In informal settlements of Nairobi, women look to Habitat III on inclusive planning

The Urban Thinkers Campus that took place in the city on 15-16 October took unique effort to ensure deep participation.

A woman and baby look through a window as a friend gets water in Kibera, the massive informal settlement in Nairobi. During a recent Habitat III meeting in the Kenyan capital, women from Kibera warned that the authorities are not engaging in inclusive processes to solve safety and other problems.

NAIROBI — Women in Nairobi’s informal settlements feel that government is not inclusive when it works to solve problems related to safety, economic empowerment and political participation.

They also continue to face high rates of sexual assault and harassment but also significant challenges in working with the media to make their plight public. Indeed, this reporter participated in a breakout session focused on the media, where mainstream media houses came under withering attack.

These strong views came out at the Nairobi Urban Thinkers Campus, which took place over two days in mid-October. The event was one of more than two dozen such campuses slated for late this year and early next year to allow urban stakeholders to come together and share ideas around the theme “The City We Need.” Each of the meetings, sponsored by UN-Habitat’s World Urban Campaign, are offering formal input into the drafting of the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of next year’s Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador.

[See: Kampala hosts first Urban Thinkers Campus in Africa]

The Nairobi campus was convened to look at issues of concern for women in informal settlements and to offer related recommendations for the New Urban Agenda. The campus was unique in its efforts to ensure strong participation by women in such areas.

Over the course of the two-day event, participants frequently highlighted issues around safety and sexual assault, including concerns over structural issues within the city that amplify dangers for women. For instance, unfinished buildings were cited as providing hiding places from which women could be assaulted. There is also a shortage of female police officers and health workers who can empathize with victims of sexual assault.

[See: Habitat III is a critical opportunity for grass-roots women]

Some infrastructural problems can beget more problems. Poor lighting, for example, continues to impede women’s economic productivity, as darkness leaves women open to sexual assault.

“Business places for women need lighting,” said Jane Godia, the director of African Woman and Child Feature Service, a media NGO. “At 6 pm, business has to stop because there is no lighting and this reduces their income. Poorly lit areas are also locations for multiple rape cases.”

Amplifying voices

At first glance, urban areas would appear to offer strong opportunities for women to make safety-related concerns known to the broader public through the media. Yet the participants in Nairobi expressed significant concern about this option.

“Business places for women need lighting. At 6 pm, business has to stop because there is no lighting and this reduces their income. Poorly lit areas are also locations for multiple rape cases.”

Jane Godia
Director, African Woman and Child Feature Service

Reporting on violence against women and girls has to go beyond merely reporting the crime, many noted. Rather, it must help the community understand the issues involved. Only ensuring this base of understanding among the public will empower women and girls to engage with government and bring about desired changes.

Today, the women said, too much reporting on women’s safety highlights the issues involved in ways that make women less likely to want to come forward and share their story. However, the participants did express excitement over the growing effectiveness of social media and blogging in breaking stories about gender-based violence, particularly when mainstream outlets are unwilling to publish these accounts, or cover them with inadequate sensitivity.

[See: Why would the media be interested in an event that will impact more than half of humanity?]

Elsewhere, structural problems within governance structures continue to present obstacles to women rising to leadership or policy-making positions. Certain patriarchal norms mean that women continue to be excluded from leadership in informal settlements, for instance, while poor educational levels hold back their participation, even in civic engagement, participants said. Women need to be actively involved in research work as well as policy formulation, implementation and monitoring, they urged.

Others pointed out that class marginalization takes place even within the women’s movement, stating that leadership positions in women’s groups are often given to middle-class women, to the detriment of poorer women. Those with disabilities, too, are typically not considered for such positions, participants said.

Communities not consulted

Many of the participants at the Nairobi Urban Thinkers Campus complained that government projects in informal settlements have interfered with community initiatives, at least in part out of a lack of community input and coordination. A key example is projects aimed at improving sanitation.

“We have so many organizations — we have youth who have organized themselves and constructed toilets. We have women who organized themselves, with their money, and constructed toilets, so they are even using it as income-generating activity,” said Jane Onyango, the director of the Polycom Development Project. “In garbage collection, we had our boys who were giving us disposal bags. We were paying … and they were doing their thing.”

The Polycom Development Project co-organized the Nairobi Urban Thinkers Campus along with the Huairou Commission, a global network of grass-roots women’s groups.

“Today, go to Kibera,” she continued, referring to the massive informal settlement just outside the Nairobi city centre. “We have people who have moved out of their houses because the garbage is too much. Now we have to reorganize ourselves to look for ways to remove it, and how do we get these boys who were doing it back? They’ve gone to mjengo [construction].”

“They mean good, but they don’t consult,” Onyango said, referring to the government. “So at the end of the day, they end up destroying us instead of building us.”

Elsewhere during the campus, Galina Oyombra, a Polycom volunteer from the University of Nairobi, demonstrated how citizens in Kibera are using an Indian crowdsourcing application to report acts of sexual harassment in Kibera.

A city’s safety

After two days of deliberation, the Nairobi Urban Thinkers Campus agreed on a series of specific recommendations toward improving the safety of the city — theirs and that of others. First, efforts at ensuring safety should engage all stakeholders and target the distinct groups involved — women, community pressure groups, religious leaders, teachers, youths and civil society.

If community groups are considered primary stakeholders in these strategies, then secondary stakeholders would include local government, the police and project funders. And these secondary parties, the campus agreed, need to ensure that they include primary stakeholders at all levels of project design and implementation.

Participants also concluded there is a need to obtain accurate data on the types of crimes being committed in each part of the informal settlements of Nairobi. Only once that information is available, the women felt, would it be possible to come up with specific strategies to deal with those problems, relevant to different regions. Following on Galina Oyombra’s presentation, the campus also noted that crowdsourcing data on crime can help map unsafe spaces as a way to prevent crime.

Is there an opportunity for Habitat III to address these concerns? Certainly, supporters hope that the process of drafting the New Urban Agenda will be able to bring about a sea change in how countries approach urbanization. During formal meetings in Montréal last month, Habitat III Secretary-General Joan Clos noted that this shift would be “to see urbanization as a tool for development instead of only seeing urbanization as an accumulation of problems.”

The New Urban Agenda is expected to focus on three aspects of urban living: urban rules and regulations, urban planning and design, and municipal finance. Many of the concerns raised during the Nairobi Urban Thinkers Campus could be included under these categories. But it will remain to be seen whether the voices of women in informal settlements can be amplified enough to bring about the significant change they are demanding.

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Vincent Ng’ethe

Vincent Ng’ethe writes about science, the environment and urban governance in Nairobi. He is a digital editor with the Daily Nation, editor of the Dot9 blog and sub-editor for Newsplex.