|The Courier N° 160 - Nov - Dec 1996 - Dossier Habitat - Country reports: Fiji , Tonga (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)|
Tackling violence against women
by Rosemary Okello
The author of this article is a journalist with the Nairobi-based Women's Feature Service (WFS) She contends that the Habitat 11 conference skirted around some of the issues affecting women city dwellers in Africa, such es violence and sexual abuse. Improving their lives, she argues, starts with a roof over their heads
The lofty ideals set during this year's UN Conference on Human Settlements in Istanbul meant little to African women like Catherine Kaberu.
As she recalls the misery of living on the streets of Nairobi, she is just happy now to have a safe, secure room for her family. 'I thought by running away from home and coming to Nairobi, I would find a better life" says Ms Kaberu. Instead, the streets became her home and her life was defined by the fear of violence against her. Her two children were born during that difficult period, following rapes. She cannot identify their father. There are an estimated 30 000 street people in Nairobi and Catherine Kaberu says that all street women and girls are regularly abused.
'Every day we had to look for a place to sleep and we bribed the watchmen to guard us.' Often it was the same watchmen, employed to guard office blocks in the city's central district, who took advantage of the women's desperate situation. Not even age could protect them says 63-year old Felista Nyambura, herself a veteran of the streets. 'I suffered all manner of humiliation,' she states, referring to ten years spent on the streets with her seven children. 'The watchmen would rape me if I refused to give in to them - after they had offered me a place to sleep for the night with my children. I am just so happy to be off the streets. I will never go back,' she states firmly.
The confidence of the two women comes from their new security as owners of simple one-roomed houses.
'Having a house to call my own is the most important thing that ever happened to me,' says Ms Nyambura as she explains how she ended up on the street after the piece of land her husband left in their rural home was taken over by her in-laws.
The two women are part of a group of 114 who have benefited from the Urban Destitute Programme, a project of the African Housing Fund which is involved in participatory community development with the homeless women of Nairobi.
Catalina Trujillo, the 'Women in Development' coordinator for the Habitat conference stresses: 'If a woman's place is in the house, we had better make sure she owns it.' These sentiments were supported in Istanbul by the conference Secretary General, Wally N'Dow: He stated: 'By conviction, by analysis and even by instinct, women's rights to ownership and inheritance of property is right. If Habitat II... does not also contribute to social progress by addressing some of the issues like property rights for women, then it will have failed.'
For the women of-Africa in particular, the most important thing that should have come out of Istanbul was an affirmation of their right to own and inherit property, and to security.
These issues affect most African women regardless of their status and they were presented to ministers concerned with shelter and settlements when they met in Johannesburg last year to prepare an African agenda for the Istanbul meeting.
Most African countries accept the theoretical premise that women must have access to land, credit and inheritance, and recognise that certain types of violence are targeted primarily at women. South Africa's President Mandela affirmed: 'When we talk about people-centred development, we should understand that the involvement of women is often the difference between success and failure.' Yet in reality, customary law and insensitivity to gender concerns continue to predominate. Unfortunately, when the African ministers adopted their declaration, the point on the "unencumbered access of women to credit and land ownership' appeared in only 20th place. And while forced evictions were highlighted in Istanbul, violence against women did not feature at all among the 'key priorities'.
Yet in parts of Africa these are major concerns affecting women every day. 'In South Africa, a women is raped every 83 seconds and in some areas, a girl can expect to be raped four times in her life,' says Emelda Boikanyo of the Johannesburg-based Women's Health Project. Idah Matou remembers how one Sunday morning in 1992, five men stormed into her shop in Alexandria township. They seized the day's earnings and anything else they could carry away before raping her 1 5-year old daughter. A few weeks earlier, they had called to demand protection money.
Violence in the home is also a growing problem. Mmatshilo Motsei, Director of Agisanang Domestic Abuse Prevention and Training, an NGO based in Alexandria, South Africa, says the problem is so pervasive, 'it must be raised as a national concern.' Habitat II turned a deaf ear on these women's concerns. This was not their forum. Shawna Tropp of the NGO Women's Caucus criticised those attending the conference who claimed that it was not about women but cities. 'Women live in cities,' she says and adds: 'By and large, human settlements are still very much seen in terms of bricks and mortar'. She calls for greater understanding of the role played by women, usually in an unpaid capacity, in the management of communities. 'Everything begins with having a house in a secure neighbourhood where the dignity of women is protected.'