Women do not haunt the State. They occupy it.

 


Around the world, women are taking to the streets in great numbers, to protest, to take charge, to transform. In the past couple weeks, women have led and populated mass protests and marches in Malawi, Uganda, Lebanon, Argentina, Romania, Chile, Haiti. Women have occupied Wall Street, Nigeria, and beyond.

Women have been the bearers, in every sense, of Spring … in Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain. Today, January 25, women are returning to Tahrir Square … and to every square in Egypt. This is nothing new for northern Africa. Women, such as Aminatou Haidar, have born `spring’ in Western Sahara now for decades.

For women, the street does not end at the sidewalk. It runs, often directly, into the State offices.

Women are everywhere on the move, changing the face and form of State.

In Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner returned to her office today, after a 21-day health related absence, to resume her activities as President. On Thursday, January 5, Portia Simpson Miller was inaugurated, for the second time, as Prime Minister of Jamaica. On Monday, January 16, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was inaugurated to her second term, of six years, as President of Liberia.

These are precisely not historic stories or events, and that’s the point. Women in positions of State power are women in positions of State power. Not novelties nor exotic nor, most importantly, exceptions. That is the hope.

But for now, that struggle continues.

In Colombia, women, such as Esmeralda Arboleda, helped organize the Union of Colombian Women, fought for women’s rights and power, and was the first woman elected as a Senator to the national Congress. That was July, 1958. Fifty or so years later, in January 2012, women in Chile launched “Mas mujeres al poder”, “More women in power”.  In tactics, strategies and cultural actions, Mas mujeres al poder builds on the work of student activists in the streets. Women are saying enough, women are saying the time is now, and women are pushing their way through the electoral process, with or without the political parties, into the provincial and national legislatures.

Meanwhile, in Bolivia, Gabriela Montaño was named President of the Senate and Rebeca Delgado was named President of the House of Representatives. Women are everywhere … and on the move.

On Tuesday, January 10, voters in Minnesota, in the United States, elected Susan Allen to the state legislature. Allen is the first American Indian woman to serve in that body. She is a single mother, and she is lesbian. Many firsts accrue to her election.

Across Europe, Black women are struggling and entering into legislative bodies with greater and greater success: Manuela Ramin-Osmundsen, originally from Martinique,  in Norway; Nyamko Sabuni, originally from the DRC, in Sweden; Mercedes Lourdes Frias, originally from the Dominican Republic, in Italy. The struggle continues … into the national and regional legislatures, into the political structures, into the cultures of power as well as recognition.

Across the African continent, women are on the move. In Kenya, women, such as Charity Ngilu, are set to make their marks in the upcoming elections … and beyond. Meanwhile, South Africa’s Minister of Home Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is running, hard, for the Chairpersonship of the African Union Commission. She would be the first woman in that post, and some say she would be the most powerful woman in Africa.

And in South Korea, four women, Park Geun-hye, Han Myeong-sook, Lee Jung-hee and Sim Sang-jung lead the three major political parties. Together, their three parties control 262 seats of the National Assembly’s 299.

This barely covers the news from the past three weeks. Everywhere, women are cracking patriarchy’s hold on and of power, in the streets, in the State legislatures, in the political structures. Today, and tomorrow, women do not haunt the State. They occupy it.

 

(Photo Credit: BeBlogerra)

Young women refuse to be sacrifices

Welcome to 2012. The Arab Spring, the Occupy Spring, the Indignado Spring continue. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, and beyond, women are on the move, on the march. In Saudi Arabia, women are on the drive as well. Young women.

Across the United States and Canada and beyond, young women are leading and expanding the Occupy movement. In Chile, women high school and university students are pushing to end the privatization of education, to open the schools to freedom, democracy, universal opportunity.

In India, young rural women are leading resistance campaigns to stop major land grabs.  In Afghanistan, teams of young women athletes are punching their way through centuries-old as well as recently devised glass ceilings.

In Kenya, young women are entering into local electoral politics. In Mauritius as well.

Women everywhere are on the move, keeping on keeping on, filling spaces with their voices, their bodies, their energy, their aspirations, their collective and singular power.

At the same time, women struggle with a master narrative in which they only function as sacrifices. In India, two farmers sacrifice a seven-year-old girl, Lalita, in order to ensure good crops. In Afghanistan, a fifteen-year-old girl, Sahar Gul, struggles to survive, and to live with dignity, having fled the torture inflicted on her by her husband and his mother and sister. When she first fled, the State actually returned her to `the family.

In the United States, girls like seventeen-year-old Nga Truong, are routinely forced into confessing crimes they didn’t commit and then are sent off to prison. In the United States, seventeen-year-old girls like Samantha L. are sent to prison for life, without possibility of parole.

In Australia, teen-age girls, like Danielle Troy, have to plead for compassion rather than punishment. Their crime? Being mothers.

And in South Africa, two teenage girls are attacked by a crowd of 50 or 60 `adult’ men. Why? Because one of them was wearing a mini-skirt. Four years ago, another young woman, Nwabisa Ngcukana, was stripped and assaulted for exactly the same `crime’, at exactly the same taxi rank.

From domestic violence to more general sexual violence to mob violence to State violence and beyond, the patriarchal story of young women is the story of being-sacrificed. If a man is told, by no less than God, to sacrifice his son, we are told that is a tragedy. A moral and ethical crisis. But where is the mother of that son in the story? And what if, instead, the father was told, by no less than God, to sacrifice his daughter? Would that too be considered a tragedy? An ethical and moral crisis?

Not by the patriarchs, it wouldn’t, as the Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac so aptly demonstrates: “It is difficult not to be struck by the absence of woman… It is a story of father and son, of masculine figures, of hierarchies among men… Would the logic of sacrificial responsibility within the implacable universality of the law… be altered… if a woman were to intervene in some consequential manner? Does the system of this sacrificial responsibility and of the double `gift of death’ imply at its very basis an exclusion of woman or sacrifice of woman? A woman’s sacrifice or a sacrifice of woman? Let us leave the question in suspense.”

Women, and in particular young women, are saying, “No.” They reject the story that excludes them and the  `suspense’ that reduces them. They are saying – with their bodies, voices, actions and deeds – women and girls are not to be sacrificed. If `the Law’ says they must be, the Law is wrong. Women are making a better Law, living out a better story, and creating a better world. Another, better world is possible.

 

(Video Credit: WBUR)

Samburu women haunt the empire of charity

The Samburu of northern Kenya are pastoralists, and they are under attack. According to Survival International, the Nature Conservancy and the Africa Wildlife Foundation, two US-based `charities’, bought land, lots of it, from Daniel arap Moi. How’d he get the land? Good question.

The Samburu, who had been forced out of nomadic pastoralism by the encroachment of fenced off ranches, had settled there twenty years earlier. For twenty years they used this piece of land for grazing and access to water. They made land decisions on communal interests, with no one having the right to permanently dispose of the land. While the decision making process was dominated by male elders, women, especially married women, were involved in decisions concerning land use and allocation.

Until Daniel arap Moi bought the land, no questions asked. Then he sold it … to `charities’.

Since the sale, the Samburu have been harassed, beaten, raped. The lucky ones have `simply’ been evicted and had to fend for themselves in makeshift lean-tos. The Samburu have gone to court to retain their land … and to get some justice. Africa Wildlife Foundation has `gifted’ the land to Kenya, for `conservation’.

It’s a familiar enough story. “Native people”, “Africans” are caught, or not, in the crosshairs of conservation, charity, and gift economies bestowed upon them by the good people of the Global North.

But there’s more. Women. The Guardian featured Samburu women prominently … in pictures. There “Samburu women sing a song” and “the women wear colorful beaded necklaces.”

Samburu women do more than sing songs and wear colorful beaded necklaces.

It’s not the first time that foreigners have visited sexual violence on Samburu women … in the name of progress and civilization. For the past fifty years the Kenyan government has leased land in Samburu District to the British military. It’s a training ground. Over 600 complaints of rape have been filed against the British military. Women like Miliyan LeKanta, Lydia Juma and Nigaripen Lesiamito have testified, in public, to the rapes. Testimony that resulted in their isolation and even expulsion from their own communities. The British `internal’ investigation found the military not guilty. Then the Kenyan government `lost’ the evidence. As the women’s lawyer explained, “There is no glory in reporting rape.” That struggle is ongoing … and it’s more than colorful beads and the singing of songs.

Locally, the Samburu Women for Education & Environment Development Organization has been key in documenting the devastation of the evictions and abuse on the Samburu. In their report, which Survival International sent to the United Nations, they have shown the ways in which women as herders and farmers have been rendered helpless by the violence of police. They have reported as well on women who have had to watch as their husbands have been beaten, sometimes to death, by police or by paramilitaries, and then left for dead in the fields. Houses are burned, villages ransacked, women raped. It’s the price of charity.

And who pays the price?

The bitter irony of conservation here is that the Samburu women are actually at the heart of the indigenous preservation of wildlife, in particular of elephants. The Samburu claim a kind of kinship between elephants and Samburu women, a kinship of everyday village labor. This kinship results in cultures of respect and honor. But those kinds of ties mean nothing to an important not-for-profit multinational charitable organization. After all, those ties involve Samburu women, singing and wearing fantastic bead necklaces.

 

(Video Credit: Vimeo / Cultures of Resistance)

The low spark of high-heeled African women farmers

Esnai Ngwira in mucuna field

The planet of slums is fed, clothed and sheltered by continents, and oceans, of farms, many of them small farms. Many small hold farmers are women. This is the case in China. By focusing on women farmers, China, with 10% of the world’s arable land, now feeds 20% of the world’s population.

And now, according to reports, China is turning to Africa, not in a land grab but rather in skills sharing and capacity building. China “seeks to show its trading partners in Africa that feeding their populations is only possible when women are empowered.” China is pushing for land rights for women farmers and for investing in women farmers. A key problem, however, is “the low skill base of Africa’s farmers, who are mainly women”.

What?

The clause concerning “low skills” is slipped in at the end of an article, but it’s actually a bombshell. The reason “Africa” is hungry is that its women are “low skilled”?

This would come as a surprise to those, such as Andrew Mushita and Carol B. Campbell, who have argued, “Most often, women are the keepers of the seeds, tucked away among the beams in the thatched roof, protected from pests by smoke from cooking fire. Others are stored in tins in another location. Villagers volunteer labour to build storage buildings for seed banks, protecting the treasure within the public trust.”

For centuries, and more, women farmers have tended to the seeds, nurtured biodiversity, sustained communities, developed new, and successful, medical treatments, and more.

Esnai Ngwira, a 57-year-old farmer in Ekwendeni, northern Malawi, would be surprised to hear she has a low skills base. Ngwira has been working with a program that builds social ecology in sustainable ways. Rather than using fertilizer, for example, Ngwira uses crop residue. She gets a better maize harvest, helps the soil, helps the earth. Esnai Ngwira is considered “a star innovator.”

Marie Johansson and Victoria Mulunga, of the Creative Entrepreneur Solutions (CES) in northern Namibia, would also be surprised. They, and the other women in their group, are fusing farming practices, gender-responsive environmentalism, and women’s market practices into a sustainable agricultural political economy. They haven’t done that by relying on a “low skill base.”

Likewise, in Kenya, Joyce Odari, an elderly subsistence farmer, was once arrested by forest guards for having cut down trees in a public preserve. She turned her imprisonment into a women’s sustainable agro-forestry operation, that now involves over 200 women in her region.

There are other stories, other women, other names. In the Gambia, women farmers are using simple store-powered dehydrators and dryers to preserve mangoes, which, as dried fruit, they sell to local schools. The mango is a key source of Vitamin A, and its season is short. By drying and distributing them the women farmers are combating blindness, providing extra nutrition in their own homes, and securing extra income.

The stories are everywhere because the women farmers, everywhere across the African continent, are doing what they do. Storing. Sharing. Experiment. Farming. Sustaining. Experimenting some more. Sharing some more.

The first problem for women farmers, on the African continent as elsewhere, is access. Access to land, access to market. Access to resources, access to decent and equal pay. Access to education and then more education. The second problem is security. Land tenure security, market access security. The third problem is autonomy. Global systems of exchange have no respect for the local “customs”, much less the biodiversity that women farmers have created over centuries through open and principled sharing.

“The low skill base of Africa’s farmers, who are mainly women” pretends to focus on women as it obscures the actual lives that women, in this instance women farmers, lead. Not women farmers’ low skill but women farmers’ access to real power haunts a world teetering on the brink of famine. That’s our world.

 

(Photo Credit: Flickr.com / soilsandfood)

 

Call them, simply, workers

Yesterday was May 1, 2011. Around the globe, millions marched. Among the workers marching were sex workers, domestic workers, other denizens of the informal economy. Today is May 2, 2011. What are those workers today? Are they considered, simply, workers or are they `workers’, part worker, part … casual, part … informal, part …shadow, part … contingent, part … guest? All woman, all precarious, all the time.

Categorizing workers as part of a somehow other-than-formal work force and work space naturalizes their exclusion and subordination. Why should they have full rights when they’re not full workers? Minimum wage? For `real’ workers, yes. For live-in domestic workers? Not yet.

Why should informal workers have full `protections’ when they’re not full partners in the social industrial contract? They didn’t sign on. They’re informal. How could they have? They were coerced, trafficked, seduced, forced into their current jobs. They must have been. Otherwise, how could they have accepted such abysmal working conditions? The logic is impeccable … and wrong.

Over the weekend, sex workers in South Africa and India brought the lie of the informal economy logic to light. In South Africa, three Cape Town sex workers are suing the State for harassment. They say they were repeatedly taken into custody and held for forty-eight hours, after which they were released without being charged. The three women argue that when they were arrested, they were not `on duty.’ They were not arrested as sex workers but rather as women who at some point or another have engaged in sex work.

This some-point-or-another is the main insight of The First Pan-India Survey of Sex Workers, a major study of sex workers in India, released on Saturday, April 30. Over the past two years, Rohini Shani & V Kalyan Shankar surveyed three thousand women sex workers from fourteen states.

They found that poverty and limited education matter, but not in the way many expect. Poverty and limited education push girls into labor markets early on, often at the age of six or so, but not into sex work. The largest principal employment sector for the very young was domestic labor. The majority of women waited until they were somewhere between 15 and 22 before entering into sex work. That means women had been wage earning workers, for nine to sixteen years before they entered into sex work.

Over seventy percent of the women said they entered sex work of their own volition. For the vast majority, income was the reason. Sex work pays better than domestic labor, agricultural work, daily wage earning or so-called petty services.

In other words, from the perspectives of the sex workers, sex work is one of a number of `livelihood’ options, as Shani and Shankar conclude: “Sex work cannot be considered as singular or isolated in its links with poverty, for there are other occupations as well which fit into the category of `possible livelihood options’ before sex work emerges as one of them. Sex work is not the only site of poor working conditions. For those coming from the labour markets, they have experienced equally harsh conditions of highly labour intensive work for very low incomes. It is from these background cases, that the significance of sex work as a site of higher incomes or livelihoods emerges.”

From South Africa to India and beyond, the sex worker story centers on the fluidity of identity. In South Africa, three women argue that sex work is a job. It’s not an identity, it’s not permanent. Like any other job, when the worker leaves work, she gets to become herself … again. As herself, she has rights, including the rights to dignity, security, and the preservation of freedom.

In India, the researchers learned that context counts. They had to accept women’s multiple work identities if they wanted to depict and understand women’s choices and situations. As women sex workers described their working lives, they moved fluidly among various occupations, often in the same time period. For Indian women struggling in an unforgiving economy, no occupation is an island entire unto itself.

South African sex workers suing the State, Indian sex workers discussing their lives have something to say to workers, trade unions, researchers, and allies everywhere. Sex workers are not like workers nor are they labor lite. They are workers. While it may be true that none of us is free until all of us are free, they tell us that none of us can talk about women workers’ freedom until all of us recognize the fluidity of women workers’ identities. But for now, as a start, call them, simply, workers.

 

Nascent Collectivities 2

Everlyn Masha Koya

In my previous posting, I looked at testimony of Everlyn Masha Koya, a twenty two year old sex worker-turned-peer educator from Isiolo, Kenya. Ms Koya’s failure to persuade women who have children to leave the sex trade led me to reflect upon contradiction between women’s economic contributions to nation-state and the nation-state’s desire to control women’s behavior and women’s sexuality. Yet it is also a story about state efforts to provide women with different economic opportunities and about women’s efforts to negotiate better lives for themselves and for other women. What else could Ms Koya’s story tell us?

Ms Koya’s grant from the state suggests that it, or its agents, have an interest in expanding women’s economic opportunities. As Rajeswari Sunder Rajan points out, the state isn’t a monolithic structure. It is made up of different institutions and individuals who do different, sometimes competing, things. While one arm of the state might be securing its sovereignty by making it possible for sex workers to have access to military bases, another arm of the state might be securing grants to give women training so they have a wider range of economic opportunities. As Sunder Rajan argues, “any understanding of state-citizen relations requires…attention to the microlevel workings of state regimes” (6).

Ms Koya’s testimony suggests that the state might participate in the exploitation and oppression of women’s bodies and lives. But if we look at different branches of the state, and different individuals who work for it, the state also can be used to improve women’s lives. As Ms Koya reports, “Then in July [2009], officials from the [government’s] Arid Lands Office held a meeting for sex workers at the Isiolo stadium. We were asked to quit. They asked us to identify what kind of business we wanted to start, trained us in how to conduct business, budgeting, keep a record of our sales, savings and also asked us to go for HIV testing. I was lucky to test negative.”

What else can we learn from this story?  Within the situations that she has inherited, Ms Koya’s efforts to transform her own life and the lives of other women, to work for freedom from violence tells us about what women are doing within, and against, epistemic violence. In some locations, because of their economic contributions and their perceived social role of servicing male sexual need, sex workers have been able to emerge as a collective and make demands on the state. As Cynthia Enloe points out, there have been efforts by women in Kenya and in the Philippines to create networks of women in countries that host American military bases. This is a step towards addressing and dismantling the global gender structures on which military bases depend. There are other transnational and local efforts, including daily work of survival by growing gardens and recycling waste, organizing gender forum; occupying leftist organizations which don’t address gender and gendered labor; fighting back through state institutions and on the streets; union organizing; reporting which reframes issues as women’s issues; reporting which reframes issues as more than just women’s issues; story telling; women, and people around them, saying “enough,” and many other activities for dignity and well-being.

If we look closely, we see women actively participating in public life. Women are at the forefront of resistance movements in places like Honduras and South Africa. Women protest the failure of the state to investigate the systematic murder of women in Vancouver and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Women challenge the meaning of public space and public mourning in Argentina and Iran. Women organize feminist media in Costa Rica. And there is the more quiet, everyday work of women to improve the daily conditions and work to enable themselves and their families to survive in the face of everyday poverty or ‘natural’ disasters. This happens just about everywhere and has different contexts but let’s point to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as one place where women struggle to survive.

Paying attention to gendered violence and power, all forms and mixes of it, that work through the family, the community, the state and its institutions, and through economic structures and arrangements is important work. But so is paying attention to women’s individual and collective efforts, in the context of gendered power, all forms and mixes of it, to “transform the conditions of their lives” (Kabeer, 54). Women are not just victims of material forces, state power and cultural patriarchy. Women actively seek to work for the health and well being of their families, their children, other women, and their communities. In the context of structural constraints, we see women like Ms Koya struggling, negotiating, working, and, even, organizing. It’s important to pay attention to what women are doing, their activities and obstacles to their activities, in relation to the gender-structured conditions that they’ve inherited.

 

(Photo Credit: Noor Ali / IRIN)

Nascent Collectivities 1

Everlyn Masha Koya

Everlyn Masha Koya, a twenty two year old sex worker-turned-peer-educator from Isiolo, Kenya, recently told a story of the limited work choices that impoverished women face which can lead them to become sex workers and the daily violence they experience from police, from clients, from families and communities.

Ms Koya became a sex worker because her family was unable to afford education fees and her home situation became unbearable once she finished school. She left sex work when she was offered training by government officials to start a small business. She then tried to convince other young women to quit the trade, with limited success. Efforts to persuade women to leave sex work are difficult despite daily violence from clients, the constant threat of incarceration, and the social stigma attached to sex work.

Why is the state interested in helping women leave the sex trade? How might the presence of trade routes and military bases conflict with state efforts to give women alternative employment? How might the expansion of the national “economy” create a situation in which multiple forms of persuasion are not effective? Why is it difficult to persuade young women who have children to leave sex work? These questions suggest a feminist investigation of the nation-state’s dependence upon women as symbols, workers, and dutiful daughters, and the role that women play in the national-economy.

The patriarchal state treats prostitution in two contradictory ways. First, prostitution as female sex work is an aspect of the economy. Prostitution services “what is generally viewed as an incessant and urgent male sexual need…and is therefore to be safeguarded in more or less overt ways for this purpose.” In a situation where nation-state wants to produce and secure livelihoods through active trade routes, sex workers are seen as “necessary” for men to be good workers. In a situation where the state builds military bases to protect the physical borders of the nation-state, sex workers are seen as “necessary” for well-being of soldiers. Thus, the nation state relies upon women to enter sex trade to preserve national economic security and military security. Ms Koya’s statement captures the material situation in which women enter sex work: “Girls are all flocking to Isiolo because there is a ready market for sex work: it has four military camps and a transit route to northern Kenya.”

Second, prostitution serves as an instance of deviant or criminal female sexuality, an activity which the state monitors and controls. The state is interested in producing a coherent population, a “culture,” a “national people” with a shared language, values, behavior, and “history.” This state wants to unify “people” as a national community and to produce citizens in specific ways and in specific roles. It is therefore deeply invested in controlling individuals and populations which exceed norms of gendered behavior. The state demonstrates its authority by placing sex workers under surveillance and controlling sex workers through state institutions, including police, courts, and social welfare-bodies. As Ms Koya says, “Sex work is risky work. I was a frequent visitor to the police station; last year, I spent two months in prison. It is very cold at night, most of the time you go home without getting a client, sometimes you take the risk and allow a customer with good money – KSh500 [$6.60] or so – to sleep with you without a condom.”

Here’s the contradiction: sex workers are “necessary” for the productivity of male workers and stability of military bases. At the same sex workers are vulnerable to surveillance and harassment by the police because they are marked by the nation-state as outside of gender and sexual norms. And, sex workers receive little support or protection from families who see sex work as degraded work.

Ms Koya is caught in this contradiction. Her family is unable to support her education. There are few economic opportunities for her after she leaves school. She enters sex work because there’s a market for it. At the same time, the state, her family, and the community stigmatize women who violate sexual norms by participating in sex work. Meanwhile, women are vulnerable to violent clients, at risk of being infected by HIV/AIDS, and at risk of developing drug addiction. In Ms Koya’s testimony, these risks are part of everyday life, not extraordinary or exceptional, mundane rather than dramatic. The conjunction of these contradictions is epistemic gender based violence – violence of the police, violence of the state, and violence of culture – which appears normal in as much as it does not appear as violence. Epistemic violence is a “logical and consistent and systematic philosophy and world view” which is built into institutions, systems, and structures of society, convergences of rule of law, national identity and citizenship, and rhetorics of ‘protection,’ ‘economy,’ ‘health,’ ‘necessity,’ ‘autonomy,’. This violence limits women’s capacities, opportunities that are available to women for freedom, for safety, for economic self-determination, and health and well-being, and for the freedom, safety, and heath of their families and those who depend upon them.

So, Ms Koya receives a small government grant and training to open a second hand clothing story which enables her to leave sex work. But for women who are responsible for children, the state’s economic modifications are insufficient. And this insufficiency becomes particularly vivid in the context of police violence, the threat of HIV/AIDS, violence from clients, and the dangers of substance abuse. Ms Koya’s failure to persuade women who have children to leave the sex trade can be understood through the contradiction produced by women’s economic responsibilities to their children and reliance of the state on women’s vulnerability and exploitability. As Ms Koya says, “I have tried to get many girls off the streets but it’s really hard. So far I have managed eight, but I am told two have already gone back. Girls with children are the most difficult to convince.”

 

(Photo Credit: Noor Ali / IRIN)

 

Kenya Imagine Women: Why Justice Must Be Served

Ruth Njeri

Ruth Njeri

Thanks to the reminders of the violence that was meted on thousands of innocent Kenyans in the period that is now known as Post Election Violence I am unlikely to sleep tonight. Two years ago seated in my Minnesota living room I listened in horror (emails and phone calls) to stories about women being raped. The reports on rape first started with the attacks that followed soon after the election results were announced — and continued as displaced women moved into camps away from their homes.

I was thousands of miles away, but so grossly affected by the unnecessary violence that that year I did not celebrate New Year’s Day. In fact, I was very angry with Kenyans who went out to celebrate the New Year that night.

A high school friend had just graduated from medical school and was now a doctor in a Kenyan hospital. Her voice broke every time she told me of the people she saw at the local hospitals. Thus began my email conversations with the wonderful women at the Gender Violence Recovery Centre  of the Nairobi Women’s Hospital. I learned that in just a little over two weeks (December 27th 2007 to 13th January 2008) the hospital had seen 100 victims of sexual violence: 40 of them were under 18. Children. The youngest of these was only four. A baby.

It is these true stories that inspired me to write about this violence that was largely unspoken off: to give a voice in these women’s words. This violence against women that is time and time again used in time of conflict.

So it is with renewed horror that I read in yesterday’s Daily Nation about Ruth Njeri whose husband was killed during the PEV. What’s more, she was raped several times, scalded with hot water and left for dead. As if this defilement of her person were not enough, Njeri discovered she was pregnant. That her counselors kept her pregnancy a secret from her is a subject for a different discussion:

She was tested, but the medical staff were evasive about the results although they continued counselling her.  After six months, Njeri wanted to terminate the pregnancy but was not allowed to.

Before all that Njeri and her husband were working-class Kenyans: business people

Here she describes how they raided her home. From her account it is obvious that their only interest was to kill her and her family; adding to the growing evidence that most of the PEV incidents were planned.  It is also curious that they were all dressed similarly.

“They were howling like dogs and were dressed in white T-shirts and red shorts,” she recalls. “I stood rooted to the ground with fear, knowing that these were the men my husband had referred to earlier. About seven of the men entered the compound and began kicking and pushing me into the house while the rest went away.”

Once inside the house, they took the little boy from Njeri’s husband and flung him against the wall. They then attacked her husband. “They were prepared and well-armed,” recalls Njeri. “They had machetes, rungus, arrows and whips. I cried for mercy, then pleaded, but they would not listen. I ran to the bedroom and got them Sh40,000.  I begged them to take the money and leave us but they just laughed.

“One of them snatched the money from me, smelt it and threw it in my face. He reached into his pockets and pulled out many Sh1,000 notes, ‘We don’t need your money, we have been paid well to do our job,’” he said.

And then like savages her attackers molested her. In turns.

Njeri was barely conscious when they began raping her in turns. But she remembers that each one would finish with her then help himself to some of the food she had cooked. Her last memory of that night is of the men pouring hot water on her naked body before leaving her for dead.

Perhaps, at the end of the day when we are done debating politics and laughing at the idiocy of the political elite, perhaps then we will think of Njeri and thousands of internally displaced persons whose only wish is that their lives might return to some normalcy and that those who masterminded the PEV would pay.

And for Njeri and her children the struggle continues.

Njeri finds herself swinging between depression and the will to rebuild her life.  “At times I look at our condition and wonder whether it will ever end, or what kind of punishment this is,” she cries. “Then I look at others who are worse off… for women who were raped and contracted Aids, it is a sure death sentence. Then I count my blessings and console myself that although I lost my husband and my property, I still have the son of the man I loved, and I consider Wanjiru a blessing and another reason for me to live.” 

This post appeared originally at Kenya Imagine: http://www.kenyaimagine.coedim/23-Fresh-Content/Politics-and-Governance/Why-Justice-Must-Be-Served.html/

(Photo Credit: Daily Nation)

ACAS Bulletin 83: Sexual and gender based violence in Africa

Sexual and gender based violence in Africa

A New ACAS Bulletin edited by Daniel Moshenberg

This Bulletin began in response to news reports of “corrective” and “curative” gang rapes of lesbians in South Africa. These were then followed by news reports of a study in South Africa that found that one in four men in South Africa had committed rape, many of them more than once. We wanted to bring together concerned Africa scholars and committed African activists and practitioners, to help contextualize these reports. We wanted to address the ongoing situation of sexual and gender based violence on the continent, the media coverage of sexual and gender based violence in Africa, and possibilities for responses, however partial, that might offer alternatives to the discourse of the repeated profession of shock or the endless, and endlessly reiterated, cycle of lamentation. To that end, we have brought together writers of prose fiction (Megan Voysey-Braig), lawyer-advocates (Salma Maoulidi, Ann Njogu), poets (Chinwe Azubuike), trauma scholars (Sariane Leigh), human righs and women’s rights advocates (Michelle McHardy), gender and transgender advocates (Liesl Theron), activist researchers (Sasha Gear). These categories are fluid, since every writer here is involved in various activist projects, advocates in many ways. The writers do not pretend to `cover Africa’, and neither does the collection of their writings. The writings treat South Africa, Nigeria, Zanzibar, Kenya, Sierra Leone. They are meant to continue certain conversations, to initiate others.

Read more here : http://concernedafricascholars.org/analysis/acas-bulletin-83/

Download the Entire pdf (3.4mb) here: http://concernedafricascholars.org/docs/Bulletin83.pdf

Table of Contents

Sexual and gender based violence: everyday, everywhere, and yet… | pdf
Daniel Moshenberg

Untitled | pdf
Megan Voysey-Braig

Zanzibar GBV advocacy: important lessons for future legal reform strategies | pdf
Salma Maoulidi

Searching for the will to conscientiously prosecute sexual crimes in Zanzibar | pdf
Salma Maoulidi

Poet’s Note | pdf
Onwu Di
Of Widowhood
Chinwe Azubuike

Post conflict recovery in Sierra Leone: the spiritual self and the transformational state | pdf
Sariane Leigh

To be a woman in Kenya: a look at sexual and gender-based violence | pdf
Ann Njogu and Michelle McHardy

Trans-hate at the core of gender based violence? | pdf
Liesl Theron

Manhood, violence and coercive sexualities in men’s prisons: dynamics and consequences behind bars and beyond | pdf
Sasha Gear

Supplemental Material

Profile: Dr Denis Mukwge
Lelly Morris / The Lancet

Interview: Sexual terrorism in eastern DRC
Amy Goodman interveiws Christine Shuler Deschryver

Report: Soldiers who rape, commanders who condone
Human Rights Watch


The Association of Concerned African Scholars (ACAS) is a network of academics, analysts and activists. ACAS is engaged in critical research and analysis of Africa and U.S. government policy; developing communication and action networks; and mobilizing concerned communities on critical, current issues related to Africa. ACAS is committed to interrogating the methods and theoretical approaches that shape the study of Africa.

Kenyan Women on a Sex Strike: Why They Did It

[Editors’ note: There’s been much talk and writing on the current `sex strike’ in Kenya. Here’s one version. Thanks to Kenyaimagine, www.kenyaimagine.com, and to the author, Nekessa Opoti, for permission to publish and for sharing.]

I must be getting wrong. Or maybe most people are missing the point of the sex strike.My first reaction when I heard about the sex strike was: how bold! what a statement! Still, I questioned their use of sex as a tool. And then I began to watch in dismay as the country reacted. Perhaps we all agree that Kenyan politicians need to get their act together. But sex is still a taboo; unspoken.

The backlash from Kenyans is not surprising. The chatter on social networking sites, and in email conversations, shows that many Kenyans do not believe that this was the right strategy.  But first let’s look at examples in recent history where women have gone on sex strikes to make political, human rights and economic statements.

In Naples last year, Neapolitan women sought to prevent their men from exploding fireworks at Christmas and New Year celebrations by denying them their conjugal rights. The campaign had the support of the local authorities as well as the Church; it seems to have succeeded.

In Colombia, there have been two serious attempts at the Lysistrata strategy.

In 1997 the BBC reported that, “Studies found that local gang members were drawn to criminality by the desire for status, power, and sexual attractiveness, not economic necessity, Colombian radio reported.”:

the chief of the Colombian army, appealed on national television to the wives and girlfriends of the Colombian left-wing guerrillas, drug traffickers, and paramilitaries. He urged them to deny sex to their menfolk until a cease fire was reached. At the same time, the mayor of Bogota, Antanas Mockus Civicas, declared the city a women-only zone for a night, suggesting men stay at home to reflect on violence. The Communists ridiculed these initiatives, pointing out that they numbered more than 2,000 females among their own ranks. Nonetheless, the measure, combined with democratic and diplomatic approaches, achieved a brief cease fire.

And in 2006,

…dozens of wives and girlfriends of gang members from Pereira (Colombia), started a sex strike called “La huelga de las piernas cruzadas” (the strike of crossed legs) to curb gang violence, in response to 480 deaths due to gang violence in that coffee region. According to spokesman Jennifer Bayer, the specific target was the strike was to force gang members to turn in their weapons in compliance with the law. According to them, many gang members were involved in violent crime for status and sexual attractiveness, and the strike sent the message that refusing to turn in the guns was not sexy.

In Poland in 1992:

….a newly elected Catholic prime minister made abortions illegal for the first time since the 1950s: since contraception was not widely available in the country, abortions had traditionally been the most prevalent method of birth control. When this became illegal, birth rates fell dramatically: Polish women refused sex for fear of getting pregnant. Since then, an anti-clerical government has replaced the Catholic one, at least in part as a result of the pro-choice backlash.

The following two cases have perhaps been the most effective.

In Liberia while the peace talks that eventually ended the civil war were in progress, it became clear to a group of concerned women that Charles Taylor’s side wasn’t taking the talks with the seriousness they deserved. So the women camped outside the parties’ door and refused to leave until a deal was made. The Ghanaian president met with the women, assured them of his support for their initiative, and promised that he would do his best to ensure that the talks would be taken seriously. The women, then, had external support. Watch (video below) the documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” where the women explain how their sex strike worked: pressures in personal relationships pushed men to action against rebel leaders and prayer. Atieno Demo makes a powerful case for why the personal is political.

Iceland’s movement in in 1975 also received national prominence resulting in one of the first equality legislation in the world. Known as the “Women’s Day Off “, this was more than a sex strike: women stayed home from work to protest discriminatory wages.

 Several women organizations in Kenya, including FIDA, have banded together in a week-long sex ban in protest over the infighting plaguing the national unity government. Other groups in the coalition are Caucus for Women’s Leadership and Maendeleo ya Wanawake. (You can read their press release here ). The following are the demands from these women’s groups:

  • President Kibaki and Mr Odinga respect the people and nation of Kenya by “ending forthwith the little power games” that undermine the dignity, safety and democratic spaces of our country;
  • The President and PM give respect, full intent, interpretation and observation to the spirit and letter of the National Accord and Reconciliation;
  • A responsive, sensitive and people-driven leadership and coalition government that is decisive, clear about the country’s priorities, willing to sacrifice individual ambition for the greater good of the nation, a leadership that inspires confidence amongst the country’s people;
  • Fast-tracking of the reforms agenda, and,
  • Resignation of Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka and refusal by him to be used to defeat the National Accord.

In Kenya, the situation is not as extreme as in Liberia; the behaviour which they want to stop has no direct connection with sex, as it seems to have had in Colombia; and, unlike Iceland, Colombia, Poland and Italy, Kenyan women don’t already have the power that might make the threat a threat a plausible one. Still, all that is necessary for the strike to succeed is for it to have an impact. And that it certainly will. It has drawn attention to the difficulties which Kenyan women face, and it has shown that they will not hesitate to use what power they have to collectively improve their lot.

There’s an argument to be made that Kenyan men interact with women intimately only when having, or seeking, sex. Women are deliberately shut out of almost every other influential position: decisions in the home, and state, are not only not theirs to make, they cannot even significantly influence them. So it seems that a woman’s power is limited to her relationship(s). But not even always, since we know that many women do not have the right to say no to sex, with their husbands, boyfriends, or bosses.

The feminists of G10 want them to use it, since that’s a key part of the power that women are able to command. It could be argued that this choice plays directly into the hands of antifeminists who will take it as confirmation of the stereotype that women are wily, good for nothing and so on. On the other hand, women are entitled to use the weapons at their disposal, within reason. There is nothing wrong, of itself, in witholding sex. And the antifeminists would find reason to oppose conceding women their rights whether or not women chose this strategy.

So why think that the strike will be a success? And, if it isn’t a success, what’s the point of engaging in it?

A double-edged sword: sex and power. By forcing a national conversation on a taboo topic, these Kenyan women have turned the lens back to Kenyans.

A theme begins to resonate: that a woman’s power only lies in her sexuality. The Daily Nation runs this headline: “The Strength of a Woman,” casting women as sex objects, that even when they are denying men sex, they can essentially only give and take away sex.

But sex is not what the strike is about. The strike is calling to action a government that is  not serving people.

A white-haired man, interviewed on television the next day, proclaimed, with no shame or embarrassment, that a woman’s duty from birth is to serve God and her man. And because women were denying men their rights, well, they should be beaten up. Several other comments I have seen are unworthy of discussion. But I will mention them nonetheless. That feminists are breakers of homes. Yes, the very feminists who are on strike because they are afraid of a repeat of the post election violence. That they might be lesbians and have no husbands or boyfriends; a very tired and irrelevant argument. That Kenyan politicians only sleep with their wives once or twice a year: power displaced.

Many people have wondered why non-political men should be “punished” for the sins of Kenya’s political class. If we are to use this argument then teachers, nurses, doctors, policemen and other civil servants should never go on strike because their pupils, patients et al are not responsible for their grievances.  Sex, unlike medical treatment and education, is not even a right. But wouldn’t it be great if men supported this strike, and demanded more from their government? The beginning of the framing of a continuing national crisis: a self-serving political class. But this, I understand, is wishful thinking on my part.

It is not just men who have missed the point of the strike. Muslim women in Mombasa, and Kenyan churches, have called the strike a reckless pronouncement that would lead to men divorcing their wives. A shame isn’t it? That sex, the kind in which a woman has no choice, is the glue that holds our families together.

I am afraid the joke is on us.

In Nigeria, Ekiti women have taken to a more expressive strike: women took to the streets half-naked last week as they protested delayed election results hoping to shame them into action, afterall noone wants to see their mother, grandmother, or aunts naked.

(Photo Credit: Pewee Flomoku / SFGate)