One of the greatest milestones for Women Pillar Alliance (WOPA) has been to see widows who had their pieces of land grabbed by their in-laws get it back and put it to good use to benefit themselves and their children. WOPA has managed to deliver justice through legal redress for tens of widows. Approximately 3,400 women are now better able to meet their basic needs, are more aware of their rights and are not afraid to take up leadership roles in their communities. At least 2,000 young girls have been empowered against engaging in early sexual activity to help curb the ever-rising number of teenage pregnancies that could interrupt their education. More than 400 orphans and vulnerable children are now receiving basic care and support to stay in school.
In a community where women have no voice nor power to own or inherit property, an organization in Kakamega County in western Kenya is slowly changing the narrative by giving widows a voice in the fight to establish their rights. Women Pillar Alliance (WOPA) is on a mission to eradicate poverty and promote sustainable grassroots health and development through community empowerment and greater women involvement. WOPA is advocating for women’s rights including their rights to own land, inherit parental property and meaningfully participate in local leadership. This is aside from HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns and the establishment of income-generating activities to enable the women to support themselves and their families. It also provides access to education and care for their orphans and mentorship for young girls.
This rural community-based organization operates in the Lurambi and Mumias Sub Counties where poverty levels are high. In Shirere, Shibale and Angola areas where they currently carry out their initiatives, most of the people cannot even afford meals sometimes. They depend mainly on subsistence farming. Before they would grow sugarcane for delivery to the Mumias Sugar Company but since its collapse, they earn their income from growing maize, sweet potatoes, cassava, vegetables and keeping livestock.
In these villages, the majority of young people have migrated to urban centres in search of employment leaving behind the middle-aged and elderly people. You will find old women taking care of their grandchildren who lost their parents to HIV/AIDS, and for those who are still alive and young, many are drug addicts and don’t even care about their children. These children are exposed to life with little or no parental guidance which presents a long-term development and behavioural challenge for the community.
WOPA’s projects seek to achieve full economic rights and justice for women by empowering them to be more aware of their labour and economic rights by organising in informal economies. By working closely with public officials and local decision-makers, they hope to influence local level policy interventions that recognize women’s contribution to the economic development of their local communities and protect them. Speaking in platforms like Chief Barazas and Ward Meetings offers an opportunity to reach the community members directly.
Voice for the Voiceless
WOPA was started in April 2015 by Violet Ombaka, a Public Relations and Communications professional; assisted by her friends Linton Mboya, a Researcher; Caleb Adenya, a Social Worker; Jacky Vutita, a Teacher and Heileen Rafimbi, a Community Health Volunteer. For founder Violet, her love for volunteering and helping poor people dates back to her early years. Motivated by a three-year experience working with at-risk women in Kakamega County ignited her passion, and she decided to launch her initiative to support women suffering from neglect, stigma and isolation by their own family and friends. She chose to be their voice, friend and hope. “I have to admit, I always experience a strong communion with these people. Whenever we talk, I feel them calling me for something deeper, a reunion with what I love doing. It’s only a small initiative though driven by a big dream for marginalized people,” passionately narrates Violet.
She credits her spirit of service to her late dad who died when she was only six years old, and whom the locals had nicknamed “Akhonya”, meaning a generous person in the local Luhya dialect. She also looks up to her mother whom she grew up seeing help destitute people, and her sister Lydia who has dedicated her life to the service of the needy through her sisterhood vacation. She considers kindness as an investment that matures in the times one is most in need. “When growing up, I recall seeing my mother buying food for some mentally challenged people at our local market in Musanda. Whenever they saw her, they would follow her until she bought them something to eat,” reminisces Ombaka.
The main beneficiaries of WOPA’s work are women, girls and orphans who are often uniquely vulnerable to certain types of human rights abuses, including physical and sexual abuse, political, social and economic oppression. To many of these women, there are very few avenues for redress, especially considering that they live in a patriarchal society where men are the heads of households and women often have little influence in decisions affecting their lives or those of their families.
Although each ethnic group in Kenya has its own identity, expressed through its cultures and traditions, some deeply entrenched cultural practices threaten the rights of women. Particularly in the Luhya community where WOPA is based, practices such as wife inheritance, paying of a bride price – which creates an idea of “ownership” of the wife by men – and forced marriages are retrogressive and oppressive.
In the recent past, Kakamega County has seen a rise in cases of teenage pregnancy and rape mostly perpetrated by relatives who end up silencing the parents by using threats. If the matter gets reported at all, the perpetrators end up negotiating for domestic settlement as opposed to legal punishment knowing full well that the victims have no one to defend them. This is not only unfair but also leaves the victims with traumatic wounds that may take years to heal, if ever. WOPA is encouraging and supporting such women to report any cases of rape, abuse or other inhumane acts done to them to law enforcement authorities without fear of reprisal.
Another pressing challenge is the large number of people living with HIV/AIDS, many of whom live in abject poverty and can’t even afford three square meals a day. WOPA helps them to access treatment, medicine and to start income-generating activities like agriculture using new farming methods or soap-making for domestic use and to sell.
One of the greatest milestones for WOPA has been to see widows who had their pieces of land grabbed by their in-laws get it back and put it to good use to benefit themselves and their children. WOPA has managed to deliver justice through legal redress for tens of widows. Approximately 3,400 women are now better able to meet their basic needs, are more aware of their rights and are not afraid to take up leadership roles in their communities. At least 2,000 young girls have been empowered against engaging in early sexual activity to help curb the ever-rising number of teenage pregnancies that could interrupt their education. More than 400 orphans and vulnerable children are now receiving basic care and support to stay in school.
As a result of WOPA’s efforts, the communities now have a better understanding of the importance of educating both boys and girls and have reduced stigma against people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. This is what gives Violet and all the people working at WOPA the personal satisfaction and motivation they need to continue doing the work they do.
One of their recent activities to commemorate the 2020 International Women’s Day in collaboration with CEMAG and Global Fund for Women at the Kakamega Prison received primetime news coverage on Kenya’s K24 TV News, TV47 News, Citizen Television, Milele FM and West FM.
Two ladies, Caroline Weba and Amina Makokha, and a gentleman, Peter Mmere, share their personal experiences on how WOPA’s initiatives have enlightened them to approach life differently.
Caroline, 39 years, is a member of Amalemba Support Group from Shirere area. She tested positive for HIV/AIDS back in 2016 and has been living with the disease since then under a diet plan, regular medication and psychosocial support from her fellow group members. “In June 2019, WOPA officials who visit regularly enlightened us on how to reduce stigma and live positively. I learnt that one needs to adhere to drug prescriptions, have a positive mindset, eat nutritious food, maintain hygiene and treat opportunistic infections. They also introduced us to different farming techniques, financial literacy and a “merry-go-round” table banking,” she testifies.
Thanks to the awareness Mrs Weba now looks and feels healthier, courageous and more confident to go about her life with a positive mindset without caring so much what people say about her condition. She has become an Anti-Retroviral Therapy advocate in her community. She gratefully recounts how that first visit from WOPA changed her life.
Amina from Shianda, also explains how she has been impacted by WOPA. The 47 years old widow who lives with her three sons, a daughter and two grandchildren learnt of her HIV positive status in 2018. Just like Caroline, she decided to join a support group – Jitolee Support Group. Through Jitolee, she was introduced to WOPA’s HIV/AIDS awareness programmes. Apart from undergoing the stigma reduction training she also took up poultry rearing as an income-generating activity. She is now rearing chickens for both subsistence and semi-commercial purposes on the 100 feet by 50 feet plot of land where she resides and this helps her to take care of her family.
Mrs Mokokha started off her poultry business with a five thousand Shillings loan she took from the Jitolee Support Group table banking. She bought feeds, a small flock of four hens and one cock which has continued to increase in number. Some of the eggs supplement her family’s dietary needs while she sells surplus eggs and chickens to pay her bills. “My health and that of my son has greatly improved, thanks to WOPA. My advice to those living under stigma, those frustrated in life, is to join support groups – they help,” she says.
Peter, a 32 years old young man from Shirere narrates how a WOPA-organized youth workshop back in 2018 allowed him to learn facts about HIV/AIDs, gender-based violence and other human rights issues. He was motivated to go for an HIV test despite the inner fear he had after losing a lover from HIV/AIDS earlier. A week after the event, he took the test which, thankfully, turned out negative.
“From that point, my life changed completely. I am now married and faithful to my wife. I advise my fellow youth to value their lives by knowing and appreciating their status to live a dignified life,” advises Peter. He now empowers other young people to know and advocate for their rights.
A Friend in Need
WOPA is largely run by volunteers who oversee most of its activities. The Board sets policy and direction while a small professional team comprising a Project Coordinator, an Accountant and a Field Officer oversees the day to day running of the organization. In line with its community involvement strategy, WOPA has identified a team of Community Resource Persons, traditional leaders and local government administrators whom they collaborate with to ensure any form of violence against women is documented and punished so that the community at large understands the importance of upholding women rights. WOPA believes that involving them in this way can result in sustainable outcomes. Community Health Volunteers trained in HIV/AIDS, nutrition, reproductive health and other topics lead WOPA’s efforts around health education and support.
A special partner for WOPA is the Kakamega Prison where it runs women empowerment programmes as well as using the Prison’s Dispensary to refer patients. The Prison’s Social Welfare Department has always given them a chance to talk to the female inmates, to present donations of personal items and remind them that they are still part of their communities despite being locked up and that they need to prepare themselves to rejoin their families on release. Appreciating that they are not alone in the human rights movement, WOPA also collaborates with other grassroots organizations such as the County Empowerment for Marginalized Groups (CEMAG) and Groots Kenya in fighting vices that deprive women of their dignity.
Carrying out such hard work in a constrained environment, with restrictive cultural practices, inadequate resources and high expectations from the local community is not easy. Many members of WOPA possess inadequate capacities to engage in advocacy – especially in a community where men are generally not open to the concept of gender equality and equity.
These obstacles have made WOPA realize the need to build sustainability as a key component in their initiatives. The need to involve men is unavoidable if it wants to succeed in building a more equal community. WOPA also relies on benchmarking and networking with other organizations doing similar work to learn what works and what doesn’t and to build their next projects on the strengths and weaknesses of the previous.
“I always encounter a feeling of satisfaction and fulfilment knowing that I have contributed to improving the life of a fellow human being,” says Violet with a smile. “I hope people can learn and be encouraged by this and become daring to do something they love without fear of inadequate finances or any other kind of obstacles. It only starts with an idea and a genuine desire to make a difference,” she adds. She further encourages changemakers to start doing something that will bring about change rather than just waiting on others or asking someone else to save someone who is in need instead of doing something themselves.
Based on her five years of experience with WOPA so far, Violet asserts that it’s not always that someone needs financial help. Some just want someone to listen to them, to talk with them and help them overcome whatever they are going through. “If you can cause someone who is troubled to smile, you have done a great thing. If only we can be willing to help each other for the common good, then the world would be a beautiful place for everyone,” reiterates Violet.
Sustaining the Gains
Violet explains, “We believe that communities require continuous capacity building for them to be able to spearhead their development. We will continue to empower local communities, individuals and small women groups by equipping them with the tools, resources and technical skills they require to deliver and sustain effective self-help programmes. WOPA will continue to rely on the partnership and support from local Chiefs, religious leaders and other community engagement opportunities to push the message further.”
WOPA’s “Passing of the Gift Initiative” – where a member of a women’s group receives a cow and has to pass on the offspring calf to the next member until every group member has received a calf to rear– remains one of its most successful yet. On receiving the request from a women’s group, WOPA purchases and delivers the first cow. The first member and each of the subsequent recipients then passes on the gift until everyone has one.
Through strengthening partnership with the government institutions like Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), WOPA hopes to expand its “Passing of the Gift Initiative” and complement it with training for the women on new and innovative farming technologies. Working with local health agencies and other organizations, they also hope to enhance health education.
WOPA aims to strengthen the linkage of the women’s groups with financial institutions, partners and experts in capacity building and on table banking to enhance their credit access to help more women develop sustainable income-generating activities. Increasing support for the basic needs of the orphans and vulnerable children under their care, such as school fees, food and clothing, is also a priority. Through their recently launched “Give Hope to a Child Through Education Programme” WOPA aims to mobilize willing sponsors to support the education and care of identified orphans. Aside from its vision for a healthier and more sustainable society in which the HIV/AIDS infected and affected families are self-dependent, WOPA’s other priorities include resource mobilization, partnerships building and greater investment in sustainable agribusiness.
To follow and support WOPA’s work of emancipating women from the shackles of retrogressive cultural practices that suppress their rights and ability to live fulfilling lives, you can reach out to them at P.O. Box 43 – 50125 Musanda, by telephone: +254719762737, WhatsApp: +254755940675 or by email to email@example.com. You will also find them on Facebook: Women Pillar Alliance-WOPA and on Twitter: @wopaorg.
This story was written pro bono by Nelson Opany as part of his Communications Volunteering Series during the COVID-19 public health emergency to give a spotlight to grassroots organizations creating positive change in communities across Africa. Nelson is a Public Relations and Communications Management professional and a Scout with a passion for volunteering. (firstname.lastname@example.org). Additional editing by Ray Saunders, an Information and Knowledge Management consultant based in Geneva, Switzerland.