your rights and also for the denial of justice and for all the time you had to wait for this. How many people like you do we not know? It hurts to think that the state, which today I have the honour to represent, is responsible for these cases. I pledge to you, and to those who today represent you here in person, that while we govern, we will give the best of each one of us as authorities so that something like this will never happen again and certainly so that in cases where these atrocities have already been committed, they will be properly redressed.”. Boric went on to promise to provide specialist training to medical workers on HIV/AIDS to curb discrimination and to ensure that judges and lawyers are aware that affected women have a right to reparations. Who is Francisca?

In 2002, a 20-year-old, married rural woman known as Francisca discovered she was pregnant. She and her partner were elated. When, early in the pregnancy, Francisca went in for tests, she discovered that she was HIV positive. She immediately began a protocol of antiretrovirals. She had a caesarean delivery, successfully, and the child was HIV negative. That child, now 22 years old himself, is still HIV negative. When Francisca emerged from the surgery, a nurse informed her that the surgeon had sterilized her.  Francisca never asked for or wanted to be sterilized and had never consented. In 2007, Francisca sued the doctor. In 2008, the case was dismissed. In 2009, the Center for Reproductive Rights and Vivo Positivo took the case, on Francisca’s behalf, to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In August 2021, the Chilean government signed a settlement accepting responsibility and offering something like reparations: a housing subsidy and healthcare for both Francisca and her son as well as a commitment to raise awareness of HIV and reproductive rights … after thirteen years.

In Peru, from 1996 to 2001, the Peruvian government, under the leadership of Alberto Fujimori, forced at least 2000 indigenous women to undergo forced sterilization … all in the name of family planning. In 2018, Fujimori and his accomplices were informed they would be facing charges. That case basically ended in mistrial. In September 2023, the same month in which the Kenyan women heard they would be receiving `compensation’, the daughters of Celia Ramos, who died in 1997 days after being forcibly sterilized, learned the Inter-American Court of Human Rights will hear the case.

In all of these cases, the justification, if any was even given, included public health, family planning, protection of the individual women. Society must be protected. In each case, the procedure was conducted by trained medical personnel. Women have been subjected to the torture of forced sterilization for a myriad of reasons and, ultimately, for no reason at all. You want to know why it takes the court so many years to adjudicate these women’s complaints? You want to know why it takes so long for these women to find even a modicum of justice? No reason at all.


(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: BBC)

Hope in a time of choler: Sierra Leone, Kenya, Antigua and Barbuda

Mothers and children in Sierra Leone, with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world

In streets and legislatures as well as in representations in news and social media, from Hungary to India to Brazil to Zimbabwe to the United States and beyond and between, these are trying times in which a threat of totalitarianism looms around us. Welcome to July 2022, where, on one hand, the Thunderdome continues to dominate our attention, but it’s not all gloom and doom. These are grim times. But they are not without hope. There is light, there is real and serious opposition in the Thunderdome. Consider the news this past week from Sierra Leone, Kenya, Antigua and Barbuda.

In Sierra Leone this week, President Julius Maada Bio and his cabinet announced their unanimous support for the Safe Motherhood and Reproductive Health Act which would decriminalize abortion, expand access to contraceptives, post-abortion care and other reproductive health services. On one hand, the support is important in and of itself for women and girls in Sierra Leone and beyond. At the same time, support for the Safe Motherhood and Reproductive Health Act is seen as part of the process of decolonization. The current law dates from 1861, during the English occupation of what became Sierra Leone. As President Bio pointedly noted, “At a time when sexual and reproductive health rights for women are either being overturned or threatened, we are proud that Sierra Leone can once again lead with progressive reforms. My government has unanimously approved a safe motherhood bill that will include a range of critical provisions to ensure the health and dignity of all girls and women of reproductive age in this country.” Sierra Leone joins Benin, which legalized abortion last year.

In March 2022 a High Court in Malindi, in Kenya, found abortion related arrests to be illegal. “The court noted that abortion care is a fundamental right under the Constitution of Kenya and that protecting access to abortion impacts vital Constitutional values, including dignity, autonomy, equality, and bodily integrity. It also ruled that criminalizing abortion under Penal Code without Constitutional statutory framework is an impairment to the enjoyment of women’s reproductive right”

This week, still in Kenya, Justice Okong’o Samson Odhiambo, appearing before the Judicial Service Commission during the Court of Appeal judges interviews, when asked about his views on abortion, responded, “My personal view is that people have the freedom to decide on what to do with their lives.”

Meanwhile, in Antigua and Barbuda this week, the High Court struck down a colonial-era law banning same-sex acts between consulting adults. The case was brought before the court by Orden David, an openly gay man; and Women Against Rape. High Court Judge Marissa Robertson ruled, “The right to privacy extends beyond the right to be left alone and includes the concept of dignity of the individual, aspects of physical and social identity, and the right to develop and establish relationships with other human beings.” Alexandrina Wong, President of Women Against Rape, agreed, noting “We are very much hoping the Antigua ruling will prompt other legal systems in the Caribbean to review their laws and policies, and how they impact on vulnerable populations.” Lucien Govaard, Co-Chair of the Caribbean Forum for Liberation and Acceptance of Genders and Sexualities, added, “We reiterate that it is time governments in the region let go of these colonial structures as they have no place in a modern, diverse, and developing the Caribbean.” According to the Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality, ECADE, three more Caribbean national courts will decide on similar cases by the end of 2022: St Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis, and Barbados.

The struggle for expansion of rights, decolonization, respect for human dignity is regional, transnational, and global. This week, Sierra Leone, Kenya and Antigua and Barbuda shine the light. It is time, way past time, governments, nation-State, societies, people let go of colonial structures.

A rainbow in Antigua


(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit 1: AfricaNews) (Photo Credit 2: LGBTQ Nation)

Today’s witch-hunt: Caroline Mwatha and Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz

“The witch-hunt, then, was a war against women; it was a concerted attempt to degrade them, dehumanize them, and destroy their social power. At the same time, it was in the torture chambers and on the stakes on which the witches perished that the bourgeois ideals of womanhood and domesticity were forged. In this case, too, the witch-hunt amplified contemporary social trends. There is, in fact, an unmistakable continuity between the practices targeted by the witch-hunt and those banned by the new legislation that in the same years was introduced to regulate family life, gender and property relations.”            
Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation

The news this week reminds us that the witch hunt is thriving and in process. In Kenya, human rights defender Caroline Mwatha disappeared and then was found, dead. Police quickly determined that the cause of Caroline Mwatha’s death was a “botched” abortion. While questions abound concerning that report, not in question is the severity of Kenya’s restrictions on abortions and on women’s access to reproductive health care and justice. In El Salvador, yesterday, Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz walked out of the hellhole of Ilopango Women’s Prison, where she had been held for almost three years for “aggravated homicide”, which judgment was based on Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz not having sought prenatal care while she was pregnant. We live in the world that spins between Caroline Mwatha and Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz.

On February 6, Caroline Mwatha was reported missing. Caroline Mwatha lived and worked in the Dandora neighborhood of Nairobi, where she had founded the Dandora Community Justice Centre. Caroline Mwatha was well known for her investigations into extrajudicial killings, specifically, and police abuses more generally. She was a fierce and dedicated human and women’s rights defender and warrior. At the same time, she was a pregnant woman living in Kenya. According to certain reports, Caroline Mwatha chose to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. According to all reports, Kenya is an especially dangerous place in which to make that choice. That danger is caused by especially harsh restrictions as well as by government political policies. In November 2018, Marie Stopes Kenya, the single largest provider of safe abortions in the country, was forced to close its abortion operations. Meanwhile, also last year, the government reported that every year in Kenya about 2,600 women die from unsafe abortions. That’s seven women every dayWhat killed Caroline Mwatha? Evelyn Opondo, Africa director at the Center for Reproductive Rights, put it simply: “Caroline did not have to die. Her death was preventable. She is just one of so many women who are killed needlessly due to unsafe abortion in clinics run by ‘quacks’.” Caroline Mwatha did not have to die, but she was executed by state policy.

In July 2017, Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz was found guilty of aggravated homicide. Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz was a high school student at the time, who was repeatedly raped by a gang member. She became pregnant. She didn’t know she was pregnant. She knew that she had stomach pains, but, because she also was bleeding, she thought she wasn’t pregnant. Then In April 2016, she gave birth in the bathroom of her family’s home. She passed out. When she regained consciousness, she was arrested. At the trial, medical experts couldn’t ascertain whether the fetus died in utero or after the birth. The prosecution maintained that Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz had not sought prenatal care because she didn’t want the child. The judge agreed, and sentenced Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz to thirty years in prison. After a little less than three years in the hellhole of Ilopango Women’s Prison, Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz was granted a new trial. Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz can stay out of prison until a new trial, April 4. Mariana Moisa, of Agrupacion Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto, or Citizen’s Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, noted, “In 2019 we shouldn’t be fighting for the presumption of innocence when a woman loses a pregnancy. We shouldn’t have to be proving that motherhood is not related to crime. We should have full human rights as Salvadoran women.”

Kenyan activists mourn the death of Caroline Mwatha. Salvadoran activists celebrate the release of Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz. These are pages in the history of the witch-hunt. While both Kenya and El Salvador explain their anti-abortion policies as a consequence of their being “religious”, the tie that binds the two is the marriage of patriarchy and capitalism at whose altar the power and knowledge of autonomous, self-aware women is demonized and criminalized. Caroline Mwatha wanted help, and instead she was given a death sentence. Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz needed help, and instead she was given a 30-year-sentence, which is akin to a death sentence. That’s the modern witch-hunt, and it must end now. It’s time, it’s way past time, to demand justice for Caroline Mwatha, Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz, and all the women subjected to the witch-hunt. Shut it down … now!

Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz 


(Image Credit: Hivisasa) (Photo Credit: BBC / AFP)

In Kenya, Phyllis Omido is guilty of inciting justice


Phyllis Omido

Last week, Phyllis Omido, a community organizer in Mombasa, Kenya, received the Africa 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for her work inciting justice. Phyllis Omido has been combating toxicity in all its forms: chemical, environmental, cultural, political, economic. She has struggled and organized to transform sites of toxic elements into spaces of collective health and well-being.

In 2009, an iron-smelting factory opened in the densely populated Owino Uhuru slum of Mombasa. Solar energy is big in Kenya, and growing quickly. To meet the increased demand for lead coming from the solar industry, smelting factories have popped up, recycling car batteries in smelters. It’s big business.

The smelting factory in Mombasa hired Phyllis Omido as a community liaison officer. Her job included conducting an environmental impact study. Somehow, despite all sorts of regulations, they had opened without any such study. Meanwhile, Omido’s two-and-a-half year old child began suffering a series of ailments: nausea, sleeplessness, high fever, and more. Tests finally showed that Omido’s son, King David, was suffering from lead poisoning, which he’d contracted from his mother’s breast milk.

Omido took her environmental impact study to her bosses, who immediately shut it down. She took it to the State, who immediately accused her of being a member of the opposition. They argued that she was clearly out to destroy the economy and crush the hopes of poor working people and communities. Omido had a long history of conducting professional environmental impact studies for other factories, and yet her hard data made less than no difference.

At first, Phyllis Omido campaigned for the factory to pay for her son’s medical care, which they did, once she agreed to sign non-disclosure agreements. But Phyllis Omido looked around and knew she couldn’t keep quiet. Too many lives were at stake.

And so Phyllis Omido organized. She organized a campaign to shut down the factory. After five years, that happened last year … sort of. When Phyllis Omido protested peacefully, she was charged with inciting violence. She was acquitted. When Phyllis Omido was physically and otherwise attacked, her response was to turn swords into ploughshares. She intensified and broadened the campaign. She founded The Center for Justice Governance & Environmental Action. She started taking on salt miners who are damaging Kenya’s coastal fisheries. She is testing the soil and air in a variety of nearby slum neighborhoods, and demanding action. She is suing the Kenyan government and its environmental agency, demanding that they pay compensation, clean up the local environment, and abide by the Constitutional mandate to provide a clean and safe environment for all.

Phyllis Omido has fused anecdotal, experiential evidence with hard, scientific data and created a powerful tool for the people, and especially the women, of the slums of Mombasa and beyond. She pursued what she could see. For example, on entering the plant, foreign managers donned protective gear and masks, but “the workers just worked. Sometimes they’d take a piece of rag and tie it around their noses but they didn’t have any protective gear. At that point when I was still there, they didn’t know that this [air] was poisonous. They were just protecting themselves from the smoke, the acid, the stench.” She pursued what she could not see: the paths of toxic elements, the lead contaminating the air, water, soil; the greed contaminating the State.

In January 2015, the State finally started testing the children of the slums of Mombasa. Thanks to Phyllis Omido and countless women slum dwellers like her, the quest for justice continues.


(Photo Credit: The Goldman Environmental Prize)

The World Bank is (still) bad for women, children, men, and all living creatures

The World Bank is still bad for women, children, men, and all living creatures. While not surprising news, it is the result of a mammoth research project carried on by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and their partners. Journalists pored through more than 6000 World Bank documents and interviewed past and current World Bank employees and government officials involved in World Bank funded projects. They found that, in the past decade, an investment of over 60 billion dollars directly fueled the loss of land and livelihood for 3.4 million slum dwellers, farmers, and villagers. That’s a pretty impressive rate of non-return, all in the name of modernization, villagization, electrification, and, of course, empowerment. Along with sowing displacement and devastation, the World Bank has also invested heavily in fossil-based fuels. All of this is in violation of its own rules.

Women are at the core of this narrative, and at every stage. There’s Gladys Chepkemoi and Paulina Sanyaga, indigenous Sengwer who lost their homes and houses, livestock and livelihoods, and almost lost their lives to a World Bank-financed forest conservation program in western Kenya’s Cherangani Hills. In 2013, Bimbo Omowole Osobe, a resident of Badia East, a slum in Lagos, lost nearly everything to a World Bank funded urban renewal zone. Osobe was one of thousands who suffered “involuntary resettlement” when Badia East was razed in no time flat. Today, she’s an organizes with Justice and Empowerment Initiatives, a group of slum dwellers fighting mass evictions. Aduma Omot lost everything in the villagization program in Ethiopia, a World Bank funded campaign that has displaced and demeaned untold Anuak women in the state of Gambella. In the highlands of Peru, Elvira Flores watched as her entire herd of sheep suddenly died, thanks to the cyanide that pours out of the World Bank funded Yanachocha Gold mine, the same mine that Maxima Acuña de Chaupe and her family have battled.

The people at ICIJ promise further reports from India, Honduras, and Kosovo. While the vast majority of the 3.4 million people physically or economically displaced by World Bank-backed projects live in Africa or Asia, no continent goes untouched. Here’s the tally of the evicted, in a mere decade: Asia: 2,897,872 people; Africa: 417,363 people; South America: 26,262 people; Europe: 5,524 people; Oceania: 2,483 people; North America: 855 people; and Island States: 90 people. The national leaders of the pack are, in descending order: Vietnam, China, India, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh. It’s one giant global round of hunger games, brought to you by the World Bank.

None of this is new. In 2011, Gender Action and Friends of the Earth reported on the gendered broken promises of the World Bank financed Chad-Cameroon Oil Pipeline and West African Gas Pipelines: “The pipelines increased women’s poverty and dependence on men; caused ecological degradation that destroyed women’s livelihoods; discriminated against women in employment and compensation; excluded women in consultation processes; and led to increased prostitution … Women in developing countries have paid too high a price.” The bill is too damn high.

In 2006, Gender Action and the CEE Bankwatch Network found that women suffered directly from World Bank funded oil pipeline projects in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Sakhalin: “Increased poverty, hindered access to subsistence resources, increased occurrence of still births, prostitution, HIV/AIDS and other diseases in local communities.”

There’s the impact on women of ignoring, or refusing to consider, unpaid care work in Malawi, Mali, Niger, and Rwanda, and the catastrophic impacts on women of World Bank funded austerity programs in Greece. And the list goes on.

So, what is to be done? Past experience suggests that the World Bank is too big to jail. How about beginning by challenging and changing the development paradigms and projects on the ground? No development that begins from outside. Absolutely no development that isn’t run by local women and other vulnerable sectors. While the World Bank refuses to forgive debts, globally women are forced to forgive the World Bank’s extraordinary debt each and every second of each and every day. This must end. Stop all mass evictions. Start listening to the women, all over the world, who say, “We need our voices heard.”


(Photo credit: El Pais / SERAC)

Garissa: There must be more than grief


Garissa. There must be more than reports of smoke and explosions and flying bullets and destruction and carnage. There must be more than `eye witness accounts’ and there must be more than smart analyses of why Kenya, why now.

There must be other than agony and tales of hiding and emergence, of atrocity. There must be more than parades of corpses and mournful gatherings at funerals and memorials. The work of mourning must build a better road, because the road to Garissa is one of violence, and not only by those who attacked the university this week.

As in the aftermath of the assault on the Westgate Mall, the world performs mourning, and world leaders and their messengers claim `We all stand with,’ and now will say, “Je suis Kenya.” It’s not true. We do not mourn, and we are not Kenya. We watch a spectacle of grief at a distance, as a distance, and, with the Kenyan government, deny that Garissa is a station on a highway built by all of us. We do not study our own responsibility in the bloodshed.

From the beginning of the “Somali adventure”, Kenyan artists in particular warned that all Kenyans would pay. The Kenyan poet Shailja Patel has provided a road map to Garissa. It begins in 1962, when Somali-Northeast votes to join Somalia. It passes through one massacre after another, and through one invasion of Somalia after another, and through one unheeded warning after another.

The road to Garissa does not end at Garissa. It merely pauses, here, in Shailja Patel’s poem, in the morning after a massacre


the morning after a massacre
a country wakes nauseous

no food stays down
no chai comforts

on the roads
they drag crosses

blood is given
blood invoked
blood sanctified
blood is our national language

on TV the men
talk blood and markets

stay out of the newsrooms

there will be more killing
there will always be
more killing

a state will punish survivors
with pogroms

an army will terrorize
the terrorized, traumatize
the traumatized

the merchants of war
have already moved on
to the next transaction

the death-profiteers spent the night
reviewing cost-benefit reports

a country stares at its amputation stumps
the morning after a massacre

There must be more to life than grief, more killing, and the worldwide collective acceptance of reports of smoke and carnage and loss in the distance.


(Image Credit: The New Inquiry)

In Kenya, the women say, “NON-NEGOTIABLE: my body my womb my rights”

In Nairobi this week, five women wearing t-shirts walked into court. On the back, the t-shirts read: “NON-NEGOTIABLE: my body my womb my rights.” On the front, the t-shirts read, “END FORCED AND COERCED STERILIZATION OF WOMEN LIVING WITH HIV”

The five women, all HIV positive, are suing the Kenyan government, two maternity hospitals, and two international ngo’s for engaging in forced and coerced sterilization. They join women living with HIV in Namibia who recently won a similar case, and who had an identical rallying cry. They join the women of Chhattisgarh and across India who have survived the `sterilization camps.’ They refuse to join the women who died in those camps, though they honor them. They have joined the women prisoners across California who this year finally won the end to forced sterilization of women prisoners in that state. They join women, poor and minority, in North Carolina who finally are receiving some sort of compensation for their mistreatment, to put it gently, in forced sterilization campaigns. They join women living with disabilities in Belgium who resist coerced sterilization. They join women in Peru who eighteen years after the cessation of formal forced sterilization programs still struggle for justice. They join the Aboriginal and Indigenous women and girls across the Americas and Australia who still wait for an accounting of forced sterilization program. They join these women, all of them shouting, “NON-NEGOTIABLE: my body, my women, my rights.”

One of the women, Teresia Otieno, explained, “I went in for an operation to give birth to my first child. By the time I was leaving the operation the doctor told me I had been sterilized.” According to Benta Agola, another one of the women, the medical staff misinformed her every step of the way, and then proceeded onto the sterilization: “I wasn’t involved in decisions.” One woman reports she was threatened with a cut off of baby formula milk if she didn’t go through with the tubal ligation: “The nurse said I could not continue giving birth in the future as giving birth would compromise my immunity and as a result I would die. I eventually gave in but after the procedure I have always had pain in my abdomen especially during the cold season and also cannot undertake heavy chores.” One of the women discovered she had undergone tubal ligation four years after the procedure.

The women are represented by lawyers from KELIN, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for the rights of those living with HIV, and activists from the African Gender and Media Initiative, or GEM. Two years ago, GEM released a report, Robbed of Choice: Forced and Coerced Sterilization Experiences of Women Living with HIV in Kenya. The report documented the forced sterilization of 40 women living with HIV, or WLHIV: “In many cultures including the African, motherhood is at the core of femininity and status in society. The narratives documented here illustrate how WLHIV who have undergone nonconsensual sterilization are no longer considered, women, in their respective communities as these sterilizations are permanent and irreversible in most cases. We hope that this publication will commit the government of Kenya to act by putting in place appropriate measures to prevent and respond to forced and coerced sterilization and ultimately stop torture of WLHIV in healthcare facilities.”

These five women in Kenya are part of a global movement of women challenging the global program of forced sterilization of women. It’s past time to end it. Codify and pay just compensation to survivors of forced sterilization. Establish serious global structures to enforce informed consent. Listen to the women: NON-NEGOTIABLE: my body my womb my rights!


(Photo Credit:

Westgate: There must be more than grief

Westgate. There must be more, something more human, than reports of smoke and explosions and flying bullets and destruction and carnage. There must be more than `eye witness accounts’ and there must be more than smart analyses of why Kenya, why now.

There must be more than, other than, grief to unite a people, a nation. Kenyans have responded not only with horror at the violence. They have responded with support, with blood, money, sweat and tears, and prayers.  But there must be more …

Last year, Kenyan poet Njeri Wangari performed part of her poem, “When Change Comes”, to a gathering in Nairobi. The poem begins:

“When villages grow into towns
Towns into cities
Shops into malls
Spaces into estates,
When streets turn into avenues
Avenues into highways, super highways
Subways and runways
Then things change.

Villages become old frail women deserted by their offspring
All gone to the cities with big lights,
Who, unlike prodigal sons, only return in coffins.”

Wangari’s reading omits the last part of the poem:

“When you realize that your fate was sealed in that moment of conception
Even before you took your first breath in this cosmic space
You then know, it takes more than yourself to survive.

When you are born in a small dark room
In the slum-ghettos of Nairobi,
The wrong side of town
Born in the wrong side of jobs
Wrong side of school
Wrong side of life
Wrong side of everything good in life
Except life itself
Then you know it takes more than yourself to be on the right side

It takes governments that are willing to accept the growing gap
The gap between those with and those without
It takes bridging that gap with informal jobs, equal opportunities
With Youth, women, men empowerment bridges
Bridges that seek to empower minds, endanger idlers
Bridges that recapture people’s dream of equal opportunities
And put them back into peoples’ hearts

It takes more than corrupt officials
It takes more than paying taxes for more government officials
It takes more than policemen gunning down innocent youth
It takes more than black men looking down upon their brothers as lesser mortals

It takes leaders willing to listen to the cries of their people
It takes systems that will help its people come out of mental slavery, self pity, oppressed lives
It takes everyman to make that change.
you, me, him, her, them,

That was July 2012. A few months later, a poem by Kenyan poets Shailja Patel and Wambui Mwanji wrote a poem, “Our Camera Has Come Home: A Found Poem”. Here it is in its entirety:

Our Camera Has Come Home: A Found Poem

in her absence we could not see properly
a way of being
engendered by her presence
was denied us

we did not die
we were not sick
or even depressed
just newly prone
to random piercings
of grief

she allowed us
to quarrel
with ways of reading the world
she explained
why our eyes stop
where they stop

other cameras
work well
we have nothing against them

other cameras
sit badly in our hands
like borrowed reading glasses

only she who has come home
is ours

The world mourns. The world mourns the loss of poets, such as Kofi Awoonor, and presenters, such as Ruhila Adutia-Sood. The world mourns the loss of those connected to people with names, such as Mbugua Mwangi, nephew to Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta. The world mourns the children, and the adults. Around the world, the national news media report on `their own’ who were killed in the massacre. The Westgate Mall has been a popular, and safe, place for many in Nairobi.

The world mourns, and world leaders and their messengers claim `We all stand with Kenya.’ We don’t. Instead, we watch the spectacle of grief at a distance, as a distance. After the post-election violence of 2007, Kenyan poet Sitawa Namwalie understood this. She understood that a first, decisive step in creating a road to peace would be to scramble the map. When they ask you where you come from, answer “I come from everywhere.”

I come from everywhere

you, me, him, her, them,

only she who has come home
is ours

There must be more to grief, and life, than reports of smoke and carnage and loss in the distance.


(Image credit: A Mishmash Life!

For women workers, it’s time to change the song

Reading the names of missing women

Across Turkey, women are at the forefront of the demonstrations. And not only women. Feminists: “At first groups of students chanted: `We are the soldiers of Ataturk’; this died out after feminist protesters objected to its militaristic overtones.”

From the first eruption through today, the Turkish movement has been a giant popular feminist education site, and one that includes sex workers: “`We used to sing ‘Erdogan is the son of a whore’. But when the police teargassed us, one of the brothels on Taksim Square opened its doors, and the women gave us shelter and treated us with lemons. We don’t sing that any more.’”

The solidarity of sex workers taught demonstrators that sex workers are workers, sisters, and women. Sex workers are not epithets or metaphors, and they are not criminals. They are part of the working mass, and they can represent themselves.

In the past week, sex worker organizations have taught exactly the same lesson to workers, social movements, and the State, around the world.

Across Canada this weekend, sex workers and supporters demonstrated, under the Red Umbrella, for legalization of sex work and for sex workers’ rights as workers, women, and women workers. This week, Canada’s Supreme Court will finally hear a challenge by Terri-Jean Bedford, Valerie Scott and Amy Lebovitch to the constitutionality of the laws concerning sex work.

Former and current sex workers have argued that criminalization makes sex workers more vulnerable, forces them further underground, further isolates them, and impedes access to public and social services. It’s a hard life, and the laws only make it harder, sometimes fatally so: “When Kerry Porth remembers her life as a sex worker in Vancouver, she can’t help but wonder how she survived when so many other prostitutes died a gruesome death at the hands of notorious serial killer Robert Pickton. `They were women just like me. Looking back, realizing just how much risk I was at, it was a real eye-opener.’”

In Kenya, sex workers in Laikipia District have organized a group called the Laikipia Peer Educators. They want formal recognition. They want the protection that formal recognition might provide, and they want the citizenship, the opportunity to participate and contribute to the common good in the same manner as every other worker. They want to trade in stigma for taxes.

In Australia, the Scarlet Alliance, representing Australian sex workers, lobbied to have foreign sex workers included among the skilled work visas. Sex work is legal across Australia, to varying degrees, but it’s not considered “skilled labor” by the State, at least not yet. Massage therapists, gardeners, florists, cooks, dog handlers, fashion designers, bed and breakfast operators, entertainers, dancers, recreation officers, makeup artists, jockeys, gymnastic coaches and horse riding instructors are considered skilled labor, but not sex work.

This is about work that is not called work, workers who are not called workers, and women who are told they cannot represent themselves. This concerns sex workers, as it concerns domestic workers in the United States. Both Hawaii and California seem to be on the verge of implementing or of passing respective Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. All workers are workers. Period.

Feminist political economists have argued for decades that women’s work is work, whether it’s waged or not, whether it’s called work or not. Women workers have known this and have organized for centuries for recognition, dignity, autonomy, rights and power.

From the social movements in Turkey to the courthouse in Canada to the District government in Kenya to the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship to the state houses across the United States, it’s time. It’s time to recognize women’s work, all work, as work, and to recognize all workers as workers. It’s time to change the song.


(Photo Credit: / Murray Bush / Flux)

Ask Peninah Mwangi about the PEPFAR pledge

Faced with violence against sex workers in Kenya, Peninah Mwangi noted, “The death of a sex worker is the death of a woman, a mother, a sister, a Kenyan.”  Mwangi should know.

Peninah Mwangi is the Executive Director of the Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme, BHESP, located in Nairobi, Kenya. BHESP organizes, advocates, and empowers sex workers. Before the recent elections, BHESP organized `awareness campaigns’ with bar hostesses and their customers, to make sure that everyone voted, that no one missed voting due to drunkenness. It was a critical citizenship participatory popular education program run from one bar, and one barstool, to the next.

BHESP has marched and lobbied for decriminalization and legalization of sex work. They have marched and lobbied to end police violence against sex workers. At the same time, they have established drop-in centers, legal services, hotlines and havens. The Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme have improved and saved women’s lives in Kenya, and are a model for the rest of the world.

They are supported by Pathfinder International, the Open Society Foundations; the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Almost every major organization that matters admires and supports the great, innovative and urgent work that BHESP provides. The large exception, the elephant-in-the-room exception, to this is PEPFAR, the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Why? Because Peninah Mwangi and her colleagues won’t take the `anti-prostitution pledge.’ Apparently sex work is a far greater `emergency’ than AIDS.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a case in which opponents to the `pledge’ argue that the `pledge’ violates first amendment rights and impairs attempts to improve the working conditions of sex workers. Proponents claim the `pledge’ rescues women from trafficking and worse.

Behind, or obscured by, the legal debate are the sex workers themselves. On one hand, researcher after researcher has noted that the PEPFAR pledge harms any campaigns or programs among sex workers to reduce and eradicate HIV and AIDS. Criminalization of sex work increases risk factors for AIDS among sex workers. Transnational and global criminalization of sex work widens the pool of those increasingly at risk into a global ocean. As some have noted, it’s a dark ripple effect, which keeps on spreading.

Here’s one example of the impact of the `pledge’: “As a result of the pledge, in many instances information sharing about successful programming with sex workers has nearly ceased. Sex work programming has become a taboo topic; organizations that receive other funding are likely to be interested in or to seek US government contracts and funds. Others with specific missions have reigned in all activities unrelated or tangentially related to their missions; this has affected many sex work projects the world over. The anti-prostitution pledge has prevented the sharing of information about successful programming and prevented scaling up successful operations.”

Prevented the sharing of information. Silence. Equals. Death. The death of a sex worker is the death of a woman, a mother, a sister, a `fellow citizen’, a human being. Ask Peninah Mwangi. She should know.


(Video Credit: Josephine Nekesa Were /