“A struggle in a struggle”: Patriarchy in Kenya’s social justice movement
Sexism is depleting activist movements, silencing women’s voices, and leading to burnout. Yet it is hardly spoken about.
When Irene Asuwa first found out about Kenya’s social justice centres, an impressive array of grassroots community organisations scattered across the country, she was full of excitement at the possibilities. It was 2019 and, as a student at the University of Nairobi, she had been heavily involved in ecological efforts to transform the densely-populated neighbourhood of Githurai.
“Githurai was a concrete jungle because of poor urban planning,” she says. “There were hardly any playing fields and green spaces where children could express themselves. Children played in dangerous environments along the main road or along the river…It broke my heart.”
Asuwa had spent the last two years planting trees and teaching at a community school, but recognised that through the social justice centres, which she heard about on a joint retreat, she could make an impact that went far beyond just one neighbourhood. The movement was already made up of a nationwide network and had its own well-established coordinating structures. If Asuwa could persuade the movement to make ecological justice one of its key pillars, the results could be transformative for Kenya.
Armed with her vision, she approached some members of the working group, the social justice movement’s decision-making body which is made up of two representatives from each of 70 centres. She also spoke to some organisers on the steering committee, the group tasked with implementing the working group’s decisions.
At first, things didn’t go well. Members of the working group failed to turn up to meetings, despite their earlier promises, or became unresponsive. So after a year of frustration, Asuwa changed tack. Instead of trying to convince the working group, she went straight to grassroots activists from the social justice centres and invited them to create a new movement around ecological justice. These cadres were far more responsive and, with support from the Ruguru Wanjiru of Korogocho Peace and Justice Centre, the collective grew. It brought in youth, community, and environmental groups and a fresh vibrancy. Together, the movement called for the reclamation, rehabilitation, and transformation of public green spaces.
It was at this moment, in 2021, that Asuwa was contacted out of the blue by an NGO that, in her words, has a “history of stealing people’s work and riding on it”. The organisation referred to their possible partnership. Neither Asuwa nor her fellow activists knew what they were referring to. However, with some investigation, Asuwa found out that two members of the working group, neither of whom had shown much interest in her proposals previously, had recently approached the NGO for funding, claiming to be conveners of the ecological network.
“I was angry when I found out that our work was being used,” she recalls. “The members of our network are free to collaborate with the organisation of their choice but we are transparent about our choices, and decisions on partnerships are presented to the members of the movement and the convening committee so that everybody is informed about what is going on”.
Asuwa confronted the two offending men. She says they expressed remorse but that she is sceptical of the authenticity of their apologies given that they did not try to engage with the movement again.
Asuwa’s story will be familiar to female activists the world over. Certainly in Kenya, many women have stories of their labour as organisers suddenly being co-opted when the potential for funding or credit arises.
Despite calling for liberation and social justice, activist spaces are far from immune to aspects of patriarchy and its toxic effects. Female activists in Kenya frequently suffer from mental stress and burnout as their contributions are taken for granted, their work goes uncredited, and their voices go unheard. According to Maryanne Kasina, co-founder of Kayole Community Justice Centres, trauma, depression, and anxiety are now commonplace in popular movements due to the forces of toxicity from the inside and the brutalities of capitalism from the outside. This leads many to drop out to survive.
“The fact that key organisers have walked out is testament to the fact that women’s efforts are deliberately frustrated,” says Asuwa. “These spaces weren’t intended for women.”
Another prominent example of these dynamics occurred in 2021, this time from within the working group. Five representatives, all female, had grown concerned at the organisation’s spending. They had noted that very little funding was being used to support the movement’s activities – such as in the form of dialogues, forums, and political education – and a lot was being spent on pricey utility bills. One of the women, Minoo Kyaa, was the working group’s finance administrator yet hadn’t been given full information on the movement’s budget and funding.
The group was also concerned at broader mismanagement in the Kenyan movement. They attributed some of this to the introduction of elections for the steering committee. Previously, appointments to the body had been made through consensus in the working group. The five activists believed the switch to elections had led some candidates to buy votes in the form of future promises over funding.
Whenever the women – derogatorily called the Big Five – raised their concerns among colleagues, they received the cold shoulder. And so, as a last resort, they wrote a letter to the working group’s fiscal sponsor. In response, the funder suspended the disbursement of resources and asked for the activists’ concerns to be resolved. A general meeting of the working group and steering committee was organised, but instead of talking about these issues, the attendees used the opportunity to deride the women as troublemakers, call them witches, and issue threats.
That was the last straw. Four of the women – Juliet Wanjira of Mathare Social Justice Centre, Faith Kasina of Kayole Community Justice Centre, Njoki Gachanja of Githurai Social Justice Centre, and Minoo Kyaa of Mukuru Community Justice Centre – stepped down from the working group. Only one, Maryanne Kasina, stayed.
“Men need to realise they are also victims”
As these stories show, patriarchy and sexism in our movements is pervasive and destructive. It is a silent cancer that depletes the vibrancy of our communities. It silences imagination and ideas, and leads to splintering and burnout. And yet it is hardly spoken about.
For the good of our colleagues and our movements, we need to introduce structures of conflict resolution and accountability. We need to build genuine relations of solidarity among ourselves based on a clear ideology. And we need political education. We need to confront these toxic dynamics and be genuine about the revolution of the working class and the true liberation of women that must go hand in hand with it.
As Maryanne Kasina says: “It’s a struggle within a struggle and it takes a lot of energy to fight for accountability and transparency…We come from different backgrounds but what shapes our character will be a common ideology. Men need to realise that they are also victims of patriarchy and conduct a personal struggle to uproot it from their minds.”