'Strengthening life' for Kenyan women and children

Anglican Overseas Aid's support of anti-domestic violence and child protection programs is changing lives in Kenya

Education and empowerment are at the heart of the AOA-supported program.

By Chris Shearer

April 29 2019 

Purity is a kind-faced woman, quick to smile, well spoken, confident. Yet, like so many other Kenyan women, she has suffered through terrible domestic violence, known locally as gender-based violence (GBV).

“I am a victim of GBV,” she says in the church hall near her home outside Thangathi, in Nyeri county. “But through this program I learned I can be strong in myself … I’ve started seeing myself as a victor, not a victim.”

The program Purity is referring to is the Imarisha Maisha project, supported by Anglican Overseas Aid in partnership with the Anglican Church of Kenya, Mount Kenya West. Imarisha Maisha, which is Swahili for “strengthen life”, is a multi-pronged approach to addressing gender-based violence and child abuse and building safer communities.

It’s a project the country sorely needs. It’s hard to reconcile the friendly outward face of Kenya with the harrowing statistics of violence and abuse against women and children. According to the Kenyan Department of Human Service, 45 per cent of women and 44 of men have experienced violence since age 15, while 39 per cent of women and 9 per cent of men have experienced physical or sexual violence from a spouse. A report by the Kenya Catholic Secretariat of Religious Education found that verbal and physical abuse of school-aged children was “rampant” with eight out of every 10 children victims, while three out of 10 have experienced sexual harassment or abuse.

Anglican Overseas Aid CEO the Revd Dr Bob Mitchell, who recently visited Kenya as part of an AOA board trip, said that addressing these issues was the “natural evolution” from AOA’s previous work in Kenya around maternal and child health.

“That work revealed that community protection issues for women and children were a major issue, as they are in many societies,” he told TMA. But given how ingrained these issues were in Kenyan society, a holistic approach was needed.

The Imarisha Maisha project has several key elements, but perhaps the most visible is the training of local paralegals, whose jobs then become educating their communities about abuse of women and children and supporting its victims. Known as nyumba kumi, which means “ten houses” and refers to the approximate number of homes per paralegal, they are trained in human rights, the Kenyan legal statutes relating to abuse, and how to support victims.

Key to the success of the nyumba kumi is how they fit into traditional village hierarchies, supporting the chiefs and working as a front line of education and conflict resolution. At the same time, church leaders, school principals, teachers, and civic leaders are engaged to promote cultural change in attitudes towards women and children.

“With GBV and child protection, we’re trying to work within the already established community structures,” says Millicent Wambugu, program coordinator at the Mount Kenya West diocese.

“The communities are able to appreciate people who are their own. Because the people being trained belong to the community, they are able to identify issues, they are able to refer, they also are able to reach out to their own communities, [and] sensitise them on the basic law so the rights of women and children are protected.”

Their job is not an easy one though. Nyumba kumi Gabriel said there was initially some resistance when he began working at the site of a quarry outside Chaka two years ago. Back then around 100 children had been taken out of school by their parents to work crushing stones into gravel or selling food to the workers. Alcohol and drugs led to fights and gender-based violence between parents.

“So I had to come here and train others about children’s rights … I had to intervene and educate them about the rights of women and others,” he says.

The parents of the children working in the quarry were initially “not happy”, Gabriel says, but little by little he gained more support. Some days he would hold meetings that could draw up to 50 people, but on other days he simply walked around the quarry, sharing his message with the people he met. Two years later the children are back in school, GBV has decreased, and Gabriel is a valued local figure.

“Me, personally, I have become popular,” he says, smiling. “They know somewhere where they can get help.”

So far the nyumba kumi have gained strong support from the chiefs in the eight villages chosen for the project. In Kiawara, not far from Nyeri, Assistant Chief John says the nyumba kumi have “changed my life as an administrator”. Not long ago long lines of people seeking to settle quarrels would greet him at his office each morning, but between the education programs of the 10 new nyumba kumi and their ability to settle minor issues, real change is beginning to take effect in Kiawara.

“It’s like I’ve been given 10 supporters, those people I can lead our people with,” he says. “They have the knowledge to solve issues in the villages.”

Across the county in Thangathi, Senior Chief Symon agrees. “They’ve made my work as the senior chief quite easy in that they handle most of the minor issues because they’ve been trained on almost everything, all the fears of life at the family level, at the household unit,” he says.

“And they’ve really helped women, because most women, initially, were shying away from bringing out their issues to the office. They could be intimidated by their husbands … that fear is now no more because in the women’s groups … they also [teach] women on their rights as wives and mothers and care givers to their children, their rights even when it comes to property.”

While education is an important part of these women’s groups, they serve several functions. Purity says the social aspect helps make their problems feel “lighter” as the women are able to support one another. Then there’s the emphasis on building self-reliance through small businesses, so they can achieve economic independence from abusive spouses.

“If someone undergoes violence, we talk to them, maybe about how to start an income generating project, like I do [with] chickens, where you can survive and provide for your children,” Purity says.

“We tell each other, ‘we can do this’ and ‘we can sustain ourselves financially’.”

Millicent says this focus on economic independence is key to creating lasting change in communities ravaged by GBV.

“We did a baseline survey and poverty was one of the precipitating factors to GBV and child rights abuse. We felt that [by] training communities to be self-reliant through SBA (strength-based approaches) … conflicts will become lower.”

For Dr Mitchell, the project has already exceeded his expectations. “At a relatively early stage of the project life-cycle, it has achieved some very impressive results,” he says. “This combined range of social, cultural and legal reinforcement is bringing real change more rapidly than I had anticipated.”