IWD - Let Down by the System and Still She Rises

One of the girls I mentor is dead. She was shot by the police. She was only 15 years-old. This is not right
— Conversation with Jane Onyango during the 2007-2008 post-election violence in Kenya.

Saida Ali

Meet Jane Anyango - a spirited activist whose courage transcends the ethnic and political divide in the Kibera slum in Nairobi. Kibera is the largest slum in Nairobi and is often described as the largest urban slum in Africa with majority of its residents living in extreme poverty.  In 2004 Jane founded PolyCom Development Project, a community initiative in response to the high rates of sexual exploitation of adolescent girls in Kibera. PolyCom works through schools to reach school-going girls and recruits volunteers through existing community groups to reach out to out-of-school adolescent girls. PolyCom creates much needed safe spaces for girls to discuss matters affecting them, especially those related to their bodies. Given the existing inequalities and the state of informal settlements such as Kibera, it is rare to find safe spaces for girls to speak out about issues affecting them and to form important friendships and networks that help them navigate the challenges of the onset of puberty.


Finding inspiration in the darkest of times

Part of Jane’s role is that of a mentor to the girls recruited through PolyCom.  It was the killing of one of the 15-year-old girls - shot by the police during the 2007-2008 post-election demonstrations in Kibera - that triggered Jane to mobilise Kibera women to take action for peace and justice. Inspired by the passion of the women already involved in PolyCom, Jane brought them together in yet another initiative; the Kibera Women for Peace and Fairness. It was not just women’s the passion to take action, it was also their shared grief, born of the loss of property and loved ones, and the pain of walking on their blood following the trail of police shootings.

“We were protesting police brutality. We were tired of it. We had been pushed to the limit and we said it was enough”, recalls Jane. In reflecting on this year’s International Women’s Day, she recalls the killing of her mentee and the pain she felt, the feelings of betrayal, and the burnout, but she also recalls the strong, renewed motivation to continue the fight against these injustices. The killing of that girl was not the first time the police had shot a young person in Kibera and this trend has unfortunately continued with recent police shootings due to contested elections in Kenya. However, when it happened, it tore something in Jane apart. It touched the women at their core, given some of the efforts to create safe spaces where girls in Kibera redefine themselves and their worth. The women felt let down by a system that continues to rob them of their hope – the hope of an educated young generation rising from the slums.


Channelling this passion for peace

They had been let down so many other times before that. Jane knew that what had happened could either turn into something positive or into something ugly. So she gathered the women. She created a forum for them to share in their grieving and support each other. She literally forced the women to listen to each other and understand the depth of just how much the system had let them down. It was an important moment in realising that existing inequalities in the Kenyan society were at the core of the experiences of death and the riots in Kibera.

The women often dress in black during their demonstrations and use silence as their symbolism for peace. Dressing in black and being silent is a powerful image, often associated with mourning. On 27th August 2017, this symbolic image had great impact.  Grassroots peace activists drawn from all informal settlements in Nairobi had mobilised the media to draw attention to their security concerns before the 2017 general elections, creating images with messages that simultaneously concealed their identities.

Their activism challenges societal gender norms, promotes critical institutional reform at a national level, and demands funding to support grassroots peace movements. Their actions have enabled a shifting of the political and ethnic dynamics that bring female grassroots peace activists together from different informal settlements across Nairobi.

Rather than just waiting for recognition of the status and the wellbeing of women, Kibera Women for Peace and Fairness has been at the forefront in pushing for recognition of their concerns and prioritising peace and security for those living in Nairobi’s slums. This work has involved taking legal action to address sexual violence affecting girls and women and providing support for survivors of the 2007-2008 post-election related sexual violence. Jane played a huge role in the ‘I will not be silenced campaign, which was instrumental in championing judicial reforms.      


Sustaining the community

In order to sustain this activism and to provide a space for continued support and organising, the women organise a range of communal activities - including organising sports for peace, using music and arts to promote multicultural events, encouraging “sack farming” initiatives and sometimes organising communal sessions to listen to the radio. These radio meetings promote political debates among the women, exploring the issues important to the women.

Jane and the women in Kibera women have not looked back and they continue their #PressforProgress, calling for peaceful elections and promoting activities that bring together the people who live in Kibera. Jane is not naïve in her quest as a grassroots peace builder. She knows that sometimes this means confronting injustices and calling out the system for the failure to address impunity and lack of accountability.

Their actions have challenged societal perceptions on what it means to be poor and the importance of representation in political and electoral processes. Through peaceful demonstrations and vigils, these women have challenged gender inequality and prioritized the international women, peace and security agenda as an important agenda in shaping Kenyan national politics.  

Their continued work to #pressforprogress in Nairobi, in the face of such violence and betrayal by the state and society around them, is an incredible example for activism around the world.