May 28, 2020
Dinah: defending human rights in Kenya during the COVID-19 pandemic
Dinah is a human rights defender from Kenya and she was a guest of Shelter City Nijmegen in 2018. Her work is centred on women rights advocacy and women empowerment in terms of political leadership. Dinah shared with us the human rights situation in Kenya and her experience as a human rights defender during the pandemic. Despite the difficulties, she remains positive and encourages her colleagues to continue their important work.
Life must go on even in lockdown
The measures imposed by the Kenyan governement to counter the COVID-19 pandemic had many consequences in terms of Kenyans’ human rights. Because of the lockwdown in Nairobi’s Eastleigh area and Mombasa’s Old Town, now extended to the 6th of June, many families lost their ways to earn a living. Although in the beginning people were complying with the orders, a large part of the population simply cannot afford to stay home.
The situation is similar in informal settlements, where the government is not providing even the smallest of assistance, according to Dinah. People living there are confronted with a lack of basic services – no access to water, electricity, and poor health care facilities.
However, 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.”
No one can be left behind
Dinah explained that in times of uncertainty as this one, women are always disproportionately affected. She took the example of a pregnant woman in labour amidst curfew in Kibera, the largest informal settlement in Kenya. Because of the poor infrastructure no vehicle can enter and drive the woman to the hospital. Moreover, there is widespread fear of the police.
“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 engaged the community. Now she cannot meet these vulnerable women and she cannot communicate with them because most of them do not have smart phones. Dinah also explained how at the moment these women’s primary concern is surviving. “You must fight to breathe”, said Dinah. They would normally engage in informal labour such as washing and cleaning but this is now impossible and they are struggling to make ends meet.
Dinah also denounced the lack of systematic measures to help vulnerable individuals during this pandemic. According to her, the government programme to disburse allowances to poor households is ineffective and those in need of assitance do not receive it. Dinah reiterated that during this time, no one can be left behind, especially not women.
The resilience of Kenyan human rights defenders
Criminalisation and commercialisation are other aspects of the state’s response that concern Dinah. She explained that the government is taking advantage of the COVID-19 measurements and exploits citizens and commits crimes against them while remaining unpunished.
The government is also deterring human rights defenders from speaking up against these violations. Dinah explained that they have been facing threats, intimidations and even disappearence since the beginning of the pandemic, because they tried to expose the governments’s actions. Also, in case of arrest, activists may not afford to pay to be released.
Despite the difficulties, Dinah and her fellow human rights defenders continue their work. They are committed to counter state’s propaganda by providing an alternative viewpoint to their communities. In order to do so, they have mobilised themselves on the digital platforms, and are determined to bring awareness about the state’s actions during the pandemic.
According to Dinah it is now particularly important that all human rights defenders stay safe while continuing their work and spreading their message. She admitted that she will always remember what she learned during her security trainings in Shelter City: “As an human rights defender, you are very important for tomorrow; so if you safeguard yourself today, you live to fight another day.”
“We must embrace a new normal and as human rights defenders we must employ new strategies in how we do our work and engage the community.”
The importance of solidarity
Another uncertainty that many human rights defenders face during the COVID-19 pandemic concerns the fact that their sources of livelihood and income are not guaranteed. While some high profile activists have access to resources, others do not. “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”, commented Dinah.
Dinah argued that providing internal support for these human rights defenders in need 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 lamented the amount of competition there is in the humanitarian domain to get funding and opportunities. According to her the pandemic has showed that humna rights defenders that work individually are more easily affected. Instead, 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.”