by Joey Wilson-Brooke
Ruth Mumbi on ‘The Plight of Women Workers in the Informal Settlement’ is the first lecture this term in the series Learning from Human Rights Defenders, put on by the Centre for Applied Human Rights (CAHR) at the University of York. For some people, that might have created additional pressure but if Ruth felt this, she certainly did not show it.
Looking about the room, it was encouraging to see such a mix of students and members of the public, especially for a Friday afternoon lecture. Ruth is a CAHR visiting fellow, living in York for the term, before returning back to Kenya to continue her work for Bunge la Wamama. This term in York will give her an opportunity to take a breather from a difficult environment, get the chance to use lots of different educational resources and talk about her work to a new group of people.
Ruth started by giving us a little background of Kenya and its settlements. Located near Nairobi and with a population estimated at 500,000 people, Mathare is the slum that Ruth’s work focuses on. To help us get a better understanding of what the situation in Mathare is like, we watched a video, which introduced us to the life of the dhobi (washer) women. These women are the subject of a huge range of human rights violations – legally, physically and sexually. Their work is casual and as they do not live with their employer, they are not counted as domestic workers, so their rights are very different despite their setting being the same. These women do not have regular employment or benefits – if they are not well enough to wait about in the square with the other dhobi women then they are not going to find work, resulting in even greater hardship for them and their family. If they are able to get work that day, there is no knowing what that work will end up being (some women have been told to wash the bodies of deceased relatives), whether they will get paid at the end of it or if they won’t be beaten or raped.
The political situation in Kenya is, to put it bluntly, corrupt. You normally get a sense that this is the case when the president and other government officials have been indicted and are on trial before the ICC. One of the reasons the dhobi women do not report such horrific crimes as being stripped naked and beaten in the street, is because of the costly and lengthy bureaucracy that governs the legal system – another commodity that they simply cannot afford.
What was so captivating about this lecture was Ruth herself. Her passion for human rights and the determination she puts into her projects is heart-warming. When she talks about the hardships she and others like her, have faced – intimidation, harassment, unwarranted arrests, sexual molestation and rape – I could not keep back my tears. Not for pity may I add, but because of how honest and open she was about how her work affects her life personally.
Ruth’s work with the dhobi women is at grass level, on the ground, meeting the women and giving them a safe space to talk about their experiences and issues. These women are working below minimum wage, in poor working conditions and have no legal powers that support them. By educating them on constitutional laws, social rules and women’s rights, Bunge la Wamama helps to give them the tools to empower themselves. And when human rights defenders like Ruth gain international recognition for their work, like when Ruth won the Front Line Defenders award, it raises the profile of her and the organisation she works for. This means that they have a greater presence and can have a greater impact on pressuring governments to address issues like the plight of casual workers. It means that when human rights defenders are unlawfully imprisoned, threatened or harassed, that there are more people who can step in and help. By asking Ruth to come to York for a term, CAHR have given the student body an opportunity to learn from someone we would never get the opportunity to meet and we should make the most of it. I will certainly be coming along to their next event, Belarusian LGBTQ movements/initiatives.