“We must embrace a new normal and as HRDs we must employ new strategies in how we do our work and engage the community.” – Dinah, former guest of the Shelter City Network
Dinah is a human rights defender from Kenya and former guest of Shelter City Nijmegen*. Her work is centred on women rights advocacy and women empowerment in terms of political leadership. Due to the pandemic and her personal health state, her work has been temporarily hampered. But her outlook remains positive. In an interview with Dinah, she gave us an inside view into the human rights situation in Kenya during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a lot of things to reflect on.
Life must go on even in lockdown
As a curfew was enforced, Dinah explained that Kenyans witnessed police brutality going rampant. A partial lockdown was also imposed in Nairobi’s Eastleigh area and Mombasa’s Old Town, which was extended to last until 6 June. But in a country where majority of the population is living hand to mouth, people are hard to be contained. Dinah explains that many families have lost their ways to earn a living, as business hubs like Eastleigh have gone into a lockdown. Although in the beginning people were complying with the orders, she states that a large population simply cannot afford to stay home.
“Most people cannot wait and die of hunger while making sure that COVID-19 does not kill them.”
This has also been the feeling in the informal settlements where the government is not providing even the smallest of assistance, according to Dinah. People there, but also in other areas, are confronted with a lack of basic services – no access to water, electricity, and poor health care facilities. And even thought certain individuals and organisations are trying to mobilise support and safeguard the lives of others, it is not enough. Still, Dinah is convinced that Kenyans are resilient and will make it through.
“We’ve seen just ordinary Kenyans who, if they have more they share with their neighbours.”
Women must fight to breathe
“Even though the whole society is affected women and kids bear the brunt in this pandemic”, says Dinah. She emphasises that in times of uncertainty, women are always disproportionately affected. She presented us with the scenario of being a pregnant woman in labour amidst curfew in Kibera, the largest informal settlement in Kenya. With no proper infrastructure a vehicle cannot enter to take you to the hospital, and with the fear that the police will violate you if you go out, you are left inside in a precarious position.
“Even as the whole society is affected women and kids bear the brunt in this pandemic.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic started, Dinah worked with women in the informal settlements. She had established her own organisation and had a few engagements in the communities; but this has all been intercepted. Now, she cannot meet these vulnerable women and she cannot even communicate with them because most of them do not have smart phones. And even if there was a possibility, their concern is now only one – surviving. If you were in their position, “you must fight to breathe”, says Dinah. In a dwindling economy, these women who would normally engage in informal labour such as washing and cleaning, are now fighting to make ends meet. They are not being employed and their incomes have become non-existent.
“Most of the people that should be getting that kind of assistance are not getting it.”
Although there is a government programme to disburse allowances to poor households, Dinah doubts the effectiveness of the programme. “Most of the people that should be getting that kind of assistance are not getting it”. Dinah believes that the lack of proper systematic cushioning of people in vulnerable positions, is affecting the overall management of the pandemic. In this pandemic, no one can be left behind, especially not women.
The message must be sent out
Criminalisation and commercialisation are other aspects of the state’s response that concern Dinah. She explains that laws have been made to exploit citizens, and the curfew has been used to perpetrate crimes against them. Dinah considers that the government is taking advantage of the situation, believing that no one will counter them. Organising civil society has indeed been difficult, at least in public, and impunity has increased. But Dinah and her fellow human rights defenders have mobilised themselves on the digital platforms, and are determined to bring awareness about the state’s actions during the pandemic.
“We are not relenting, we are doing what we can and our voices are still heard.”
They are dedicated to counter the state’s propaganda with factual information, and to provide an alternative position to their communities. But this has not been easy. “There are threats that you’re going to be arrested if you share or write some things”. Dinah recollected multiple cases of threats, intimidations, and even disappearance of human rights defenders since the beginning of the pandemic. There is also the issue that if you are arrested as a human rights defender you may not afford to pay your bond to be released.
Dinah knows these tactics are meant to deter grassroots HRDs and ordinary HRDs from speaking up. This is why she finds it important to discuss with her colleagues how to go about their work safely – “knowing when to speak and when not; when to go out and when not; when to stand up to the government and when to keep quiet”. She always remembers what she learned during her security trainings in Shelter City:
“As an HRD, you are very important for tomorrow; so if you safeguard yourself today, you live to fight another day.”
According to Dinah, as a HRD you cannot afford to expose yourself to danger. The repercussion will be wider than their own lives. This is why she encourages HRDs to secure themselves while continuing their work, and sending out their message.
We must forge ahead together
In the challenging times of COVID-19 HRDs are facing uncertainties, just like members of their communities. Although defenders are in the frontlines, their sources of livelihood and income are not guaranteed. “At this particular time, there are colleague human rights defenders that cannot pay rent, that cannot buy food, that in case of a total lockdown will be in trouble. And the ability to fend for your family goes down every day that this pandemic keeps on hitting us harder”. Like others, some human rights defenders are in a dire need of assistance. Dinah explains that while there are defenders with high profile and access to resources, there are also ones that do not have that:
“We have passionate grassroots human rights defenders that don’t have that kind of access; they need to be supported.”
It is not only support from the outside but also from within that is essential. The pandemic has led to the realisation that the fight for human rights is a shared fight. “As we start living the new normal, we must build alliances, we must work as a team”. Dinah laments the amount of competition there is in the humanitarian domain to get funding and opportunities. The pandemic has proven that it cannot work like that anymore – “we are doing good things individually but because we are not synergising we are affected so easily.” Solidarity is a powerful force. “We must appreciate our individual capabilities and gifts, and try and align them with others’. We must use that to forge ahead as a team that is more formidable.”
“We must appreciate our individual capabilities and gifts, and try and align them with others. We must use that to forge ahead as a team that is more formidable.”
*Dinah was a guest of Shelter City Nijmegen in 2018. Shelter City Nijmegen was successfully launched in 2015 to provide shelter and a safe environment for human rights defenders in need. Shelter City Nijmegen is carried out by Bureau Wijland, as commissioned by the municipality Nijmegen, in cooperation with the Radboud University Nijmegen, Stichting Driestroom and Amnesty International Nijmegen.