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In late March, reports of violence against women began flooding into newspapers and onto T.V. screens as the pandemic picked up speed around the globe. With over half of the world’s population living under lockdown, millions of women were trapped with an abusive partner, cut off from extended family and often with reduced access to support services due to COVID-19 restrictions. For many women, the pandemic equalled  a two-fold threat: coronavirus infections and being locked in a confined space while facing danger on a daily basis. 

In the past nine months, all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic, have intensified, according to the United Nations (U.N). Now, despite the majority of countries around the world tackling the coronavirus head-on, many of those same nations have failed victims of abuse through inadequate planning, funding and attention.

“Men’s violence against women is also a pandemic, one that pre-dates the virus and will outlive it,” said U.N. Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka in a statement to mark the annual International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women last month. “It too needs our global, coordinated response and enforceable protocols. It too affects vast populations of all ages.”

Worsening the situation is many governments’ failure to include protection for those abused as part of their COVID-19 response plans. According to data from the U.N.’s COVID-19 Gender Response Tracker, most nations are not doing enough to address the “economic and social fallout” caused by the crisis. Less than a quarter of the 206 countries analysed by the tracker treated violence against women and girls-related services as an “integral part of their national and local COVID-19 response plans,” with very few providing adequate funding for related services. 

The global response has particularly failed women and girls in refugee settings and, displaced and post conflict environments, according to a new report from the International Rescue Committee. Local women’s groups were critical to maintaining essential gender-based violence support services during the pandemic, it adds.

Set against this harrowing backdrop are ongoing economic pressures and widespread job loss, which have contributed to what the U.N. are calling a ‘shadow pandemic’. In April, the agency estimated that for every three months of lockdown that continued, an additional 15 million women were expected to be affected by intimate partner violence. 

Last year, some 243 million women and girls experienced sexual or physical violence from their partner around the world. In 2020, reports of domestic violence, cyberbullying, child marriages, sexual harassment and sexual violence have increased globally, added Mlambo-Ngcuka. The abuse is as global as the pandemic: from Brazil to China, Uganda to Nigeria, its alarming rise has been well-documented. 

In the U.K, the British government failed to prioritise domestic abuse in its lockdown arrangements and did not provide help for abuse victims fast enough. At least 16 domestic abuse killings took place between 23 March and 12 April in the U.K, much higher than the average for the time of year, according to the Counting Dead Women project.

Around the world, distress calls to abuse hotlines sky-rocketed, though official data isn’t always clear-cut. 

A women’s hotline in Uganda reported a more than five fold jump in the number of average weekly domestic violence cases reported once lockdown started in late March. The British charity Refuge, meanwhile, reported a 700% increase in calls on one single day in April. But in other places, such as Italy, official numbers decreased as women were less able to seek help through regular channels while at home with their perpetrators, say rights groups.

“Sometimes, reported abuse cases are falling dramatically and you would think that violence is going down, but it’s just the opposite,” Christina Wegs, the global advocacy director for sexual and reproductive health and rights for CARE, told the Washington Post in September. “The drop is reflecting that women and vulnerable people are not able to report what’s happening.”

In fact, evidence shows that the pandemic has resulted in significant increases in gender-based violence in nearly all countries, according to UNAIDS, especially for women trapped at home with their abusers.

Data compiled by U.N. Women in April this year across ten countries, including the United States, Singapore and Argentina, showed a heightened demand for access to women’s refuges and other support services this year, while shelters reached peak capacity in many places, made worse by the fact that some were repurposed for additional COVID-response programmes. 

In the early stages of the pandemic, some countries did take steps to respond to the warnings of soaring domestic abuse rates. Canada allocated $50 million to women’s shelters and sexual assault centres, while the government in New Zealand included preparations in its lockdown plans from the beginning (and have since pledged $141 million to domestic and sexual violence services). France, Italy and Spain each set up programmes to house people in hotels if existing emergency shelters were at capacity.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, there are also plans to support organizations running shelters, while in Colombia and Sweden financial resources are being allocated to support gender-based violence survivors.

There has also been action on the grassroots level. Women have been at the forefront of protests over the past couple of months in a bid to draw attention to domestic violence and demand government action. In July, large-scale protests erupted in Turkey over the killing of 27-year-old Pinar Gultekin, a university student whose former partner was later arrested for her murder. Gultekin is just one of 278 women killed in Turkey because of her gender since the beginning of the year, compared to at least 474 in 2019, the highest rate in a decade, according to the campaign group We Will Stop Femicide Platform. The final figures for 2020 are expected to be higher, given coronavirus lockdowns.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine last month, feminist group Femen staged a topless protest outside President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. And in Mexico, protests to fight physical and sexual violence have taken over the city, with feminists kicking government workers out of the Human Rights Commission building last month to use it as a makeshift shelter for women fleeing violent homes.

But many fear this could be too little, too late. “The economics of violence are simple and devastating,” says Mlambo-Ngcuka from U.N. Women. “No one gains. Everyone loses, and we have to turn this around. We know what it takes to fight a pandemic. Now we need the will to do it.”

One morning in September, Ashura Mciteka was sitting at home when her daughter burst through the door. “Come and see,” cried 10-year-old Ella, tugging her mother’s hand. Together they retraced Ella’s steps along a rocky, uneven pathway in their low-income neighbourhood in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, to where the young girl had been playing. 

The pair spotted it easily: a tangle of lifeless limbs in a muddy puddle.

As a trained health volunteer, 38-year-old Mciteka is frequently called to make home visits, treat common illnesses and arrange hospital referrals for her neighbours. She immediately knew what she was looking at: a recently aborted foetus.

“I’m also a mother, so I know,” she explains over the phone one month later, her voice low. 

Over the last six months, across Dandora, an array of apartment blocks and informal settlements next to one of the largest unregulated landfill sites in Africa, Mciteka has directly dealt with or heard of at least 30 abandoned foetuses or newborn babies. 

Portrait of a woman standing inside of a residence
The issue of abandoned newborns and foetuses in Kenya isn’t new, but it has gotten worse since the pandemic, health workers on the ground say. Ashura Mciteka says she’s starting to feel worn down — many of these are discovered near her home. “It’s like you’re carrying a burden,” Mciteka says. “I’m a mother of three and I have two girls…I’m worried we might lose a lot of girls.” (Khadija Farah for The Fuller Project)

Five of these were found in the same tip minutes from her home, discovered by someone in her community – a rubbish collector, local resident and even her own young child. 

 In 2019, she knew of 10 cases, she says. “Even when I’m not around I get a call,” Mciteka says. “I say: okay, I’m far but let me see what I can do.”

In Kenya, the issue of abandoned newborns is not new. Last year, The Telegraph and The Fuller Project reported on a volunteer clean-up team, Komb Green Solutions, who had uncovered nine foetuses and babies in as many months while clearing one section of the Nairobi river of plastic, sewage and needles.

The river is just one place the babies are found: news of infants discovered in dustbins or discarded by the roadside hits headlines with unsettling frequency. But without a national centralised data system to keep track of the total, many cases go unreported.

Work by women like Mciteka offers a small window into the scale of the problem. In Kenya, abortion is illegal unless a woman’s life or health is in danger and almost two thirds of pregnancies among adolescent women aged 15-19 are unintended each year, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

A view of a riverbank with residences in the background
This section of the Nairobi River is where members of Komb Green Solutions often find the bodies of abandoned foetuses. Health workers on the ground say there’s been an uptick in the number of abandoned newborns and foetuses nationwide since the pandemic began. (Khadija Farah for The Fuller Project)

The 70-plus members of the Komb Green Solutions team have also noted an uptick since the outbreak of Covid-19. They’ve stumbled on 34 cases in total so far – 13 of which they’ve found since May, according to Christopher Wairimu, the group’s secretary. 

“Some of them were breathing,” adds Debra Ogollah, a 26-year-old volunteer, “but unfortunately they only lived some seconds.”

The team continue to bury the newborns they find— including eight sets of twins found over the course of one year—in an ever-growing makeshift grave nestled next to the river (local police have given them permission to do so, say the Komb team).

A woman stands at a river bank looking toward the water
Deborah Ogolla, a member of Komb Green Solutions, looks out along a section of the Nairobi River, where the youth-led group has been rehabilitating nearby public spaces. Volunteers with Komb Green say they often discover the bodies of abandoned foetuses, which they say has been happening more often during the pandemic. (Khadija Farah for The Fuller Project)

Several hours north of the capital, reports of the same issue are occurring across Nyeri County in central Kenya. In September, John Waruru, local assistant chief, rescued a newborn from a bush near the banks of the Gura River – the umbilical cord was still attached. On this occasion, the baby girl survived

“I’m hearing of stories weekly,” says Nelly Munyasia, head of Reproductive Health Network Kenya (RHNK), a web of over 500 trained health professionals providing health services. “Initially it was just in Nairobi, but it seems to be spreading pretty fast across the country.”

Like many countries around the world, Kenya closed schools in March to help stem the spread of the virus. The move left some 18 million students with little to do for more than six months and restrictions on movement meant accessing contraceptives and reproductive health information became harder. 


Related coverage: One-Fifth of Women Don’t Know if Abortion Is Illegal in Kenya, New Study Shows


The collapse of global medical supply chains earlier this year, meanwhile, is still causing knock-on delays and shortages for some clinics in Kenya. Several service providers in Munyasia’s network are reporting difficulty in accessing long-term contraceptive methods—such as hormonal implants and intrauterine devices (IUDs). 

In Kenya, high rates of teenage pregnancy has long been an issue yet since mid-March, healthcare providers have repeatedly raised concerns about a spike during the pandemic.

Although comprehensive national data about the impact of Covid-19 is not yet available – and statistics can be patchy at best – community health organisations in informal settlements say, anecdotally, teenage pregnancies are soaring. And in the first seven months of 2020, the Ministry of Health noted a 35 per cent increase in the number of sexual and gender-based violence cases compared to the same period the previous year, particularly among girls aged between 10 and 17.

The Ministry of Health did not respond to The Fuller Project’s request for comment. During a September visit to Kibera, an informal settlement, one of its officials, Dr Mercy Mwangangi, acknowledged that “the same barriers that restrict sexual and reproductive health care during the most normal of circumstances still exist and are often magnified during the [coronavirus] crisis.”

A cement wall in a community in Nairobi, Kenya
Ashura Mciteka says this is where her daughter Ella, 10, came across an abandoned foetus while playing with her friends. (Khadija Farah for The Fuller Project)

Parallels can be drawn with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa from 2014 to 2016, where similar public health measures and safety protocols – such as quarantine, curfews, and school closures – put girls and women at higher risk of violence and rape, according to a study by the United Nations Development Programme. In parts of Sierra Leone, the rate of teenage pregnancy during the Ebola crisis increased by 65 per cent

But a spike in unplanned pregnancies only tells half the story, says Elizabeth Okumu, a programme manager at the Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health (TICAH). “We can’t ignore the end result,” she says over the phone from Nairobi, “which is high numbers of unsafe abortions.”

Nearly 90 per cent of Kenyans live on less than £4 a day, and the cost of a safe abortion procedure, roughly £150, is out of reach for many women. Unsafe abortions are cheaper, but typically involve visiting backstreet quacks who prescribe a concoction of dangerous – and sometimes lethal – chemicals. There is little support or aftercare and young women are frequently left to fend for themselves.

“We’re talking about people who really can’t afford it,” continues Okumu. “And seven months into [the pandemic], it makes sense. The timing fits. Doctors want a safe abortion, which is typically done between one and three months. In that stage, there’s no foetus. When we see foetuses in the community, we know it’s the work of quack doctors.”

“It’s like you’re carrying a burden.”

— Ashura Mciteka, mother and trained health volunteer

Back in Dandora, Mciteka quietly covered the aborted baby with an old cloth. She informed the local area chief, who in turn called the police to deal with the situation. When a foetus or newborn is found, there is no official process – sometimes the local chief or police help, but often it falls to community members like Mciteka to arrange a burial (it’s a different situation altogether if the child is still alive).

The heaviness is taking its toll, says Mciteka, who earlier this year founded a 15-member community-based organisation to try and help solve the issue. She feels stressed and worn down. “It’s like you’re carrying a burden,” she begins. “I’m a mother of three and I have two girls…I’m worried we might lose a lot of girls.”

Her fears are not unfounded. In Dandora, at least two teenagers have died during the pandemic due to abortion complications, according to Mciteka. And when, back in October, the Kenyan government announced schools would be allowed to partially reopen, she was concerned.

Teenagers still face a huge amount of stigma in Kenya when they become pregnant before marriage – and in some schools girls are required to take mandatory pregnancy tests. Mciteka thought she might see an increase in unsafe abortions the weekend before classrooms swung back into action. Instead, one Saturday night last month, a 13-year-old girl hung herself, she says.

A woman walking in a neighborhood
Ashura Mciteka walks around her neighborhood in Nairobi, Kenya. Across the nation, there’s been an uptick in abandoned newborns and foetuses since the coronavirus pandemic began. Mciteka says she’s usually the first person people in her community call when a body is discovered. (Khadija Farah for The Fuller Project)

“She left a note,” says Mciteka, “telling her mother she’s very sorry. The boyfriend, the father, said he can’t help. Did she [not have] someone to talk to? Did she feel like being pregnant was the end of her life?”

For several weeks after finding the foetus, Mciteka’s daughter, Ella, didn’t leave their home. She only wanted to play inside. Since then, things have improved—she’s ventured past the front door but doesn’t wander far.

As a mother, it’s painful for Mciteka to watch something so dark take hold so close to home—but it’s also part of the reason why she can’t quit. “You see, I’m a Muslim, even my religion doesn’t support safe abortion. But if we don’t, how will my kids turn out? The girls in the community? We need to talk about it. I won’t stop talking about it.”

When the coronavirus struck, hospitals around the world faced a crisis like no other. The knock-on effect is likely to be as catastrophic, with delays to cancer, heart and stroke services as well as patients avoiding treatment altogether in a bid to stay away from Covid-19 hotspots.

We’re already seeing the impact: Globally, millions of women have missed breast cancer screening appointments because of paused services during the height of the pandemic in March and April. This means thousands of cancer cases could lie undetected and the diagnosis delayed, say breast cancer charities.

In Kenya, where breast cancer is the most common type of the disease, the picture is equally alarming. Across the country, the uptake of cancer screening services when it’s offered is eye-wateringly low.

Last year, only 1% of eligible women were screened using mammography, the X-ray test used to spot cancers at breast screenings, despite equipment being available in most county referral hospitals (cost, awareness and enough knowledge to operate the machine all play a role). Only a quarter of women aged 14 to 49 say they have conducted a self-breast examination, and 14%t have had a doctor or healthcare provider carry one out, according to the Kenya Demographic and Health 2014 survey.

Advanced stages

And this was before the pandemic. Now, the number of women receiving check-ups or screenings is even lower, says Dr. Miriam Mutebi, a breast surgical oncologist and Assistant Professor of Surgery at Aga Khan University Hospital. When more than half of cancer patients in Kenya are diagnosed at advanced stages — and there’s fewer than 50 oncologists for a population of 54 million — it becomes all the more important for women to be able to spot any early warning signs.

We spoke to Dr. Mutebi about the challenges she’s seeing and why now, more than ever, a breast self-examination might just save your life.

What impact has the pandemic had on breast cancer screenings and treatment?

Unfortunately, we’ve taken a hit. During the lockdown period, many patients couldn’t travel into the city or were a little stranded in terms of accessing care or treatments. Now, I’m seeing a number of people who found a lump back in February or March but are only just coming into the hospital now.

Initially, there was so much uncertainty and confusion around the Covid-19 rules. I think the message that a lot of people received was; you go to the hospital, you get the coronavirus, you die. A lot of people just thought: “I’d rather wait.” Towards the end of July, patients slowly started to come back, but it’s worrisome. In the oncology community, we talk a lot about how COVID-19 has pretty much stopped everything except cancer — the cancer cells are still growing.

What kinds of cases are you seeing?

It’s a mix. We’re still seeing people who find a lump and come in within days or weeks. But quite a number of patients are coming in when the disease is more advanced, and they need something called neoadjuvant chemotherapy upfront, which is used to try and shrink the tumor ahead of surgery. I’m also seeing more and more cases where the disease has already spread to different areas of the body.

This trend is unfortunately likely to continue, especially with a potential second wave. People are still concerned, and again not traveling to Nairobi and other major towns where most of the main breast cancer services are located. For patients who live outside the capital and have received a diagnosis, I try to redirect them to the closest healthcare facility where they can get treatment.

You mention redirecting women — what are some of the barriers to accessing treatment?

Pre-COVID, one big barrier was that patients would need to routinely travel several hours to access radiotherapy at the main referral hospital in Nairobi. And radiotherapy isn’t a one-off. You’ll likely need at least three to four weeks’ worth of treatment and you need to pay for accommodation in a strange city. Quite a number of people say, “you know what, I can’t afford this.” If we’re able to bring these services closer to patients, that’s a huge win.

Regarding screening and early detection, one of the major challenges we are trying to address is health-seeking behavior. Often the thinking is; ‘there’s nothing wrong with me, why would I go looking for trouble?’ The message we’ve been trying to get across is, paradoxically, if you go to a screening and find something, that’s the stage you want to catch it. Not only is it treatable then but potentially curable, too.

Socio-cultural barriers are also relevant. Women may rely on a partner or spouse for support and in some cases permission, to access care, which translates into delays in diagnosis and treatment.

And the cost, too?

Unfortunately, patients are still having to pay out of pocket. The National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) helps to cover some of the care and treatment fees, but it currently doesn’t stretch to mammography, which can cost between Sh1,500 and Sh6,500. That’s a huge sum for lots of people and means the cost of screening for and treating cancer remains out of reach for many households in Kenya.

The National Cancer Control Program (NCCP) has just started to disseminate country specific screening and early detection guidelines. But there is no established national breast cancer screening program — and a lot of what we do is opportunistic screening.

During October’s Breast Cancer Awareness month, for example, extra screenings are often available and there’s an uptick in women going for check-ups. It helps that most of the major hospitals in Nairobi will drop their mammogram prices during this month, and NGOs will offer free or subsidized clinical breast exams or other screening services. 

Screening is not an end point in itself. It’s what happens next that counts. It would be incredibly cruel to tell women: “we’ve found a concerning lump — you figure out what to do next.” Screening and early detection must go hand-in-hand with strengthening health systems to better support the entire spectrum of diagnosis, treatment and survival rate of cancer patients.

Does this uptick in awareness reach women across the country?

No, this represents a very small fraction of the population. The average woman in the rest of Kenya is not necessarily going to be like; “hang on, I need to get my breasts checked.” That’s why it’s critical to strengthen the outreach for these screening and early detection services on a primary health care level — people should be able to access these services without traveling to a large hospital or an urban area. Any woman visiting her local health centre for an antenatal check, or family planning clinic, should ideally be able to have a clinical breast exam and discuss breast awareness with a trained nurse or healthcare provider.

Why is it important for women to be checking their own breasts?

A lot of referrals come from women themselves – they’ve detected a lump and decided to get it checked out. The self-breast exam is part of a wider breast awareness strategy — being aware of your breasts and any change — and it’s definitely one of the tools that will aid in early detection. The earlier the condition is found, the better the chance of surviving it (and you’re less likely to need to have your entire breast removed). We want to give women the tools to be aware of their breasts and empower them to take charge of their own health.




How to do a breast self-exam in 6 easy steps

by Dr. Miriam Mutebi

Look

Illustration of a woman standing with arms to the side
1. With your arms at your side, look in the mirror to check if there are any differences in the shape of the breasts. Left and right breasts never match exactly, which is normal, but you should be concerned about a rapid increase in the size of one. (Sarah Ijangolet/The Fuller Project)

2. Check for any skin changes; any lumps, swelling, dimpling or thickening. Check for any changes in the nipple; discharge or a nipple that looks like it’s getting inverted/being pulled inwards (and wasn’t before) should raise alarm bells. (Sarah Ijangolet/The Fuller Project)

Move

3. Raise both arms above your head. Compare your breasts and look for the same changes, particularly on one side (if the left side is moving up and the right is staying down, for example, that’s something to watch out for). (Sarah Ijangolet/The Fuller Project)
4. Then rest your palms on your hips and press firmly to flex your chest muscles — this can make small, very subtle lumps more prominent. (Sarah Ijangolet/The Fuller Project)
Illustration of a woman performing a breast exam
5. Next, feel your breasts while lying down. Lie on your back, using your right hand to feel your left breast (and vice versa). Divide the breast into quarters and press your hand around in a concentric manner — it doesn’t matter where you start as long as you cover the entire breast. (Sarah Ijangolet/The Fuller Project)

Feel

6. Feel under both the nipple and armpit area. The trick is to use three fingers like a spatula; use the flat of your hand. Breast tissue is like a sponge — when you gently press down it goes down. But if there’s a lump, it almost feels like a marble against your hand. (Sarah Ijangolet/The Fuller Project)

 

As a young girl, Amina Ahmed watched her grandmother, Hauwa’u Musa, guide women through labours that lasted for hours. And, just like her grandmother, she spent years perfecting her own midwifery skills. She did this in homes across Kano, the largest city in northern Nigeria.

“She taught me everything I know,” says Ahmed over the phone from her home. “Now, any woman who is pregnant, they call me.”

But Ahmed’s work doesn’t end there. After a woman gives birth, the 37-year-old then accompanies the family to a local healthcare facility. There, a nurse gives the newborn two droplets of the polio vaccine. It’s a small but life-saving action. Polio is a highly infectious viral disease that can cause paralysis and death, particularly in children under five.

On 25th August, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the African continent free from wild polio, the crowning victory of the largest internationally coordinated public health effort in history. The success of the campaign, which lasted three decades, was described by the WHO’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as “one of the greatest public health achievements” of our time. 

Experts say the eradication of wild polio in Africa indicates just how challenging it can be to curb or eliminate an infectious disease: a lesson they believe has become increasingly apparent as the world works to combat the spread of COVID-19. Already, ten months into the devastating coronavirus pandemic, the virus has infected over 40 million people globally and taken over one million people’s lives. Now, as countries race to produce a safe COVID-19 vaccine, the question remains: How do governments and the wider medical community successfully immunise the entire world?

Harnessing the power of women

The answer might just lie with women, who played an enormous role in eradicating wild polio across Africa. World leaders, scientists and civil society can more effectively respond to COVID-19 by harnessing the power of women in local communities globally, says Sona Bari, a polio expert with the WHO.  

Decades ago, wild polio paralysed more than 75,000 children across the African continent every year. In 2012, rates in Nigeria — the continent’s most populated country — accounted for more than half of the cases worldwide. While Europe has been polio-free since 2002, and the United States since 1979, wild polio remained active in parts of Africa until August of this year, as well as in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where spikes continue to this day.

Each year, a version of the virus known as vaccine-derived polio still circulates across Africa. It’s caused by a mutant strain of the oral polio vaccine. It poses a threat but rates are low – this year, 172 cases and zero deaths have been reported in 14 countries – and occurs in areas where there are immunity gaps.

Still, without female health workers, it’s likely wild polio would be responsible for the continued deaths of thousands of children across Africa every year. Women like Ahmed were key: they built trust, helped deliver vaccinations, and ultimately eradicated the disease. Going door-to-door, hundreds of thousands of frontline workers administered, or helped to administer, the vaccine to an estimated 51 million Nigerian children in one month in 2019 alone – the vast majority of whom were women.

Building on trust

“They were able to do that because they were granted access to the home,” explains Bari. “In many communities, men would not be granted access.”

Much of Ahmed’s work involves convincing the new mothers’ husbands of the merits of vaccination – not only from polio but from tuberculosis, hepatitis and meningitis as well. 

“I meet them for a dialogue,” says Ahmed, referring to those men who appear wary of vaccinations. “Many times they agree after a chat.”

Thirty-seven-year-old Amina Ahmed works as a traditional birth attendant (TBA) in northern Nigeria, where she teaches new mothers about the importance of vaccinations. (Illustration by Sarah Ijangolet for The Fuller Project)

Their hesitations are understandable. Misinformation about vaccines has long been a major barrier to immunisation efforts in the region. It’s largely responsible for the persistence of the disease in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There are enormous risks associated with contracting wild polio. Despite that, fears about the vaccine’s safety run rampant prior to its eradication across Africa. That’s according to Professor Rose Leke, Chair of the WHO’s African Regional Certification Commission for Polio Eradication. In 2003, four states in northern Nigeria suspended their immunisation programmes after unsubstantiated claims that the polio vaccine was part of a U.S plot to make Muslim women infertile. 

Dispelling misconception

Yet female healthcare workers traipsed between millions of households, group meetings and places of worship to distribute information – and dispel misconceptions – about both polio and the vaccine. The reason why the information was well received, says Alice Awuor-Oyuko, a Save the Children senior health advisor, was simple. The women lived and worked in their own communities, and weren’t seen as outsiders. 

Ahmed says she believes a COVID-19 vaccine would be welcomed by her community, despite the misinformation that continues to cast a shadow over immunisation programmes, just as long as women like her are on hand to provide public information and education. “People trust me,” she says, “so I find it easy to convince them.”

Now, to combat misinformation in the Covid-era, this work will need to be replicated. When scientists succeed in developing a COVID-19 vaccine, rolling it out will be equally, if not more, challenging than taking on wild polio, experts say – and its success will likely also depend on women. Globally, women make up 70% of health-care workers and 80% of nurses in most regions, according to U.N. data. As a result, it will be women like Ahmed who will likely need to squash community conspiracy theories, says Awuor-Oyuko.

“If [female healthcare workers] don’t uptake the vaccine that will be a problem,” says Professor Helen Rees, Executive Director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “They’re the very people who are going to be the backbone of outreach programmes for other adults.” 

They have their work cut out, adds Awuor-Oyuko. The push to produce a COVID-19 vaccine coincides with the rise of the anti-vaxxer movement across Europe and the United States. Meanwhile, on the African continent, centuries of colonialism, medical experimentation, and recent racist comments about the testing of COVID-19 vaccines on the African population have made many in the region particularly wary.

“People are afraid,” says Leke from WHO. “[People on social media] are telling Africans: Don’t take any vaccines; they’re coming to eliminate you.” 

Protecting communities

When a vaccine will be ready is still anyone’s guess. The UK’s Oxford University is leading one of the most advanced of the major global programmes to find a vaccine, involving participants in the UK, Brazil and South Africa, with a related trial in India. Russia became the first country in the world, in August, to approve a vaccine, and has since developed a second one, though critics warn there has not been enough testing for this to be safe. 

Even before one is available, female health workers like Ahmed are playing a central role in keeping their communities safe. In the early months of the pandemic, Ahmed initiated a health campaign aimed at educating families in her hometown on the importance of handwashing, social distancing and mask-wearing. 

“I tell them COVID-19 is real and they must adhere to the rules,” she says. “Just like polio, going from house-to-house telling residents [about the current situation] will help immensely.”

Her work is critical: When a vaccine is eventually produced, it’s unlikely to be available to everyone. Medical professionals largely agree that the immediate priority will be vaccinating adults over fifty, as well as healthcare workers, care home employees and other vulnerable groups.

While the world waits, Ahmed will continue her life’s work. That is, educating and protecting her small community in Kano, a skill she learned at her grandmother’s knee. And, when the time does come to help deliver a lifesaving coronavirus vaccine, Ahmed will be first in line.

Exactly 13 months after first landing in Beirut, Lebanon, former domestic worker Esenam sat on a flight back to Ghana, carrying just the clothes she wore on her back.

Her first employer had confiscated most of the possessions she brought over with her; the second raped and tortured her. In June, with help from This Is Lebanon, a human rights organisation fighting labour exploitation, the 29-year-old found her way onto a repatriation flight.

“I don’t regret the decision to return because my life matters,” she says via WhatsApp, from her home in Accra, the capital of Ghana. “But I shouldn’t have done it. I should have stayed.”

In Lebanon, Esenam, who asked to be identified by her middle name out of fear of reprisal from her former employer, earned £150 a month, which she wired home to her three children.

As the coronavirus ravaged Beirut and the Lebanese economy imploded, Esenam’s employers became more abusive. She, like many other domestic workers, chose to return home – many more have been deported involuntarily. 

The pandemic and resulting economic crises have led migrant workers around the world to return to their home countries in the tens of thousands.

Since mid-March, more than 30,000 Ethiopian workers have re-entered the country, according to the government. Domestic labourers – more than half of them women – across the Persian Gulf make up a significant chunk of those finding their way back, as well as those from other Arab countries, such as Lebanon and Jordan.

They may arrive safely, but their problems aren’t solved once the plane lands. Many will return to no job, no savings and face potentially long-lasting psychological scars.

Millions of migrant workers in the Middle East

Each year, millions of migrant workers flock to the Middle East and to parts of Africa in search of better-paid work. In the Arab world, many end up exploited as housekeepers or nannies. Under the controversial sponsorship system, a domestic worker’s residency status is linked to their job.

In many cases, they cannot quit, move jobs or leave the country without their employer’s consent, which leaves women particularly vulnerable. Employers often demand long hours and provide minimal food. It’s also not unusual for them to be physically and sexually abusive. 

Some migrants have reported being mistreated and abused in detention centres in the countries where they were working, such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. 

Last week, a Telegraph investigation revealed hundreds of Ethiopian migrants who were slated for deportation have been left to rot in disease-ridden conditions in Saudi Arabia.

Once home, the trauma continues.

“Women have often been through a lot,” says Hugo Genest, of International Organization for Migration (IOM) Ethiopia. “Many of them are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder related to gender-based violence. If they have a baby as a result of rape, for instance, it can be particularly difficult.”

In Ethiopia, returnees are typically screened for vulnerability by IOM on arrival back in the country. Before the pandemic, those in need were provided with medical and counselling support at one of their transit centres. Now, upon arrival, migrants must go directly to one of the quarantine centres across the country for at least a week before they can go home. 

Once settled, women are asked to sleep alone in rooms in adherence with social distancing rules, but they often refuse or ask to share a bed with a female friend who travelled with them. “They don’t trust what can happen at night,” says Mr Genest.

In the quarantine centres, IOM is providing initial mental health care for returnees and offers referrals to local organisations for particularly vulnerable migrants, such as survivors of trafficking. But countrywide there is often minimal availability to much-needed psychosocial services, and women can slip through the cracks. Without support, returnees risk developing severe mental health issues, say rights groups.

“It’s a real problem,” adds Mr Genest. 

Increasing hostility amid COVID-19

Migrants also face increasing hostility as potential virus carriers. After being sexually harassed by her employer in Kuwait, 22-year-old Fetiya Sewinet left her job as a housekeeper – and the chance of recouping nine months of unpaid salary – in June. Back in Ethiopia, her family were happy to see her but were wary of her time spent in the quarantine centre – they feared she might infect them with the virus. 

Two months in, her neighbours are still suspicious and avoid her. “They think I’m sick,” she says over the phone. “I feel quite bitter about it.”

The economic stigma of returning without money or savings can be equally difficult. Families, and occasionally whole communities, will often help finance the original journey abroad for workers who in turn send money home.

“People think: How can you go to Dubai, the city of gold, and come back with nothing?” explains Paul Adhoch, the executive director of Trace Kenya, a Mombasa-based counter-trafficking NGO. “And most won’t tell anyone what they went through. If you fall into depression, you’re even more stigmatised because now you’re a burden to the family.”

In Kenya, there is a government-backed referral mechanism to help support victims of trafficking, yet few know it exists, say rights groups. In reality, the Migrant Workers Forum, an informal network made up of 15 civil society organisations, including Trace Kenya, often steps in to offer help where they can. Between them, they cover shelter, medical assistance, psychosocial services and information on safe migration for workers across the country.

Economic empowerment is important for proper reintegration, says Mr Adhoch, but lack of funding is a challenge. Most workers return without a job to countries already struggling with high levels of unemployment. Months into a pandemic, the chances of finding work look particularly bleak. 

“Most won’t tell anyone what they went through. If you fall into depression, you’re even more stigmatised because now you’re a burden to the family.”

Paul Adhoc, Trace Kenya

The lack of support can push some back into the arms of unscrupulous recruitment agencies.

Just weeks after arriving in Ghana, Esenam began planning her return to the Middle East. She’s in touch with an agent who says he can fly her to Dubai – if she can raise £765. So far, she has received no psychological support. “I fear,” she says, “but I need to go. Thanks to coronavirus, there is nothing left in Ghana. I’ll be okay this time because I’ll work as a cleaner in a restaurant – not a domestic worker.”

Where possible, Trace Kenya provides returnees with funds to keep them going in the short-term, or start a business in the longer-term. Of the 200 plus Kenyans assisted by the organisation last year, roughly 15 per cent received financial help, he says. 

In Ethiopia, IOM is ensuring migrants return home safely after the quarantine period. They do cover the cost of further medical care, psychosocial support and new business ventures but this is usually on a case by case basis, says Genest, and again budget dependent. 

“The fact is, it’s expensive,” says Phil Brewer, director of intelligence at Stop The Traffik. “Not every country can provide a high level of support to those who return. Even if the goodwill is there, it may be that system breaks down because the financial backing doesn’t exist to make a genuine difference.”

Left to figure it out by themselves

Many women are simply left to figure it out by themselves. Take Wanjuki, a 36-year-old Kenyan who until two weeks ago had been working 20-hour days as a domestic worker in Lebanon. Her employer frequently locked in her room for hours and was verbally abusive towards her.

After months of ignoring her pleas, her employer eventually covered the cost of the flight home. As she stepped off the plane in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, a sense of calm washed over her.

It felt good to have her freedom, says Wanuji, who also asked to be identified by her middle name out of fear of further stigma. But with just £380 in savings, two young children to support single-handedly and no job prospects, a looming sense of fear is slowly trickling into her newfound peace.

“I had dreams,” she says via phone from her home in Kirinyaga, a forest-filled county situated at the foot of Mount Kenya. “I thought I would go to Lebanon, buy a piece of land and build a small house for my kids – now my dreams have shattered.”

For the second night in a row, a group of Kenyan women have slept on mattresses outside the Kenyan consulate in Beirut, Lebanon on concrete pavements littered with plastic bottles. As night fell, they held up a Kenyan flag and chanted, “we want to go home,” throwing trash and rocks at the locked gate protecting the building entrance.  

The women are domestic workers who have lost their jobs, many of whom are now homeless.  They are calling on the Kenyan government to fly them home immediately. 

On Monday morning, an estimated 30 Kenyan women – at least three with children – took to the streets to protest. Many of the women say they have either been let go or have not found work since the ammonium nitrate blast devastated Beirut last week, killing scores of people and injuring thousands. They now have nowhere to live, along with some 300,000 others.

Attempted arrest

The women cannot afford money for meals, nor plane tickets home.

On Monday night, the army attempted to arrest one of the Kenyan women but a number of bystanders intervened and no arrests were made, according to rights groups on the ground.

“Us Kenyans, we are tired,” said Kathy, 31, a domestic worker who asked to use her first name because of visa issues.

“We’ve reached a point where we will die in Lebanon.”

“We don’t have any hope. Some of us have kids here. What will happen to us? I’m not able to pay my own rent, let alone a ticket home.”

In interviews with several women, many say they have either been deserted by their employers, lost their homes due to the blast or simply can’t afford the rent any longer due to both the ongoing economic crisis and COVID-19 pandemic.

“I just want to go home”

“The blast made me realize that you can die in this country anytime,” said Kathy, who has lived and worked in Beirut since 2017.

“The glass was falling on our heads. Half of the houses are gone. Thank God I survived but I’m very mad. I’m going crazy. I just want to go home.”

The group is calling on Kenya’s Honorary Consul in Lebanon, Sayed Chalouhi, and his assistant, Kassem Jaber, both Lebanese nationals, to help.

On Monday, Kathy said she asked Jaber about the cost of a repatriation flight. When she explained that she had no money, he replied that she could engage in sex work to cover the fee, according to Kathy.

Two women – one Kenyan, another from Tunisia in close contact with the group – verified Kathy’s story. After the Daily Nation reached out for comment, Jaber denied any allegation of wrongdoing.

Women with brooms pass by a historic building damaged by Tuesday’s explosion in the Gemmayzeh neighborhood, Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

In a WhatsApp message, he wrote: “As a consulate and as a person who represents the name of a country, we will never ask a girl to do such a thing, we are always here in this country trying our best to help those girls to go back home.”

“I understand their anger and their need to go back home, but I cannot understand when a girl come and accuse and spoil a name of a consulate that represents a government.”

Two weeks ago, CNN published a story detailing how both Chalouhi and Jaber allegedly physically and verbally assaulted Kenyan women seeking services at the outpost, including pressuring domestic workers to pursue sex work.

In response, the Kenyan government said they would dispatch a fact-finding mission to Beirut to “look into reports of mistreatment” at the country’s consulate.

This morning, the Kenyan Embassy in Kuwait said they are following up with the consulate in Lebanon, and that Kenyans stranded in Lebanon will soon be repatriated.

This has been confirmed by the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), a global labour rights organization, who are in touch with Halima Mohamud, Kenya’s Ambassador to Kuwait, about the ongoing situation in Beirut.

“We have communicated to the Kenyans to register with the consulate and we are already trying to address their issue,” Mohamud told Nairobi News.

Devastating poverty

Volunteers and members of the public in Beirut have donated tents, mattresses, food and water to help sustain the Kenyan women.

On the ground, the women are being assisted by the IDWF, who is in conversation with the Kenyan government and Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (Kudheiha) the domestic workers union, to speed up the process of repatriation. 

They are also in talks with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to accelerate repatriation of the most vulnerable, including potential survivors of trafficking.

The Arab country was already struggling with an unprecedented economic crisis, with thousands of families being pushed into devastating poverty.

The COVID-19 pandemic and last week’s explosion, which left a trail of destruction some 10 kilometres from the port, have only added to the misery.

No salaries

For the 250,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, the vast majority of them women from African and Asian countries, life has become doubly hard.

For months, many domestic workers have lost jobs, received reduced or no salaries or were forced to work increasingly long hours as employers isolated at home due to the pandemic. In July, employers abandoned scores of Ethiopian women in front of their country’s consulate in Beirut, saying they could no longer pay them.

Under Lebanon’s controversial sponsorship system, women are routinely abused. Migrant workers cannot move to new jobs or leave the country without an employer’s permission.

Many workers rely heavily on their countries’ diplomatic missions for protection and to help figure out a way home in emergencies. But such missions, largely African and East and South Asian, have failed to provide aid.

Unclear fate

“The women are just sitting on the streets,” said Roula Seghaier, from IDWF, who is assisting the group with government negotiations.

“They have no money and a lot of them have no place to live. So when the consul demands that they leave, they have no place to leave to.” 

“Their fate is unclear,” she added.

Another protester, 33-year-old Karen Wanjira, says she has not worked since the blast and is supporting her three children living back home in Nairobi. A part-time domestic worker, she has been forced to share a single room with six others who needed accommodation. 

“I would like to say to the Kenyan government, humbly, please remember us,” said the single mother by phone.

“At least send a plane to take us home. You will save many lives.”

Ruth Khakame is frequently woken up in the night. Sometimes it’s the fault of WhatsApp — the constant stream of messages beaming a UFO-like light shaft towards the ceiling of her home. On other occasions, it’s the urgent phone calls — a domestic worker has been chucked onto the street, another says she has been poisoned.

Whereas others might roll over and fall back asleep, Ms Khakame can’t. Or at least, she won’t. As the head of the National Domestic Workers Council of Kudheiha, a trade union that advocates for Kenyan workers’ rights, she is the first point of contact for women’s pleas across the country and beyond.

The softly-spoken 30-year-old spends her time recruiting, organising and mobilising domestic workers, as well as campaigning to improve working conditions and wages. If there is a dispute between employer and worker, she will often intervene. Since the coronavirus pandemic first erupted, bringing with it economic blows, this has become a significant part of her job.

Many workers have been dismissed unfairly, others have not been paid in months. For migrant domestic workers who left Kenya, typically for the Gulf, the situation is exacerbated by a lack of support and being stranded far from home. They’re also often locked into the ‘kafala’ sponsorship system, which gives employers huge power over domestic workers and their movements.

If Kenyan workers want to lodge a complaint —or simply need help—they can ring the union’s 24-hour toll-free line. This then connects directly to one of Ms Khakame’s mobile phones.

Calls come day in, day out

“Now, for me, it’s always hectic,” she says via Skype one afternoon. 
“It’s always bad, but it’s gotten worse since COVID-19. Some call through the toll-free line, others call my personal number. But I don’t turn off my phone because someone may be in distress. I follow up on their cases every day. We have piles of cases.”

There are roughly two million domestic workers in Kenya, according to Kudheiha. Last year, nearly 45,000 Kenyans, the majority women, registered to migrate to Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries.

Numbers are patchy, however, because domestic work falls under the informal sector in Kenya. They work as housekeepers and nannies but have few legal protections — no unemployment benefits, safety regulations, nor job security — and are particularly vulnerable to abuse.

“Their stories are so heart-breaking,” says Ms Khakame, whose phone is currently filling up with hundreds of messages a day. If left unread, it can stretch into the thousands.

The local cases are slightly easier to deal with, she says, because the problem is happening in-country – the woman’s family or police can often intervene. But migrant workers are trickier.

“One woman in Saudi Arabia sent me a voice note. She was just screaming, saying she’d been poisoned and asking us to call her dad. We called him, told him what happened and liaised with our partners on the ground to help her get to hospital.”

If you don’t have a heart for this work, it’s very hard for someone to handle them as people who want to be heard.

Ruth Khakame, head of the National Domestic Workers Council of Kudheiha

She continues: “You have to play a role in advising and counseling them. I tell the women; this problem you can take care of, this one you need to act, this one you wait. But sometimes I’ll stop listening to those voice notes because they disturb me. At times I am not so sure whether I’m doing the right thing.”

After school, Ms Khakame dreamed of becoming a nurse but her family couldn’t afford the university fees. At age 19, she moved to Nairobi, the sprawling capital, in a bid to “hustle my way to a better life” and started renting a home in Kibra, the city’s largest informal settlement.

Later, her aunt reached out. She lived in a wealthy suburb of Nairobi and suggested Ms Khakame live with her family for free while being paid a stipend to occasionally help out around the house. She jumped at the chance – she needed to save for university.

What started off as the odd job soon morphed into full-time domestic work. The hours were long, the pay was low and the environment increasingly hostile.

One day, a couple of Kudheiha officers were carrying out door-to-door workers’ rights awareness campaigns. After speaking to them, Ms Khakame began to better understand her working conditions for what they were. Soon after, she joined the union full-time.

Full support

Two years later, in 2015, she learned about the formation of an upcoming body: the National Domestic Workers Council.

“Back then, the domestic sector had no structure so it was hard to even organise people,” she says today. “This was a way of tackling that.”

She ran for the leadership position and won with a huge backing. The council is made up of nine elected members who are all domestic workers from various regions in Kenya.

“At first, I wasn’t so sure,” she says.

“Everyone was saying I should take the job but I had never thought of myself as leading a mass of people. Then I thought about my current situation. I was supposed to be saving for college. I’d been at my aunt’s for nearly four-and-a-half years and… nothing. So I resigned.”

A demanding job

Today, roughly 17,000 domestic workers have joined the union. To reflect low wages and pay disparity across the sector, the membership fee is low (Sh160 per month).

During her time as chairperson, Ms Khakame has witnessed several sweeping changes, including minimum wage increases and updated holiday regulations (workers are now entitled to one off-day a week).

Her background clearly helps. The women seem to trust her, and only her. Before the pandemic, workers would arrive at the Kudheiha office looking for Ms Khakame and leave again once they realised she wasn’t there.

Last year, when she moved from Nairobi to Mombasa, on the Kenyan coast, to work on a migration advocacy campaign, women began to withdraw their membership because they could no longer see Ms Khakame around.

The hours are long and the work is intense. Which is why, she says, only a domestic worker could do this job.

“It’s not easy,” she begins. “People still disregard domestic work as mere low cadre that has no value.

“You need someone who welcomes them and listens to their issues. If you don’t have a heart for this work, it’s very hard for someone to handle them as people who want to be heard.”

By her own admission, last year got a little out of control. Between an intense work schedule, juggling family pressures and studying for a part-time Sociology degree in the evenings, she was barely sleeping. She burnt out and took time off to recover.

Now, she sets boundaries. Or is trying to, at least. She puts her phone away at 10pm. “Or 9pm maybe,” she smiles. “Unless there is an emergency.”

At 6:30pm every evening, Emelda Ngieno’s alarm clock buzzes her out of a deep sleep. As the sun sets, she gets up, throws on tonight’s chosen outfit and heads to her designated location: Pipeline, a crowded estate in Nairobi’s Eastlands.

Since Kenya confirmed its first positive Covid-19 case last month, the 32-year-old sex worker’s life has begun to look starkly different.

The government’s lockdown measures to limit the spread of the virus – a dusk-to-dawn curfew and shutting of bars and nightclubs – have plunged one of Kenya’s most vulnerable and marginalised groups into worry and destitution. There are more than 133,674female sex workers in the country, according to Ministry of Health estimates, and most of their usual clients can no longer leave their homes in the evening.

With tumbling incomes, and often little-to-no savings, many sex workers haven’t stopped working – it’s simply not an option. Instead, they’ve figured out alternatives amid the pandemic, potentially exposing themselves and others to the coronavirus.

Ms Ngieno, for example, decided to rent a house to host clients.

“I depend on this job for my survival,” she says. “I can’t be on the streets anymore because of the curfew, and most cheap guesthouses that we used to visit with our customers are no [longer] operational.”

In addition to covering her usual expenses (food, rent), she now pays an extra Sh5,000 per month. Without it, she would have nowhere to take her clients. The new spot has, however, not automatically solved her problems. People are scared of the virus, she says, and her customer base is shrinking.

Whereas she’d have previously met four or five clients in one night, she’s now haggling over reduced prices with one client who stays until the early morning (after the 7pm curfew cut-off, they’re both unable to travel).

“It’s frustrating,” says the mother of two. “I’m putting my health at risk and not making enough money. I know I am risking my life with my loved ones, but I will not sit in the house and see them suffer.”

Observing social distance, limiting direct contact with as many people as possible, staying at home and self-isolating is the surest way to avoid contracting the coronavirus, but sex workers gamble with their lungs and lives to pay for food and rent.

They are hourly-and-shift workers, making up a section of Kenya’s vast informal economy with few legal protections. And, like millions of people globally, many of them face a total loss of income due to Covid-19, which has killed 142,651 or more people, and infected over two million worldwide.

Kenya has so far recorded 234 cases, 11 deaths and 53 recoveries at the time of publication, though this number only takes into account the people who have been tested. Limited testing and test kitsmay mean the number is far higher.

Safety is another concern. Rather than meeting in neutral places, like in Ms Ngieno’s situation, some now invite customers into their own homes, says Mary Mwangi, a sex worker and activist for the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (Keswa).

“Some women are desperate,” she begins. “My friends have said they’re doing [their work] at home and I’ve told them it’s not safe. But they said to me: ‘Mary, what can we do? We need money.’ Many have children, and you don’t know who has the coronavirus. It’s risky.”

Last month, says Ms Mwangi, a client killed a sex worker in her home.

“I wanted to follow up on the case but with corona, it’s a big challenge,” she says.
“We are really worried about sex workers, so we’re trying to educate women, giving them precautions and telling them to join Whatsapp groups to keep safe. We don’t know how many we’re going to lose during this time.”

Across the continent, sex workers have begun to demand that the government includes them in the essential service during lockdown. In Mombasa, many say life has become “unbearable” during the pandemic.

“The closure of bars, restaurants and clubs as a result of the curfew has rendered 90 per cent of sex workers jobless,” Maryline Laini, chairlady of High Voice Africa, told the Daily Nation last week.

Before the pandemic, says Ms Laini, sex workers charged anywhere between Sh50 and Sh10,000. Now, some have been forced to go as low as Sh20.

She calls on the Mombasa County and national governments to have sex workers among those to benefit from relief supplies. Yet the nature of the industry makes it difficult for workers to benefit from government schemes to cover lost earnings.

Sex work is illegal in Kenya, and the trade is often cash in hand and unrecorded. In the United States, for example, the Covid-19 bailout explicitly excludes legal sex workers. Meanwhile, in New Zealand, where sex work is decriminalised, the government has provided financial relief for some sex workers.

Two weeks ago, Ms Lesego Tlhwale, a South African sex worker activist, offered a potential solution to the precarious situation of sex workers in the informal economy. In an interview with local media, she argued that organisations such Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce, where she works, could be used as vehicles to help distribute financial help.

“We have a membership base, where sex workers access our services,” she explained. “We can make this funding available….and organisations such as ours can manage [the funding] and we can be accountable.”

Sexual Violence

Globally, sex workers are facing an unprecedented crisis. In the UK, campaigners say they’ve been left penniless. “If you go out to work on the streets as a sex worker in the current climate, you get immediately picked up by police,” Ms Niki Adams, a spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), told The Independent. “In some cases, women are starving.”
Amid struggling to eat, the lockdown measures also mean women are less likely to report sexual violence to the police, says Adams, making their work more dangerous.

On April 8, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects and UNAids released a statement highlighting the hardship, loss of income and increased discrimination and harassment faced by sex workers, urging countries to ensure their human rights be respected and fulfilled.

“As sex workers and their clients self-isolate, sex workers are left unprotected, increasingly vulnerable and unable to provide for themselves and their families,” reads the statement.

To protect the health and rights of sex workers, they’re calling for a series of measures, including access to national social protection schemes, health services, emergency financial support (particularly for migrants), an immediate end to evictions and halt on arrests and prosecutions of sex-work related activity, amongst others.

Despite having little in the way of protective clothing, Ms Mwangi still walks the streets (during the day, before curfew). In some respects, she’s luckier than most; though small, she had some savings. But, like everyone else, she simply wasn’t prepared for a pandemic.
“I’m not sure what happens next. I’m just waiting, and hoping it will be over quickly.”

Naima Said stands back and studies her handiwork. “Not quite,” the 31-year-old self-taught beauty therapist mumbles, her forehead furrowed in frustration.

She delicately dabs her client’s eyelid with a squishy make-up sponge, eyebrow pencil at the ready. She keeps dabbing — she’s not finished yet.

Several years ago, Naima used YouTube to train on everything, from hair dying to pedicures.

Now she runs Beauty Corner — a small, if perfectly formed, parlour in Mombasa. Every weekday from 8am, she lays out her tools and waits for women to walk through the door.

In front of her, one three-metre mirror is lined with a messy array of shimmery eye shadow palettes, and baby pink baskets brimming with hair-rollers.

But this isn’t just any beauty parlour. The women who seek Naima’s services are addicted to heroin, or they’re recovering.

Housed in the Reachout Centre Trust, which helps Mombasa residents fight drug addiction, it opened last year with a view to attracting more female users to its services that include HIV testing, counselling, methadone treatment and cervical cancer screening.

Illegal Production

Naima herself abused heroin for ten years. When her father could no longer afford to pay for private school, she was at a loose end.

Aged 17, she started smoking marijuana with her friends. By 21, she was a full blown heroin addict. “I was half-dead, half-alive,” she recalls.

“I started sex work so I could afford to pay for my next hit. On the streets, you need to look beautiful, but I looked dirty. I was a junkie. People would see me and get scared.”

Until fairly recently, hard drugs, especially heroin, were rare in Africa. But since 2010, heroin use across the continent has grown faster than anywhere else in the world, the UN “Office on Drugs and Crime” (UNODC) 2015 report says.

The reason is two-pronged. Despite millions of dollars spent by the United States and its allies to curb illegal poppy production in Afghanistan, there has been an almost continuous rise in the amount grown, Simone Haysom of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (Giato) points out.

In 2017, opium farming reached a record high (jumping 87 per cent in one year). Despite shrinking 20 per cent since then, Afghanistan still produces 82 per cent of the world’s heroin — and remains the largest opium-producing country.

Trade Routes

Meanwhile, Africa has increasingly become an attractive drug transit route.

Historically, most of the heroin trafficked to the West from Afghanistan came overland via what’s known as the ‘Balkan route’.

Conflict and increased enforcement made this path trickier to navigate, according to a report by Giato. Instead, smugglers have hit the seas.

Since 2010, the ”southern route”, also known as the ”Smack Track”, has grown in popularity, where heroin travels from Afghanistan via the Indian Ocean into East and South Africa.

It then makes its way to Europe, Asia and North America. As more heroin floods into East Africa, a growing number of people are getting addicted to it.

Nairobi, Kenya – Diana perched on a brown bench in one of Nairobi University’s large lecture theatres, twisting her fingers into pretzel-like shapes. She scanned the room. To her left, students waited eagerly to hear her story. To her right, an open window – the banner on the wall below gently flapped in the breeze.

She pulled out her phone. A quick swipe showed no new messages. She smoothed down her maroon skirt, took a deep breath and walked on stage.

In front of a 500-strong crowd in November last year, the 20-year-old – who prefers we use her middle name due to the sensitive and deeply personal nature of her message – took the microphone and began to speak about her experience of being sexually harassed on campus.

One of four speakers, she was at the launch of #CampusMeToo, a campaign by ActionAid and UN Women which was aiming to raise awareness of an issue they said plagues Kenya’s universities.

Diana says she was violated by one of her lecturers at Kenyatta University (KU) – one of Kenya’s largest higher learning institutions, located in Kahawa, Nairobi. Over a period of several months, her world changed beyond recognition.

“My life [before university] consisted of school and my parents,” she explains. “I didn’t know what university was [going to be] like. I just thought: “Why are all these things happening? Is this normal?” If I said no to his advances … I didn’t want to jeopardise my academic work.”

Diana has led an ordinary life: She loves Marvel films; her mother, Hellen, is a fan of the British royal family and named her youngest daughter after the late Princess of Wales; she watches a lot of Lewis Capaldi music videos on YouTube and, on weekends, she often rides her bike towards the Kenya-Tanzania border for fun.

Growing up, she was close to her three older brothers. The youngest of five siblings, her boyishness continued throughout school. She always had a lot of male friends, but that changed at university. After the harassment began, she started to feel awkward around them. If she wanted to hang out, she would call one of her female friends. She only felt safe – or safer – with them, she says.

When a place became available on her preferred course at KU in September 2017, Diana transferred to there from another university out of town. By that point, the term had already started.

“From the first day I walked into class [the lecturer] must have noticed I was a new student trying to catch up,” she explains. “One time I told him the students would like more copies of the lecture notes. He told me to go to his office. When I got there, he closed the curtains, closed the door and … so many things happened.”

To avoid her relentless harasser, she says, she switched to a different course. But the lecturer persisted. She started to blame herself, and her self-esteem plummeted. As depression kicked in and her mental health deteriorated, she began to lose touch with friends.

“I was really scared of him,” she says. “People warned me: ‘Don’t mess with this guy,’ so even after I changed course, he’d call me and I’d still go and meet him. I didn’t want to get on the wrong side of him. He made me feel so terrible.”

Diana did not report her lecturer – or the harassment – to the university. “I didn’t have any evidence,” she says. Now a third-year student, she has changed her telephone number and tries to avoid him.

She pauses, before adding: “There’s a lot of guilt. One of my greatest fears is being misunderstood. For somebody to be like: ‘Why were you doing all these things?’ I was petrified and I didn’t want my grades to be affected. I’m a student leader; I worried the other students might not believe me. They know me as a very vocal person, and here I am struggling with my own problems, suffering silently. I felt like I didn’t have a choice.”

‘I have power’

So she did nothing, until several months ago.

Diana wanted advice on starting a YouTube channel about mental health and sought out her friend who ran a support club for students on campus. That day, her friend was having a meeting about how KU students would promote the #CampusMeToo movement. “I had never heard of it before,” she says. “But I knew immediately that I wanted to be involved.”

Nearly three years after all this began, Diana stood strong while addressing fellow students during the campaign last November. Facing her peers, she told them: “No other student needs to go through what I’ve been through. We’re scared and it needs to stop.”

The crowd punctuated the silence with shouts of “Nina Power!”. The phrase roughly translates as “I have power” in Swahili. These simple yet powerful words have become almost a calling card for a new generation of young Africans – men and women – who are demanding urgent change.

While the cheers erupted, Diana quietly passed the mic on to the next speaker.

“Have you ever watched the Ellen DeGeneres show?” she asks, several weeks after the campaign launch. We are in a coffee shop in the Central Business District of Nairobi. Outside, cars hoot angrily at each other. “I would like to do something like that in Kenya.”

Diana speaks in a low voice and is fiercely smart. Whether it is British politics or Kenya’s economy, she has an informed opinion on the matter. But what really interests her is the idea of becoming a chat-show host. “I’m good at communicating. When I talk to people, they feel encouraged,” she says.

These days, she is heavily involved with the #CampusMeToo campaign. Until recently, she was also a student leader, something she signed up to do in her second week at KU. The role involves mediating between the institution and students.

“Students started coming to me,” she says. “They’d say: ‘Oh I heard you talk about this, maybe you can help.'”

Sexual harassment is a big problem. A recent survey by ActionAid revealed that half of all female Kenyan students and a quarter of male students in higher learning institutions had been sexually harassed. The latest figures from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics show that approximately 40 percent of Kenya’s near-515,000 university students were female in 2018/2019. While the ratio of men-to-women has not changed in 10 years, the overall number of students has. In 2008/2009, there were fewer than 125,000 university students in the country, meaning the size of the issue of harassment on campus has grown.

“The issue is huge and needs to be dealt with,” Leah Wanjama, a senior lecturer at KU, explains over the phone. “And it’s not only KU, it’s happening at many other universities in Kenya.”

Sex for grades

The problem has also been highlighted elsewhere on the continent. In October 2019, the BBC documentary, Sex for Grades, showed widespread harassment at universities in Nigeria and Ghana – capturing specific instances of young women and men propositioned sexually by their tutors in order to improve – or keep – their grades.

“There is so much being done to fight the problem across Africa,” says 21-year-old Caesarine Mulobi in the garden of ActionAid Kenya’s office in West Nairobi. A recent graduate of Nairobi University, she got involved after hearing one too many stories of harassment, although she has never experienced it herself.

“I’ve seen a #CampusMeToo movement in Uganda, and [as a result of the BBC documentary] the Nigerian Senate reintroduced a law on sexual harassment in higher learning institutions. This is the right time for us to talk about this issue.”

Until recently, very few have spoken out. “The problem is rampant,” says Mulobi, shielding her eyes from the sun, “but without evidence, it’s really difficult. Some of [the lecturers] are really smart: They won’t text you, they’ll just call you.”

Systems do exist to help. Many universities have gender departments and sexual harassment policies in place to deal with issues of gender-based violence. At KU, for example, the Centre for Gender Equity and Empowerment is tasked with raising awareness of the gender problems affecting the university and provides new students with a booklet titled Stop Sexual Harassment!, which includes information on how to report incidents.

But it is not that simple, argues Mulobi. “We have laws and policies in place but the problem is implementation. Even if you do report someone, they’ll be cautioned and you’ll still see them around the university. And then there’s the stigma: What if people think you wanted it?”

‘Brave’

Diana is well aware of the risks. She oscillates between fire-cracker certainty and unease. “I want to do this,” she says on several occasions, “but I’m also apprehensive.”

When Diana’s friends are asked to describe her in one word, they reply unanimously: Brave.

“Nothing is too scary for her,” says Wambui*, one of Diana’s closest friends (who did not want her real name used in this story).

Her decision to help others by supporting and speaking at the #CampusMeToo campaign, which was staged at 20 universities across Kenya, is testament to that.

At KU, a team of more than 30 student leaders came on campus and made as much noise as they could about sexual harassment. The days were long and draining. Diana would rise early, her head often only hitting the pillow again after midnight. “It took everything out of me,” she says. “But it was exciting.”

Thousands of students flocked to their small wooden table, signing a petition calling on universities to prioritise the issue. Many hung around, discussing, dreaming, plotting and planning.

“We’re used to events on campus,” says Martin Omondi, 29, a Public Health graduate from Mount Kenya University who is also involved in the campaign. “But this was something different.” He has not personally experienced sexual harassment but, as a student leader, has helped others report incidents.

Dressed in identical white “Nina Power” t-shirts, he and Diana told visitors the same thing: “If you’ve been harassed, don’t cry alone, there is someone, an office, a channel to follow,” Martin explains.

The aim was to raise awareness but it was not all smooth sailing. While many students eagerly signed their name, some opposed the campaign.

“One time,” says Diana, “this guy came up to me at Nairobi University and said: ‘I want to sign against you.’ He said these things are always blown out of proportion, that we’re denying women and men the freedom of expression. Some students had this idea that we were jealous of other female students having affairs with the lecturers.”

She shakes her head: “I don’t get that.”

Victim-blaming

Victim-blaming was also a recurring theme, says Diana. People wanted to know whether female students were dressed appropriately, or where they had been hanging out.

For Martin, the lack of understanding of the issue was most shocking. Many were unsure what constituted sexual harassment, let alone how they could go about reporting it.

Once the team explained exactly what harassment looked like, many people started coming forward, saying they had been victims too.

“We gave them examples: If a lecturer seduces or touches you in a compromising way, or asks for any sexual favours in return for marks, that is a red flag,” he says.

“Once the team explained exactly what harassment looked like, many people started coming forward saying they had been victims too. We just kept repeating: ‘You don’t need to be afraid’.”

More than 10,000 students have now signed a national petition calling on universities to prioritise this issue and enact real change, both online and offline. Their demands include mandatory induction sessions on sexual harassment, yearly training sessions for university staff and the appointment of an investigation committee that students can approach when they have received unfair or missing marks. The petition was handed over in December last year to representatives from the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Public Service, Youth and Gender in a ceremony at the end of the campaign.

“This is a timely intervention on the vice of sexual harassment that has taken root in our institutions,” wrote Margaret Kobia, cabinet secretary to the Ministry of Youth and Gender, in a statement. “I am glad that we are raising our voices to break the silence.”

While the ministry “strongly” supported the five demands made by the campaign, there is no information about whether they will be implemented, says Mathias Kure, a campaign manager for ActionAid. The organisation is conducting follow-up conversations with both government and university officials.

Still, several institutions have begun to pay attention. The University of Nairobi told ActionAid that they are eager to “work to end this injustice from early 2020”, while the Technical University of Kenya’s vice chancellor also confirmed it would commit to ending the issue.

The students, however, want results. Diana worries she will not be able to avoid her alleged harasser forever. “I’m a little scared,” she says. “I don’t know how that will go.”

If nothing changes, both Martin and Diana talk of changing tactic: Calling out names, using videos to record evidence and protesting with placards.

Right now, Diana is taking a break. You get the impression she would rather forget all of this, but something in her propels her forward.

“There is more to be done,” she says, determinedly. “And I’m ready.”

A section of gender rights activists on Friday held a peaceful march in Nairobi to press for gender equality in the country.

The march dubbed Usawa kicked-off at Uhuru Park’s freedom corner to President’s Uhuru Kenyatta’s office at Harambee House, where they delivered a petition on gender equality.

It contained ten points memorandum of demands and proposals to the government the activists want implemented to achieve gender equality.

Among the demands include action against rampant sexual and gender-based violence, women land rights, reduced taxation on the poor, youth empowerment, increased transparency and accountability, and zero rating for rate assistance devices for person living with disabilities.

Other demands were action against extra-judicial execution and human trafficking, climate change justice, fast-tracking implementation of Mental Health Bill and broad debt rescheduling.

The march was spearheaded by Kenya Fight Inequality Alliance and the Global Fight Inequality Alliance.

Kenya Fight Inequality Alliance coordinator Ms Antonia Musunga said the more than 20 organisations came together to seek collective solutions to the causes of inequality the country faces.

The march, held in 30 other countries worldwide, was organised to coincide with Davos World Economic Forum, which tries to solve inequality in the world.

“World Economic Forum purports to solve inequality in the world while in equality, very little positive change is achieved. The current system continues to promote inequality, which damages our society and democracy, and increases vulnerability of the poor to violence, exploitation and abuse,” said Musunga.

Editar Ochieng, a feminist activist from Kibra said women still suffer with gender inequality being a problem in many communities.

“Men, women and children with disabilities are left behind because of their gender. I come from Kibra and right now we don’t get most government services. And if you’re getting the services, you overpay,” she said.

“Such inequalities is really moving us and we’re really angry. We want to change this nation.”

Anastasia Wakonyo, a paralegal at Wangu Kanja Foundation said sexual and gender-based violence was rampant, with many women not accessing help, especially in rural areas.

“We are asking the government to ensure any person who has experienced violence has access to medication, and the police, without fear. It should also ensure we know how many women, children and men are victims or violence,” said Wakonyo.

Jenny Ricks, the Global Convener of Fight Inequality said the demands for a more equal society and a sustainable world to live in, are not just happening in Kenya.

She said people in over 30 countries around the world would this week join together to put forward real solutions to inequality in their countries.

“For too long, people at the frontlines of inequality have been abused, exploited, ignored by government. The billionaire class has got richer over this time, while people have continued to suffer injustices,” she said.
She added that as the World Economic Forum meets at Davos, people around the world will demand that the billionaire class is abolished.

The march also took place in Zambia, Mexico, Chile, Hungry, UK, Philippines and India among other countries.

“Enough with listening to the billionaire class, and the rich getting richer. It’s time that people’s solutions to fighting inequality were heard,” she said.

Ten years since the promulgation of the Constitution 2010, gender equality in Kenya has remained a pipe dream despite being enshrined in the new law.

The new law was to benefit women especially, with the inclusion of the two-thirds gender rule that came to guarantee gender equality.The Gender Bill is, however, still a mirage despite three attempts to have Parliament pass it. Parliament currently has 75 women, 22 elected from the 290 constituencies in the last election; six nominated and 47 elected as woman representatives.

This means there is a requirement of 42 nominated MPs to achieve the gender principle. The scenario is no different in the public service as gender disparity rules.

The Public Service Commission (PSC) baseline survey 2013–2014, shows that the ratio of men to women in the public service stood at 70:30 with the ratio of women further reducing to 23 per cent at policy making levels.

However, a PSC policy statement on the Diversity Policy for the Public Service published in 2016, sought to rectify the anomaly by directing every public service institution to implement the two-thirds gender principle at all levels.

Despite the policy being in place, however, there is still huge gender disparity in the public service.

Gender equality remains a mirage in the private sector too. A special report released last month by Equileap that assessed 60 leading companies on workplace equality, reveals that the average score across Kenyan companies is 26 per cent.

In Africa, Rwanda is among the countries with the most gender-balanced public service with women making up half of the 26-seat Cabinet.

Today, at over 60 per cent, Rwanda has the highest percentage of women in parliament in the world. Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, in 2018, named a half female cabinet in an unprecedented push for gender parity.

Five women from Nepal and India who had been trafficked into the country were repatriated to their home countries this week.

The three Nepali and two Indian women – all in their 20s – were repatriated on Wednesday.

This comes after a charity – HAART Kenya – sued the Kenyan government last week over failure to provide the sex trafficking victims with appropriate care and protection after their rescue from a bar in Nairobi.

The anti-trafficking charity argued that since being rescued in August, the welfare of the women had been “neglected” and that forcing them to stay and testify caused them psychological harm.

“First of all, during the rescue, there was not enough insistence on the privacy of the victims,” said Radoslaw Malinowski, the founder and CEO of HAART.

“The case was actually filmed by the media. The victims have their own needs – security, shelter etc – which were not met. Victims also need to have a reasonable time to either remain (in the country), if that’s allowed, or be repatriated. This case was in August, we’re now in December,” he added.

After the petition, Justice Weldon Korir ordered the government to meet the costs of safe repartition of the victims, including flight fees and issuing necessary travel documents.

The charity said the decision to make the women key witnesses in the case, and testify against their alleged traffickers, had impacted their mental health.

“They were not given any information on the process of the prosecution and what would happen to them. That is not what victims need,” says Malinowski.

“They need good protection.”

Sophie Otiende, HAART”s programme consultant, told Reuters the women had become “deeply” traumatised, suicidal and some had been hospitalised.

HAART accused the government of violating anti-trafficking laws which gives victims a right to privacy and safe repatriation.

Following the raid at a bar in Parklands, the five women were placed in a safe house for four months. The law says this expense is shouldered by the State, but HAART says it covered the fees.

In addition to repatriation, the charity will also be paid more than Sh1.3 million expenses used to take care of the victims.

In 2010, the Counter-Trafficking in Persons Act came into effect, which established a ‘National Trust Fund’ for victims of trafficking. The money, which is generated from investments and donations, is intended to be used for expenses “arising out of assistance to victims of trafficking.”

This is the first time victims assisted by HAART have received “any support” from the Trust Fund, says Malinowski, although it was through a court order.

“But it’s also not just about the money,” he says.

“Kenyan law is very comprehensive when it comes to addressing the issue of human trafficking – it gives mechanisms and tools to the government. Unfortunately, those mechanisms and tools need to be fully implemented and operational. It is the government who has the mandate and power to fight trafficking.”

Last week, Reuters reported that government officials had denied a “lack of care” and said “no request for funds” had been received.

“We have received requests from other charities which are being considered. If HAART approached us, we would of course consider providing funds for these victims,” said Elizabeth Mbuka, Head of the Counter Trafficking in Persons Secretariat.

The Daily Nation has reached out to the State Department for Social Protection for further comment.

Early this year, reports surfaced that an increasing number of women and girls were leaving Nepal, India and Pakistan to work in Bollywood-style dance bars (known as mujra) in Kenya.

According to Al Jazeera news agency, many entered the country illegally and while there is no official data, police raids and repatriation figures suggest swathes of women and underage girls are trafficked from South Asia to Kenya.

A new study by Marie Stopes Kenya showed that 20.7 per cent of women seeking abortion services in Nairobi “do not know” whether the process is illegal.

Abortions, the Constitution states, are illegal in Kenya unless a woman’s life or health is in danger.

The researchers spoke to 353 women in six family planning clinics across Nairobi, which were chosen based on client volume and diverse population, amongst other things.

Nearly half (47.6 per cent) knew abortion was illegal, while nearly one third (31.7 per cent) believed it was legal.

In Kenya, the law is muddled. Abortion was mostly illegal until 2010, when a new Constitution essentially made it easier to have one.

The Penal Code, however, was left unchanged. This means you can still be charged with a 14-year prison sentence if you are found carrying out an “unauthorised” abortion, a grey area which allows police to target both women, quacks and health providers.

Unsurprisingly, this confusion has led to uncertainty over when the procedure is – and isn’t – allowed.

Published in the journal ‘Plos One’, the study also involved The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA). The aim was to assess the experiences of women opting for either pills (medication-induced abortions) or surgical abortions (manual vacuum aspirations).

Little is known about how women’s experiences differ between the two. The results showed that one factor is age; women aged 35 or more were more likely to go for the surgical procedure whereas younger women often opted for the pill. Roughly an equal amount, however, reported being employed.

Nearly a quarter (22.4 per cent) of Nairobi-based women procuring an abortion were either married, partnered or cohabiting. This reflects data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics 2014 (KDHS) indicating almost a half of pregnancies among married women in Kenya are unintended.

The study also found the highest number of aborting women were single, aged between 20 and 24 years and likely to be terminating their first pregnancy. Over half had no children, and rated their current health as “excellent, very good or good.’

While high numbers said it was “easy” paying for transportation to a clinic (80.5 per cent), nearly one third, said it was harder getting money for the actual procedure.

In addition to financial worries, stigma is still a big problem. Many women worried other people might find out or gossip about them. They were also concerned that by aborting, they were disappointing their loved ones.

Kenya reports high levels of unintended pregnancies. One 2015 analysis estimated that 41 per cent of the unintended pregnancies in Kenya will end in an abortion, resulting in approximately 500,000 abortions each year.

Overall, the majority of women said they were happy with the services provided at the Marie Stopes clinics.

“Most women felt that they were treated with respect, facility staff cared about them, their information was kept confidential, they were given attention, there was enough staff, and they could trust the staff who were there.”

Yet more can be done, the study argues. Challenges around the quality of abortion experiences in Kenya still remain, particularly around the issues of communication and autonomy.

“Only 61 per cent of MVA (surgical) clients and 57 per cent of medication clients reported that providers called them by their name all the time. Only 60 per cent of MVA clients and approximately 41 per cent of medication clients indicated that providers talked to them about how they were feeling.”

Based on the findings, researchers are recommending important changes, including a need for providers to ensure the abortion experience is personal by using women’s names.

When she is not at university, Audrey Mugeni is updating her spreadsheet. Every month, she adds more names. In one column, a grim question needs answering: ‘What killed this woman?’

“You have to write ‘she was raped’ or ‘she was bashed in the head’,” explains the Master of Arts (Gender) student. “It’s constant, and it takes a toll. You get very tired.”

In between lectures, Audrey, 34, runs ‘Counting Dead Women’ – a project highlighting the number of Kenyan women who are victims of femicide. That is, the killing of women and girls because of their gender.

Alongside her co-partner, Dr Kathomi Gatwiri, she scours the Internet and social media for reports of women and girls who have been killed – typically by men. The pair then update the project’s Twitter and Facebook accounts with the details.

Since the launch of the programme in January, they have recorded 82 lives lost.

This year, the country has witnessed numerous cases of murdered women as reported in the media. Yet national statistics do not report the gender of people killed in Kenya, and there is no specific data compiled on femicide.

“We have a huge gap in data,” says Anna Mutavati, Director of UN Women Kenya. “And the progress is really slow.”

Yet Ms Audrey and Ms Kathomi’s project is helping to plug that gap. After studying social work at university in Kenya together, the two remained friends. Last year, both women noticed the news was “flooded” with stories of women dying.

What’s more, after spending time in the rural areas of Kenya, particularly Migori and Kwale County, Audrey often heard of women dying “every week” but did not see it being reported in the news.

“We realised this was more serious than we first thought,” says Audrey.

Ms Kathomi, who currently lives in Australia, was familiar with ‘Counting Dead Women Australia’ a similar campaign that has been running since 2014. What if they could do the same in Kenya? They already knew the answer and besides, says Audrey, numbers can be a powerful tool.

Alarming

“Especially if you want to influence change,” she adds.

The data they have collected is alarming – eight Kenyan women are currently being killed every month by their boyfriends or husbands. Despite the reported spike in violence this year, Ms Audrey is not convinced that femicide is on the rise.

“This is something that has always happened. Women have always died, except now we have social media, people are talking and we’re able to get more reports out into the world.”

The work can be draining. To help, they take turns.

 Ms Kathomi will report one week, while Audrey picks up the slack the next. Dedicating your free time to recording male violence might be unfathomable to some, but the women do it in part because they have both experienced it.

Violence

“It’s very personal for us,” explains Ms Audrey. “We come from a history of abuse. I saw the women around me literally broken down. Their self-esteem was taken away from them. And to me, that is death.”

According to the 2014 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey, although the percentage of male and female victims of violence is roughly the same, the perpetrators vary greatly. Among married women, the most commonly reported perpetrator of physical violence is the current husband or partner (57 per cent), followed by the former husband/partner (24 per cent). By contrast, roughly 1 in 10 men who have experienced physical violence “since age 15, mention their current spouse as a perpetrator of physical violence.

Normalised 

This is half the problem, says Ms Audrey; the killing of women has become normalised.

“Once, when I was in Migori County, I was speaking to one gentleman and he said to me: ‘If my wife brings me any trouble, I may be sparked to do something drastic that may be fatal.’ When did this happen? It begs the question, is there something deeper going on? What is really going on with people? Why do we hate each other so much? This has got to stop.”

While still small, the Kenyan project is one of a growing number of accounts collecting data on femicide worldwide.

In the UK, CEO Karen Ingala Smith’s ‘Counting Dead Women’ has more than 20,000 Twitter followers.

Launched in 2012, the details she gathered – including the dates, names, police force area, recorded motive and the weapon used – led to the first Femicide Census Report four years later.

Tracking

This is a ground-breaking database of women killed by men, which allows for tracking and analysis.

Between 2015 and 2017, some 55 women were killed despite having previously reported their murderers to the police for threatening behaviour, according to freedom of information reports. There is a clear connection between different forms of men’s violence against women.

Activist Dawn Wilcox is documenting the lost lives of American women via ‘Women Count USA’, while the Australian version’s Facebook page stands at over 101,000 likes and has connected individual women with information on services available to victims of violence.

Heartbreaking

Now that they have started, Ms Audrey and Ms Kathomi have not discussed if they will ever stop.

“It’s heartbreaking, and difficult, but we are in it for the long haul. Until men stop murdering women, we’ve got a job to do,” says Ms Audrey.

It’s a hot mid-August morning, and Lydia Wambui’s bright green overalls are soaked. She’s standing knee-deep in Nairobi River, using a metal rod to catch rubbish lazily flowing down its murky waters.

“Sewage, bottle-tops, needles – people chuck everything in here,” she says, wiping sweat off her forehead before adding: “We also keep finding babies.”

Two months earlier, the 37-year-old volunteer spotted a blue plastic bag amongst the garbage. She immediately felt anxious: “You have to open it even though you fear what you’ll find.”

Inside was what she believed to be a recently aborted foetus, several syringes and blood-stained cotton wool. “I’m a mum, I have two kids,” she explains. “It hurts.”

In one 350-metre section, nine foetuses and newborns have been found this year by Wambui’s clean-up team, Komb Green Solutions. After police said the parents could not be identified, the team buried the babies – including two sets of twins – in a makeshift grave.

This week more than 6,000 people are in Nairobi for the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), a global summit on sexual and reproductive health.

The original event, 25 years ago, kick-started the global movement to recognise reproductive rights as human rights. And today speakers touted huge gains in global access to contraception, health services and a reduction in maternal deaths.

Yet the Nairobi riverbanks tell a story of unfinished business. On Tuesday, the first morning of the summit, the Komb Green Solutions team found their ninth body: a baby boy floating down Nairobi river.

“Progress is slow,” explains Angela Nguku, Executive Director at the White Ribbon Alliance, when asked about the impact of the ICPD’s goals on Kenyan women. “The government makes a lot of promises but doesn’t deliver.”

Abortions are illegal in Kenya, unless a woman’s life or health is in danger. Safe procedures at clinics cost roughly 20,000 Kenyan shillings (£150, one third of the average monthly salary), whereas unsafe abortions are roughly a tenth of that price. If you can pay, you often risk your life on a concoction of chemicals. If you can’t, you can quickly become desperate.

Every day, 320 women are hospitalised – and seven die – as a result of dangerous ‘quack’ abortions in Kenya, says Marie Stopes, the international family planning charity. More than half of girls between 15-19 who want contraception say they can’t get it, according to a data study by the Guttmacher Institute.

“Women and children are still dying,” says Nguku. “Why do we bury our heads in the sand?”

This year, Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko asked police chiefs and county officials to investigate the “worrying trend” of bodies found in the river. He has accused hospitals of illegally dumping foetuses and babies. Yet little has changed, says Fredrick Okinda, Komb Green’s chairman, and the issue isn’t exactly new. It’s not just the city’s rivers: babies are also found tucked into dustbins, dropped down pit latrines (long drops) or discarded by roadsides.

“If you live in Kenya, you’ll have heard many stories about abandoned babies,” explains Nelly Bosire, a Nairobi-based obstetrician-gynaecologist. “But the problem is bigger than it should be – and bigger than we are talking about.”

Young women from the poorest communities are most impacted, says Bosire. Cases frequently occur around informal settlements, where contraception is difficult to access. In Africa’s biggest slum, Kibra (formerly referred to as Kibera), 50 per cent of 15-to 25-year-old women are pregnant at any one time.

Dorothy, a 27-year-old pastor, spends much of her free time wandering the streets of Nairobi’s sprawling shanty-towns. By August of this year, she had stumbled on 12 abandoned infants. Some were just several hours old, clenched fists revealing them struggling between life and death. Of those she rescued this year, eight died; four lived.

“Blood is the one consistent thing,” she says. “It’s almost like the mum is still around, like she’s not quite left yet.”

Dorothy, who requested that her name be changed to protect her identity, used to keep a tally of the total but gave up several years ago. “It was demoralising,” she says, shaking her head. “Now I just count per year. When the year ends, I peel off the paper, throw it away and move on.”

Nationally, there is no centralised data system to keep track of the total, and official data is difficult to source.

“For police located near the river, [an abandoned infant] is so common it’s not an incident to report,” says Muteru Njama, the Managing Trustee of Change Trust, an organisation that deals with adoption and children’s rights in Kenya. He estimates roughly 7 to ten are discovered each week. “But it doesn’t even make the news.

Pamela Dochieng, a Marie Stopes midwife, says she receives an abandoned newborn every three to four days in their Kibra clinic. Dorothy, meanwhile, believes the number of abandoned babies is rising.

“No one really knows the true scale of what’s happening,” adds Njama.

Five years ago, 23-year-old Mercy Atieno dropped out of school. Her family was in financial trouble, so she turned to ‘survival sex’ with local men in exchange for money. After receiving the wrong abortion medicine from a local quack doctor in Kibra, she became seriously ill.

“I bled so much,” she says, tears filling her eyes. “I felt like my stomach was being cut into pieces. I got better but everyone knew – my neighbours, my family – and I felt like dying. I wanted people to know me for something impressive, not the lady who nearly died from an abortion.”

This was Atieno’s fifth abortion in two years. Yet she’s not alone: almost half a million abortions were conducted in Kenya in 2012 – the most recent data available – with one in four women and girls suffering complications.

Women are petrified, says Tabitha Tsaoyo of Kelin, a legal NGO in Kenya. “Firstly, contraception is often scarce. Young girls are then being forced to carry pregnancies to term because they’re scared of going through an unsafe abortion and dying. Desperation leads to dumping,” she says, before sighing heavily. “We’re giving them no other choice.”

What’s more, confusion around the law has led to uncertainty over when the procedure is allowed. Police use this grey area to frequently target both women and health providers in slums.

“Police want money,” explains Tsaoyo. “They will put you on a bond for about 50,000KES (£375). Then they’ll say: ‘we can drop this case if you pay us.’”

According to the Annual Crime Report, between 2010 and 2018 there were 348 cases reported to police for ‘procuring abortion’ – the offence that both women seeking abortions and medics are typically charged with. Abandoning your baby can fall under two categories – ‘infanticide’ or ‘concealing birth’ – of which 108 cases were recorded last year.

Just 40-minutes north of Nairobi lies The Nest children’s home. Away from the city’s hectic hustle, a quiet calm washes over the lush green trees. Edna Ouma, a 29-year-old social worker, shows us around their ‘Baby Village’ – an airy, red-bricked building dedicated to caring for abandoned infants. Twenty-one babies currently lie fast asleep inside. It’s nap time.

Their capacity is 25, but sometimes they take in more. Today, half the children belong to imprisoned mothers (this is home’s main focus), while the other half were dropped off by the police, a ‘Good Samaritan’ or simply left outside their large green gates.

In some respects, these babies are the lucky ones. Or luckier. If no family has been traced after six months, The Nest receives a letter from the police and they can begin contacting adoption agencies. Kenya’s Children’s Department also makes a provision for mothers to give their babies up for adoption if they so wish. The system, however, is not widely publicised.

Similarly, Nairobi-based gynaecologist Dr Jean Kagia set up rescue centres – known as ‘kiotas’ or ‘nests’ in Swahili – for young pregnant girls. She describes herself as pro-life, viewing abortion as a social not medical problem and, according to Bosire, is “plugging the gap” for vulnerable women.

“It’s tricky,” begins Ouma. “The reasons vary, but the mothers I’ve spoken to often say they didn’t want to do it. They needed to work to feed their family. Maybe they dropped their baby off in daycare, but didn’t make enough money that day and they were afraid to come back. Women find they’re left with no other option.”

Each case is different, says Ouma, but The Nest is keen on counselling women and helps with employment opportunities so “they do not need to repeat the same thing again.”

The issue is undoubtedly an economic one. As Sofia Rajab-Leteipan, a human rights lawyer based in Nairobi puts it: “poor women are being targeted.” But she, and many experts believe the problem is much bigger than that. “Looking at abortion in isolation isn’t going to help anyone. The entire system is failing women.”

Access to health services is key, she says, but it’s more than just the range of services available. Cost, a women’s knowledge of contraception and her ability to make decisions about accessing it all need to be addressed. “If there are barriers on all these things, women will become pregnant, they will have unwanted and unplanned pregnancies, which will result in unsafe abortion and dumped babies,” she explains. “It’s a chain.”

What’s more, the US has dramatically reduced funding for maternal health and family planning in Kenya under President Trump’s administration. The total dropped from £32 ($41m) in 2017 to £6.8 ($8.8m) just one year later.

Family Health Options Kenya (FHOK), the country’s first and largest reproductive health organisation, lost roughly $2.2 million in response to the Trump administration’s passing of the “global gag” rule in 2017. FHOK has now closed two clinics, eliminated all free outreach services, and laid off 18 staff members.

Only 2 per cent of their services were abortion-related, according to FHOK’s Amos Simpano.

“Dumped babies are just the tip of the iceberg,” says Elizabeth A. Bukusi, a Kenyan doctor who is also a research professor at the University of Washington in Obstetrics, Gynaecology and Global Health. “Do these young women even have enough bus fair to get to a healthcare facility?”

Back at the river, life has been disrupted once again. In what’s fast becoming a disturbing routine, the Komb Green Solutions team are preparing to take this week’s body, swaddled in a paper bag, and bury him with the others. The deaths are, unsurprisingly, beginning to take a toll.

Lydia was off that day, but she heard what happened. “It’s so sad,” she says quietly. “We really can’t go on.”

When Neema Khamis, 31, was offered a job in Saudi Arabia in 2014 as a domestic worker, she thought it was a dream come true.

She had been unable to get work, yet she had two children and a mother to feed.

In Kenya, the average domestic worker makes less than Sh150 a day, so when a placement agency promised Khamis that she would make Sh23,000 a month in Saudi Arabia as a domestic help, she quickly said yes to the offer.

But Khamis quickly realised that moving to Saudi Arabia was a terrible mistake.

Isolated in a private home in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, Khamis was regularly beaten by her employer’s son, a university student.

She was only allowed to sleep for two hours a night and given little more than noodles to eat.

Torture

Her new employer also refused to pay the salary she had been promised, arguing that her unpaid labour was repayment for the fee they paid to bring her to the country.

“My passport and visa had been paid for by the agency, which was then compensated by the employer,” said Khamis.

“In other words, I was sold; my employer bought me. That is why they despised me, and would not tire of reminding me that they bought me for lots of money, so I had to work.”

One morning, after more than a year there, Khamis was cleaning when her employer’s son accused her of being “too slow”.

He threw her off the stairs, breaking her leg. Ironically, the injury set her free: it was so severe that even after a trip to the hospital she simply could not work. Finally, she was allowed to return home.

Khamis is lucky. A number of women returned to Kenya in coffins. Others were subjected to brutal physical violence and sexual assault and their pay withheld even after working for months in slave-like conditions, returning home empty-handed.

Oversight Agency

Stories like these, illustrated with haunting viral videos of Kenyan women migrant workers pleading for help and means to return to their homes, led the Kenya government in 2014 to shut down thousands of unregulated recruiting agencies and banned Kenyans from migrating to Saudi Arabia for domestic work.

Earlier this year, however, more than a hundred registered recruitment agencies were allowed to resume practice under strict new guidelines.

The government says this time will be different: It’s new National Employment Agency (NEA), the bureau tasked with protecting workers abroad, was launched in May this year.

Roughly, 132 registered recruitment agencies are now authorised to send workers to the Middle East.

NEA acting Director-General Edith Okoki says each agency is required to pay a Sh1.5 million bond.

If an agency sends a worker into an abusive situation, the cost of returning her home will be met through the bond.

New workers also need to undergo a two-week certification course, within a syllabus developed by the government’s National Industrial Training Authority (Nita) and NEA.

It includes homecare training, life skills and pre-departure information taught by a handful of training institutions authorised and vetted by the government.

Compliance

Some, such as the East Africa Institute of Homecare Management, have gone the extra to give rudimentary Arabic lessons.

The NEA has also published the pre-departure Handbook to Migrant Workers to the United Arab Emirates with basic information on religion, customs and traditions, language, currency and remittances, dressing, labour laws, working hours, dispute settlement, entry requirements, accommodation, mode of transport as well as travel documentation and registration.

In its 2019 Trafficking in Persons report, the US State Department downgraded Saudi Arabia to “Tier 3” — the lowest possible level of compliance with international counter-trafficking goals.

The report identifies abuse of foreign migrant workers as a particular cause for alarm.

“Due to Saudi Arabia’s requirement, under its sponsorship system, for foreign workers to obtain permission for an exit visa from their employers to be able to legally depart the country, some labourers are forced to work beyond their contract term because their Saudi employers use state-sanctioned tools as part of a coercive scheme,” the report says.

Nevertheless, that same year, the Kenyan government signed a bilateral agreement with Saudi Arabia (as well as Qatar and the UEA), hoping to improve labour conditions for its migrants.

Safety Measures

Association of Skilled Migrant Workers of Kenya (Asmak) chairman John Muiruri says the Government initially pushed for a minimum monthly wage of Sh35,000.

The governments settled on Sh27,000 (850 dirham). “For those returning, the Kenya government proposed a minimum pay of 1,000 dirham (around Sh30,000),” Mr Muiruri says.

Kenyan domestic workers have also been added to Saudi Arabia’s Musaned system, an online platform launched in 2014 that tracks workers’ placements and work contracts.

In theory, the system stops bosses from withholding pay, since it’s designed to automatically transfer money from the employer’s account to the employee’s.

Under these new protections, the first wave of newly-accredited Kenyan domestic workers just started to return to the Middle East this year.

Demand for the newly-accredited training programmes is huge, according to Mary Kibe, a project officer at the Centre for Domestic Training and Development.

She says that between 350 and 400 women graduate from the programme each month at the centre.

Graduates

Edith Murogo, a leading crusader for domestic workers’ rights in Kenya for the past 18 years, attributes the current flow of domestic workers, particularly to Saudi Arabia, to the government’s new protective measures, which include enhanced minimum pay.

“The women domestic workers are returning and fresh ones signing up for employment to Saudi because they now strongly feel that the landscape and conditions have changed, unlike in the past where there was no government involvement in this migration,” she observes.

“They feel a sense of protection and feel better equipped and confident to make the move.”

Anne Mwendwa, 26, who trained for a job in Saudi Arabia, says she is confident about her prospects in the Middle East.

“I was nervous initially,” she said, having heard stories of migrant worker abuse. “But I’ve been prepared, trained, and briefed.”

She added that if something goes wrong, she trusts the new policies to protect her.

Loise Adhiambo, 29, and Halima Njoki, 40, are set to go back to the Middle East and have just finished the required training.

Fresh Graduates

After going through difficulties and what they describe as mistreatment by employers in Bahrain and Qatar, respectively, in 2016, the two still have prospects for a better life for themselves and their families in getting work in Saudi Arabia.

“The first time I went in an illegal situation and chaotic manner through brokers who did not prepare us for what lay ahead,” a more hopeful and confident Ms Adhiambo says.

The young woman says she’s determined to make it in the Gulf countries, to help take care of her father and four siblings.

“Although I had a terrible experience in Bahrain, I have also heard about positive stories of success especially from Saudi Arabia,” Adhiambo, who hopes to earn between Sh27,000 to Sh30,000, adds.

She is in the company of Njoki — a mother of two adult children — who worked in Qatar for close to a year before escaping back home after what she describes as a “harrowing experience” and mistreatment by her Qatari boss.

Language Barrier

The government’s renewed interest and involvement in the welfare of migrant domestic workers has convinced her to give the Gulf countries a second try.

“I’ve done enough background to conclude that the amount of work in Saudi households is reasonable and manageable and the working conditions are now better,” she notes, adding, she has a work plan.

“I’ve a work plan and a target. I need to earn some good money and save for two years for a certain investment. Once I’m done, I’ll be confident of a stable future for my family,” she says.

But fears persist that government measures to protect Kenyan workers abroad are more cosmetic than practical.

For instance, the NEA informational website is only available in English, despite the fact that many low-income Kenyans are more comfortable with Kiswahili.

A link on the website promising “Help Lines To Get Help” leads nowhere. (Ms Okoki expressed hope that a helpline will be opened soon, but was unable to offer a concrete timeline for its launch.)

And unlike some migrant-sending countries, such as Bangladesh and the Philippines, the Kenyan government has not yet established any safe houses for workers who flee abusive employers, or set a specific timeline for doing so.

Transparency

Government agencies do not even seem to know how many Kenyans live in the Gulf, although estimates are at around 60,000.

But Paul Adhoch, the executive director of Trace Kenya, a Mombasa-based counter-trafficking NGO, estimates that there are at least 120,000 Kenyans working in the Middle East, roughly one-third of the group have been trafficked.

Adhoch said that despite repeated requests from Trace, the government has not made the content of the new bilateral agreements with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE available to NGOs or to the public.

Worse, Adhoch says, “rogue brokers” have emerged to circumvent the new regulations.

“They say, ‘If you don’t want to wait for a training course, an official visa and a passport, pay me, and I can get you to the Middle East right now,’” said Adhoch.

“These rogue labour brokers traffic workers abroad with fake visas, false promises, and no way to get home. And there’s no disincentive for this.”

Unemployment

Nearly all Kenyan domestic workers abroad, he said, are women.

It is a concern that has also been raised by some of the authorised agents who view the rogue brokers as a threat to smooth migration.

“Before the government’s involvement, we were about 1,050,” says Rosemary Anyiro.

“Today, there are 132 authorised agencies. The question is, where did the rest go to? It means they are around, all over the place since they still have on them their (illegal) contracts,” says Anyiro.

Kenya’s economic and employment crises are driving this. Women are underrepresented in all sectors of the workforce, according to a 2018 report by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, therefore risky opportunities in the Middle East often seem like the only option.

Remittances

And for the 42 percent of Kenyans who live below the poverty line, support from abroad can be a lifesaver — financial remittances account for 2.5 percent of Kenya’s GDP.

“There are few opportunities in this country for low-skilled workers and traditionally in Kenya, domestic workers, who are mainly women, are underpaid by employers who do not respect the set minimum wage, and there is hardly any enforcement.

“In this case, they opt for the opportunities abroad where they are promised better pay,” Murogo, who was instrumental in development of the domestic workers training curriculum, says.

As economic need continues to push Kenyan women abroad, fears persist that tragedy could repeat itself.

Attitude

In some ways, it already has. Despite Neema Khamis’ own horrifying experience in the Middle East, her younger cousin recently took a job in Bahrain.

But after only three weeks, she returned home – wounds still visible on her face from beatings.

“The government may be well-meaning, but I do not think it can change the attitude those people have towards domestic workers from Africa or Kenya; they view us as slaves,” she says.

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