By Alice Sverdlik and Shadrack Mbaka
Women in Muungano (Kenya’s Federation of the urban poor) remain committed to a multi-pronged advocacy campaign aimed at improving sanitation, and two leaders at the helm of the campaign recently reflected on their achievements as well as next steps. Since 2013, Dorice Bosibori Moseti of Mukuru kwa Reuben and Anastasia Wairimu of Kahawa Soweto have helped spearhead the initiative, which has gathered over 15,000 signatures from women in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Via this major petition, public demonstrations, and frequent meetings with government, women have built a strong movement to secure their right to sanitation.
Inadequate sanitation often imposes severe burdens on women and girls, who must use unaffordable public toilets or undignified latrines while at night they may resort to ‘flying toilets’ and tins at home (kasuku). For those who utilise pit latrines, they must depend upon sanitation ‘ambulances’: young men are paid to collect human waste from the plots, but merely dump effluents in nearby trenches or rivers. After nightfall in insecure settlements, women and girls have especially acute challenges when accessing toilets. Anastasia explained that “at night, there is no security of women going out. A man can go out alone, but women cannot” so they must use plastic bags and dispose the waste in the morning. Additionally, Dorice noted that girls in Nairobi’s slums often miss school while menstruating due to inadequate toilets and their inability to access to menstrual pads.
In response, Muungano women are working closely with Akiba Mashinani Trust (AMT) to demand a formal enquiry into Mukuru’s inadequate sanitation. Recent surveys with over 800 households in Mukuru found that 3.6% had access to adequate bathrooms, just 7% had adequate toilets, and only 29% had adequate water provision. In addition to raising awareness of the problems resulting from slums’ meagre toilets, Anastasia and Dorice envision scaling-up the campaign across Kenyan informal settlements. This larger-scale initiative will continue empowering women and raising Muungano’s profile through creative, dedicated advocacy strategies.
Taking Stock and Looking Forward to a National Campaign
The energetic advocates have already targeted an array of officials at the Ministry of Lands, Environment and Forestry, Public Health, and Nairobi’s County Government. Next steps will include further outreach to the Nairobi City County Government, as well as meetings with Cabinet Secretary of Devolution and Planning Anne Waiguru and the Women's Representative of Nairobi, Rachel Shebesh. Whether going to early-morning meetings or following-up multiple times with these officials, women have demonstrated their remarkable persistence and enthusiasm for improving access to sanitation.
Not only has the initiative demonstrated the burdens of inadequate sanitation upon women and girls, it has also linked poor sanitation to land tenure insecurity. Anastasia explained that the campaign for sanitation is also a “platform for the land,” since the two issues are interrelated. Dorice added, “We cannot have sanitation without the land…we have all these problems because of the land.” Even though land is a highly contentious and emotive issue, women’s campaign has consistently sought to promote secure land tenure using sanitation as a key entry-point. Women have utilized only peaceful protests to promote land rights, and their calls for improving services and access to land have actually helped to enhance cohesion in informal settlements.
Partnering with AMT and Katiba Institute, Muungano has argued that the land in Mukuru should be re-allocated and re-planned so that current residents can benefit. Muungano has also worked closely with AMT, Katiba, and professors at Strathmore University and University of Nairobi to document the highly inadequate toilets, water, housing, and other infrastructure in Mukuru. The partners are currently developing holistic plans for pro-poor upgrading, inclusive finance, and supportive legal frameworks in Mukuru, which can set a precedent for improving sanitation and other infrastructure across Kenyan informal settlements.
Anastasia and Dorice emphasised the need to scale-up the campaign, so that slum-dwellers throughout Kenya can access sanitation facilities that enable dignity and privacy. Dorice argued that the initiative “should be done all over the country” and if it’s national, “we’ll benefit more as a federation movement [because] we’ll have more rapport with the government.” She hoped that the counties could learn from one another’s experiences and continuously improve residents’ relations with their representatives, as well as providing much-needed sanitation. Anastasia agreed it must be a national campaign and suggested that sanitation forums be established in every county, ensuring the issue would be taken up beyond Nairobi.
Empowering and Giving Voice to Women
While focusing only on Nairobi to date, the initiative has already generated major achievements in women’s empowerment and recognition amongst government officials. As Anastasia noted with pride, “we have numbers in women, we have created awareness in health and sanitation. We have so many politicians who have come to our side...” Dorice and Anastasia agreed that the women feel far more confident to advocate for themselves and to raise Muungano’s profile among these decision-makers. “We are empowered,” declared Dorice, noting that the campaign “has given women voice. It has made us interact with government officials, [and] given us that courage to speak out without fear.”
Anastasia highlighted women’s greater solidarity and ability to influence public officials when they are united, and she noted the links between improved sanitation, land tenure security, and health:
It is improving our lives, because before the women did not know whether they can be able to approach the offices we have gone to. They did not know if there is a platform for that. They came to know that we have more powers if we are together –doors can be opened and our issues can be received to higher offices. It has changed minds of women towards health and sanitation…they are eager to know what we are doing and to stay focused on what we are doing… They know that when we are following the sanitation issue, we are also advocating for the land. So when we call them, they come. And we see that it has also opened doors of their minds to see what is coming.
As the campaign moves forward, women will undoubtedly continue building an advocacy platform that combines decent sanitation with secure land tenure, improved health, and recognition by government. Women in Muungano have already made enormous strides in advancing this agenda, and they are poised to scale up these efforts with ever more powerful voices and confidence in the future.