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Fighting Kenya’s femicide

Grassroots socialist and feminist organising in spaces like Kayole Social Justice Centre, Nairobi, are leading the fight against patriarchy, capitalism, and a colonial present, writes Maryanne Kasina

5 to 7 minute read

Members of the Kayole Social Justice Centre stand in front of a wall of grafiti with their fists raised. The wall says 'peace' and 'courage'

Kenya is marked by a series of social, political, and economic challenges that disproportionately affect women and their families. The country is also marked by what has been described as a femicide problem.

Earlier this year, in January 2024 thousands of Kenyan women took to the cities and towns across the country to stage one the largest protests Kenya has seen against sexual and gender-based violence. The anti-femicide demonstration saw many of us urging for women to stop being killed.

At the time of the protest, in the month of January 2024, 21 women had already been murdered by their partners. More than 500 women and girls have reportedly been killed by partners or intimate relations since 2016. We’re in a femicide epidemic. 

The protest was also a part of a wider concern with the numerous forms of direct and indirect violence women and girls face. This ranges from high teenage pregnancy rates, and, as we also document in our community-based work in Nairobi, the dire circumstances faced by women in the Kenya’s prisons. Women faces challenges in the local and global labour market — many Kenyan women form a cheap labour force in the Gulf Arab states. Most significantly, poverty is an issue for large parts of the population, which always impact women, minorities, and refugees the hardest. 

Consider that women in Kenya routinely engage in care work without pay. Or that access to healthcare is a broader problem Kenyans face — public facilities often lack proper infrastructure and medical supplies and private health care is extortionat. But for women the consequences kill, and kill at a far greater rate. Greater numbers of Kenyan women are losing their lives during childbirth.

Women are also more vulnerable to growing poverty. Since President William Ruto came into power in August 2022, high inflation and cost of living has also resulted in repeated protests and widespread dissatisfaction with the current ruling government. Article 43 of the Constitution of Kenya guarantees citizens’ rights to healthcare, food, and employment. But these rights are unrealised. Unsurprisingly, as is the case elsewhere,  the impact of capitalism’s latest ‘crisis’ —  the cost of living —  especially affects women. 

Single-mothers, who are a large portion of Kenya’s population, find they are used as a political slogan by male politicians across the political spectrum, as a moral national problem to solve. How this will be done is never clear. No support in terms of money and government resources are allocated to single-mothers. Instead, in practice, these women find themselves overwhelmed with rising costs of basic amenities. They struggle to pay high medical bills when their children get sick. And as women struggle to pay for education — itself increasingly privatized across the country — more and more children, primarily from low-income families, are missing out on education. 

Then there are the things women need to buy. High-inflation means women across the country cannot afford menstrual products. Prices of sanitary towels and pads have escalated massively. Meanwhile baby formula is now near extortionate. 2023 saw a rise of baby formula prices by 16 per cent, leaving many women, including those in our community, struggling to provide basic nourishment for their babies. 

Our demands: women lead the way

As members of a grassroots socialist and feminist struggle against imperialism, ecological plunder, capitalism, and patriarchy, the aspiration for a dignified life is at the heart of our struggles and organising efforts. We know that all peoples, and especially women, deserve the opportunity to access basic commodities and services that ensure their well-being and quality of life. 

We know that how we, as women, are treated is a direct legacy of colonialism. As others show, colonialism categorised white European women as the standard of femininity and womanhood at the expense of indigenous, non-European, black, and African women. These classifications have entrenched ‘a culture of silence and invisibility‘ of African women, which in Kenya, a former white settler colonial state, still shapes ‘attitudes of Kenya’s government and individuals alike on women’s rights.’

For the women in our communities, we see resounding examples of resilience and political resistance

What then must be done? And what are we doing? Our demands, as socialists, feminists, and internationalists, are simple: we need urgent systemic change in which the lives of women are front and center of our liberation. We have been there all along — from Micere Githae Mugo to Mukami Kimathi  to Muthoni Nyanjiru — and will continue to be. We must not forget this.

I work in Kayole Community Justice Centre, which is led by us, the people, of the so-called informal housing settlements or ‘slums’. Many ‘slums’ historically emerged from racialized urban planning when white colonialists pushed black Africans to the outskirts of Nairobi (Asians, brought over from the subcontinent to build railways, were allowed in some areas as second class citizens). 

In Kayole we lead as women, with women, and our communities of the so-called informal zones. We know that it is up to us to make clear how colonial domination has led to our societies fractures and alienations — from the creation of gender, gendered hierarchies, and its inequalities, to the ongoing economic exploitation of our people and resources.

Part of that has meant to make clear, in our political education programs, the structural factors that shape our lives — from colonialism to capitalism to patriarchy. The other part is quite practical — it is about thinking, acting, and organising differently because, as the poet and organiser Lena Grace Anuyolo shows, even our social justice movements have a patriarchy problem too. To counter this we create ‘safe spaces’ and ‘women’s zones’, where women’s needs are consciously centered and we are able to speak up and organise without worrying about a dominant male personality in our broader movement or that our concerns do not matter as we have been conditioned to believe. 

In other cases we use art, and advocacy, and other means of expression to get more people thinking and organising with us. We use theater, street murals, and music. We engage in political education in our communities through people’s assemblies where women’s voices are heard on capitalism, socialism, to our right to bodily autonomy — yes, we put it all there on the table to be heard and not shunned. 

We also organise through the community by creating community gardens — a small shamba (farm) — or a children’s corner to address the practical needs of women, such as getting access to food, a space to relax, and a space to allow care and creativity for their — and our — children. 

By doing so, we have seen the people of our community engage in their neighborhoods to connect to broader national and international issues. Our women, our communities, our men, and others, have led protests against the 2023 Kenya Finance Bill, police brutality, and femicide. We have also been leading solidarity campaigns with Palestine, Haiti, Congo, and Sudan. 

For the women in our communities, we see resounding examples of resilience and political resistance. We see people willing to stand on the front line and organise for the dreams of a more just and equitable society. Our fight is for today and the future and our future generations. In Kayole, in Nairobi, in Kenya, and beyond.

Maryanne Kasina is a grassroot feminist organizer with Kayole Social Justice Centre

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