In Kenya slums, women risk rape daily to get to a bathroom

Only 24 percent of homes in Nairobi's slums have a bathroom, forcing many women on dangerous journeys to find a communal lavatory, according to a report from Amnesty International.

Imagine, for a moment, that the nearest bathroom to your house is half-a-mile away. And that, after dark, making the 20-minute trip would mean you cross paths with men out to rape any women they can find.

This, according to Amnesty International, is the daily – or nightly – reality for hundreds of thousands of women living in the slums of Kenya's capital, Nairobi.

In a tersely worded, 54-page report titled "Insecurity and Indignity," launched on July 7, the organization detailed repeated failures on the part of Kenya’s government to safeguard women’s basic human rights, particularly access to sanitation facilities for toilets and bathing (pdf report).

“It’s a vicious circle of indignity and humiliation,” says Dorin Wanjiru, from Christ The King church, which works with people living in Kenya’s sprawling slums.

Numbers are hard to pin down, but there are credible estimates that women make up a little more than half of the 2 million people living in Nairobi's "informal settlements."

But only 24 percent of their houses – a grand term for what are usually 12-by-12-ft., tin-walled shacks shared by up to a dozen people – have access to a bathroom in their immediate vicinity.

'Only the loudness of my screams saved me'

“It means that we have to walk far, and after 7 p.m. it is too unsafe to do that,” says Judy, who has lived all her life in Nairobi’s Mathare slum.

Late last year, as she walked to the nearest communal ablutions block, four men blocked her way. They stripped her naked, hit her so hard that she lost a tooth, and attempted to rape her.

“Only the loudness of my screams saved me,” she says. “I am not the only one, so many women have this happen to them.”

There are too few police officers patrolling these areas, Amnesty found, and too little effort to install any level of street lighting.

“Women dare not look for a toilet after dark, for fear that they will be physically attacked,” says Godfrey Odongo, Amnesty’s researcher for East Africa, who wrote the report.

"They become prisoners in their own homes."

Government gives 'promising' response

Some good work is being done, and Mr. Odongo described Kenyan government officials’ response to his report as "promising."

There are 46 new "community blocks" dotted around Nairobi’s 200-odd informal settlements, funded by the government and international aid agencies, where thousands share a dozen toilets and showers.

But that is "a drop in the ocean" for a combined slum population running into the millions, says Odongo.

For those too far from a toilet, with gangs of young men prowling outside, choices are stark and unpalatable.

Open channels carrying raw sewage run between shacks. Informal dump sites dot the landscape, where noxious fumes from burning trash haze the air.

Building more communal bathrooms?

“We have no alternative, we must resort to doing our business in plastic bags and throwing it outside,” says Grace Wayua, a mother with three children who has lived in Nairobi’s Mathare slum for more than half her life.

Even washing is difficult, she says. She is forced to bathe with a bucket and a large washing bowl in the tiny room she shares with her children.

Amnesty argued that this level of indignity can only be tackled by building more communal ablution areas, and by forcing slum landlords to adhere to Kenya’s building code, which says that by law every dwelling must have access to a toilet.

“There are middle-class Kenyans going to court over this, but no person living in a place like Mathare can do that,” says Odongo.

“The landlords just kick them out if they complain. They are powerless.”


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