In Kilifi County, one of the poorest counties of Kenya, prospects for women and girls often look dire. Aside from the impoverished conditions, they face further marginalisation due to the belief that a woman’s role is in the home.
Local citizen Dama, for example, knew so little about her rights that she regularly missed school then became pregnant and dropped out altogether at the age of 15. The next two years she spent in an abusive relationship with the father of her child, looking after the whole family, and then isolated from society – until a group of women’s rights defenders saved her.
“Life was unbearable because my husband took to heavy drinking and would turn violent almost every night, especially if he found no food on the table,” recalls Dama. “He had left the responsibility of feeding the family to me [so] at 16, I had to live up to other expectations from my matrimonial family, like taking care of the elderly and the sick, providing basic needs like water and cloths, doing all house chores, even though I was young and unsure of what the society expects. I wasn’t old enough to even bring up my child in proper manner,” she says.
In 2016, Dama escaped from the relationship but this marked the beginning of an even harder life she says, because local culture dictated that women who get pregnant before marriage should be outcast and ridiculed for not being patient enough to wait for a dowry. The only way forward she could see was to wake up early and do casual jobs with her baby strapped to her back, such as collecting firewood for sale.
This was when she was approached by a local women’s rights defender.
“I was at the market in our village when I met a woman who told me about a meeting in our village for girls who had dropped out of school and I attended,” Dama explains. “During the meeting, we were taught about our rights as girls and how we could become better women in future if we became more confident and practiced the livelihood skills they taught us. This information was new to me and I was excited because finally, I had found a way to get a better life. Hope was not lost after all.”
Empowered by the group, Dama joined a vocational training centre in April 2017 and has since been training in dressmaking. “Life for me is different since I enrolled for this course,” she says. “[I have the] time to go about my house chores and take up casual jobs for pay, then come for my classes in the afternoon. Many girls here do the same too and we are even allowed to come with our babies to class.”
Dama’s confidence and new-found happiness is testament to the work of human rights defenders worldwide – especially female ones who are more prone to attack than male ones because they aim to break social norms and oppose the patriarchy. It is vital we stand in solidarity with them so that we can put an end to gender inequality for good.
ActionAid has received funding from the players of People’s Postcode Lottery to support their work with women and girls in Kilifi. For more information, visit actionaid.org.uk