In Isiolo County, in the former Eastern Province of Kenya, ethnic women are disseminating awareness-related information on COVID-19 and gender-based violence through the use of local radio stations. David Nangaa Silakan reports

This is the fifteenth in the series of stories from Voices from the Frontline initiative by ICCCAD and CDKN.

Isiolo County is home to several pastoralist communities, notably the Borana, Somali, Turkana, Merians and the Samburu communities. Traditional customs and beliefs have led to unbearable living conditions  for women and girls within the county. They are often subjected to inhuman treatments including Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), sexual coercion and forced early marriages.   

Considered as the worst form of violation of women’s rights, FGM is still widely carried out in ethnic communities in Kenya despite numerous efforts to eradicate the grotesque practice and anti-FGM policies in place. In addition, young girls are forcefully beaded by Moran warriors (Moran warriors are Maasai men who live in isolation to develop strong character traits according to the requirements of their culture; beading is the practise of marrying young girls by Maasai men) and married off before attaining maturity. This practice denies girls’ rights  to education.

Despite a devolved system of governance, women and other marginalised groups in these communities continue to display leadership and advocate for their inclusion in decision-making processes. Local women-led initiatives are seeking to protect women’s dignity and wellbeing, and increase their empowerment in the community. These activities help women and girls to fight back against ongoing harm and to be more resilient; the women have also adapted their local organising activities to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

Community Radio Shows of Isiolo Gender Watch 

Grace Lolim, a female member of Isiolo’s pastoralist ethnic community, has been on the frontline all her life, advocating for women’s rights. She has had first-hand experience with patriarchal norms and traditional practices that undermine women’s inclusion in decision-making processes. Grace is the executive director of a women-led organisation called Isiolo Gender Watch. 

Isiolo Gender Watch was formed in 2013 with the aim of providing a platform that brings together socially-excluded groups whose voices are often not heard or taken into account when it comes to community-level decision-making. It comprises women leaders, youth and people with special needs from the diverse ethnic communities of Isiolo, who are deprived of basic human rights. The organisation was formed by marginalised women who have experienced oppression in the past.

To address gender-based violence, Grace and her organisation considered beginning with sensitising community elders and religious leaders. They started organising small dialogues with these groups within their respective communities. In order to expand and ensure outreach to the wider community, they started hosting a talk-show with the help of the Aagaf community radio station. Elders, religious leaders and women discuss issues around violence during the talk show, and community members call the station to pose questions as well as provide suggestions.

The outbreak of COVID-19 which led to nation-wide lockdowns across the world, including in Isiolo County, has once again resulted in an increase in gender-based violence and sexual harassment cases. “The curfew hours provided security officers with an opportunity to ask for money as bribes and sexual favours from women in exchange for not arresting them and taking them to the court” Grace highlights.   

The closure of livestock markets, the only place where the exchange of goods are carried out has resulted in reduced income, shortages of food supplies and higher levels of poverty. “The pandemic has exacerbated the level of poverty. The lay-off of workers and closure of businesses have triggered unethical patterns of behavior ranging from burglary, cattle raids and highway banditry. Community members are defying government guidelines and young people are indulging in alcohol and drugs,” she laments. 

As the situation was perpetually worsening, Grace undertook the initiative to create awareness on these issues along with the prevention and management of COVID-19 among the communities of Isiolo. Since social gatherings were abolished and social distancing was introduced, Grace realised that the radio talk show is the best option to reach out to the wider community. Through the talk show, she conveyed messages on the importance of social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands. 

“On 13 August 2020, a young girl was sexually abused and taken hostage by the police. Isiolo Gender Watch shared this information on social media, which immediately gained attention from the local authorities. The girl was taken back to her home and the police officer was arrested,” Grace proudly shares.

“The talk show enables two-way knowledge sharing and helps to address the issues of violence. Communities are now able to hold authorities accountable for anti-social activities during the lockdown. Also, the wider community is being reached in accordance with WHO guidelines and government measures for COVID-19,” she adds.

Awareness Campaigns of FEIYAH Action Network 

FEIYAH Action Network (FAN) began its operations in 2010. It is a community-based organisation that works on women and girls’ rights in pastoralist Rendille and Samburu communities. Similar to Isiolo Gender Watch, it also operates through community dialogues and awareness campaigns against gender-based violence and early marriages.

Apart from gender-based issues, FAN also actively advocates for environmental protection through promoting hand-made cloth bags made by community women instead of plastic bags that are more commonly used for shopping. It also focuses on women empowerment through engagements in handicrafts, cattle rearing and community banking. 

With the onset of COVID-19, FAN has carried out several awareness campaigns through radio talk-shows, and visiting villages, while ensuring the WHO guidelines and protocols. They also collaborated with  Isiolo Gender Watch to respond to COVID-19 with a blend of different approaches. Apart from awareness campaigns, women have also been trained to make liquid soaps for hand washing purposes.

The network is also working towards breaking myths surrounding the pandemic. These mythical accounts of the virus have provoked community members into thinking that COVID-19 is deadlier than HIV/AIDS. Some of the rumours that have been going around are: “the cure is taking 3 teaspoon full of salt in black tea and drinking locally brewed whisky”, “COVID-19 is a disease suffered by the urban-dwellers and the rich”.

Rose also used a radio station to create awareness on the misinformation that was being fed to the communities. “We have used case studies from other parts of the world to tackle wide-spread rumours such as – because Africans are strong and as they live in warmer climates, they will not be infected by COVID-19,” Rose mentions. Apart from case studies, indigenous songs sung by women which are shared on WhatsApp have also been helpful to abate these rumours.

Rose has been nominated as a human-rights defender for mobilising women to talk openly about violations against them. 

Both Isiolo Gender Watch and FEIYAH Action Network are the founding members of Pastoralists Alliance for Resilience and Adaptation in Northern Rangelands (PARAN). Due to the organisations’ lack of funding, PARAN has supported them to develop a community messaging strategy and conduct radio talk shows. PARAN has also provided Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and non-food relief items to vulnerable communities. 

Despite the mounting challenges, both Grace and Rose find pride in the fact that when government efforts were not enough to overcome the pandemic, community-based organisations such as theirs have been successful in sensitising people and managing the unprecedented situation. 

Interviewer’s Perspective

Due to male domination in the aforementioned ethnic groups, gender issues concerning women and girls are not provided with attention. Most of the decision-making structures are tilted towards men who occupy important positions in society. Only a few women-led organisations and a handful of individuals advocate for women’s rights.

The role played by community-based organisations like Isiolo Gender Watch and FAN, and networks such as indigenous women councils and PARAN, have been instrumental in advocating for social inclusion for marginalised groups. Governments may channel more funds and capacitate such organisations so that they can continue to highlight the importance of rights for women, youth and people with special needs within their communities. 


About the interviewer

David Nangaa Silakan is the coordinator of Paran Alliance and has over 10 years’ experience in community-based conservation, land rights and natural resources management. He has been leading a process that addresses climate change adaptation among the pastoralists’ grassroots communities and advocates for land rights using radio talk shows. He also organises user groups’ dialogue at the county level as part of Paran. These include multi-stakeholder dialogues between international and local academia, conservation-based organisations, conservation researchers, and more. In addition, David has moderated Indigenous Women Dialogues at a national level. 

About the interviewee

Grace Lolim comes from a pastoralist ethnic community in northern Kenya. She is the executive director of a women-led organisation called Isiolo Gender Watch and is the chairperson of community policing.

Rose Ngoilelo Orguba comes from the Rendille ethnic community. She is a human-rights defender and was nominated by the Human Rights Defenders Coalition in 2018. She was trained as a community health worker. She worked in Marsabit County for seven years where she identified women and girls as oppressed, and consequently initiated the FEIYAH network to empower them. Rose is leading the community by setting an example of not practicing FGM on her daughters.

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