Slum women struggle to put food on the table

Patricia Atieno lives in Kibera, a large slum in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, but spends most of her mornings looking for short-term employment as a house help elsewhere in the city.

"I have been doing domestic work for a decade now; my family depends on it," she said. "In the past it was easier to find work but not any more. The employers now hire and dismiss us indiscriminately."

Like Atieno, many of Nairobi's women slum dwellers are the breadwinners. "We have to work harder and move from one place to another to increase our chances of getting work," she added.

The women come from the 200 slums in the city, including Mathare, Mukuru, Kawangware and Kibera - which houses more than 750,000 people and is one of the largest such settlements in Africa.

''I worry whenever a man comes to hire me because I have been coerced into sexual encounters without which I would not be paid my dues''

According to the United Nations Centre for Human Settlement (Habitat), Nairobi's slums are overcrowded, with four to six people living in one room. The dwellings are very close to each other; services are basic, while morbidity and mortality rates are high.

City authorities say more than 1.6 million (out of Nairobi's estimated population of 3.5 million) live in the slums or ‘informal settlements’. Most live below the poverty line - earning less than US$7 a week - according to experts.

The women who seek domestic work earn a meagre 200-350 Kenya shillings (US$3-5) per task. Aged between 14 and 40 years, they sit at the periphery of upmarket residential estates for up to seven hours every day hoping to be hired.

Despite the uncertainties of the work they do, however, the women insist they would rather engage in traditional household chores than in ‘the flesh thing’ (prostitution).

Harassment

But they complain that harassment is a significant problem at work. "We usually do laundry, ironing and clean houses," one of the women, who requested anonymity, explained. "But sometimes we get crazy people who ask us to do extras.


Photo: IRIN
Many of Nairobi's women slum dwellers are the breadwinners for their families

"I worry whenever a man comes to hire me because I have been coerced into sexual encounters without which I would not be paid my dues on several occasions," she added. "Sexual harassment is becoming a very common part of this job. We are desperate for the money so we oblige at times."

According to Njoki Ndungu, a Kenyan member of parliament, who initiated a new law that introduced a harsher penal code for perpetrators of sexual violence, a woman is raped in Kenya every 30 minutes.

"Opportunities are diminishing by the day and there are more risks; you risk being raped or bitten by fierce dogs," Atieno said. "When you do not get hired for days, you begin to feel rejected and suicidal."

The women say they have nowhere to turn. "There is no one here to fight for our rights," one said. "When we are attacked, abused, we have no one to turn to. Even the police are not always helpful."

But they have few options. "I do not have an education and that is the biggest problem," one of the women said in Kibera. "This work is difficult but my chances to improve would have been better if I had gone to school [because] I would have been working at a supermarket, company or hospital."

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