The woman stares desolately into space, lost for a few seconds in her own little realm, before her mind wanders back to the small room to tell us her story. Meet Aisha*, one of the many gender-based violence survivors who are being assisted by CARE Kenya. Aisha lives in Kibera, the largest informal slum settlement in Africa.
Like many other women living in Kibera, Aisha has a sad story to tell; one of violence and desperation. Her ordeal began with the post-election violence that had devastated Kenya in January 2008 after disputes arose regarding the winner of the December 2007 presidential elections. Kibera was one of the worst-affected areas of these tribal conflicts in Nairobi and elsewhere in the country. As houses burned and chaos ensued, many men ran away to safety, leaving their wives and other female members to fend for themselves. Aisha was one of the women left behind by their husbands during the post-election conflict.
She was raped one night as chaos continued to destroy homes, and pitted neighbours against each other because of their ethnic differences. The perpetrators left her in a bad condition, in unbearable pain and shock. But Aisha was too afraid to go to the hospital after the ordeal. Her neighbours told her husband that she had been raped upon his return to Kibera. Her husband blamed Aisha for the rape ordeal, and blamed her for 'giving up her body'. He then abandoned her to fend for herself.
As a result of the extremely violent rape, she had been unable to walk, and was rendered almost immobile in her left leg. The rapists had also left her with an obstetric fistula, which is often the case where rape is used as a tool of war. As a result of this fistula, the passing of her urine and faeces could not be controlled. This often causes women to be abandoned and stigmatized by husbands and other family members, as well as neighbours.
After being unable to bear the excruciating pain anymore, Aisha decided to go to the hospital. Her ordeal was to get worse. She had already been ostracized by her neighbours for being raped and for the fistula. As she was waiting for test results to see if she was HIV positive as a result of the rape, Aisha met a neighbour at the hospital. The neighbour went and told the entire community where Aisha lived that she was HIV positive, even though the results were not known yet. Sadly, the results did prove that Aisha was now HIV positive as a result of the rape ordeal.
Aisha had to deal with all these crises alone. Her children had died of HIV that they had contracted through their partners, and she was left to fend for her grandchildren. She had also been an orphan, and had no immediate family to turn to for support. Her husband's family had abandoned her altogether. Her father-in-law went to the extent of coming to Nairobi from his village, and told her that neither she nor her dead body should ever return to the village, as she had shamed their family. All her possessions and her dowry, a few cattle, were also taken away from her. In desperation, and knowing that she may not survive for too long despite taking anti-retroviral drugs, Aisha converted from Christianity to Islam. When asked why she did this, she looks up and smiles, saying, 'Islam preaches that the entire earth is for humankind. Even if I die, as a Muslim, at least I will be buried somewhere. Also, I cannot really afford a coffin. At least now as a Muslim, I have the dignity of being buried like every other Muslim; in a simple white cloth.'
At her very lowest moment, Aisha was introduced to IDEWES, where she was given medical assistance and counseling to get over her harsh ordeal. IDEWES, the Institute for Development and Welfare Services, receives assistance from CARE Kenya. As time went on, Aisha was encouraged to take part in a group savings and loans (GS&L) scheme with other women who have gone through similar situations and who have no other means of financial assistance. Her GS & L group is called Waseme, meaning Let them speak. It refers to all those who have talked about these strong willed women negatively, and have ostracized them from society. Today, the group consists of 24 women, most of whom are HIV positive and taking care of their orphaned grandchildren. All the women save 100 Kenya shillings a week, and when they take a loan to improve their small businesses, they have a month to pay the loan back.
It is clear that the women have benefitted from the GS & L programme. Most of the group members run their own grocery stalls today, and aim to build bigger shops. The savings and loans programme has become much more than just economic empowerment. It has also become a social service that has allowed the group members to bond like a family. Aisha is grateful to CARE for supporting her new lease of life when she was at her lowest, and she hopes CARE will continue to assist others like her.
As we take Aisha's leave, I ask what her dreams are. She tells me. 'I know now that I am Powerful, that I can change my destiny, thanks to CARE and IDEWES. I dream of the day when I will leave Kibera, when I will have a little shop somewhere, and where people will stop looking at me and jeering. And I know that day will come!'
* Not her real name