The gasp that escaped from the audience in response to the image projected before them was proof that Ruth Mumbi, angry tears shining in her eyes, had succeeded in driving home the reality of her message and cause – a reality worlds apart from that of those privileged enough to have attended Ruth’s talk last Friday on the 17th of October. Ruth herself was the subject of the photo and in it she was being dragged up by three police into the back of a truck.
She didn’t so much as blink when she proceeded to mention that she had experienced physical abuse during her time spent in police custody. According to Ruth, she was one of the lucky ones. Having developed a profile as a Human Rights Defender (HRD) many NGOs and other organisations were willing to post her bail. Those beginning to tread down the road of fighting for human rights in Kenya, those without a profile or history, are unlikely to have their bail posted for them. The police had seized Ruth on suspicion of her organising an illegal assembly in protest against a 16% tax increase on commodities (more details to be found here).
Ruth is currently a visiting fellow at the University of York, and is being hosted by the Centre for Applied Human Rights (CAHR). At the focal point of her talk here at York was the organisation Wamama wa Dhobi that she has been part of organising in order to address the maltreatment of informal domestic workers living in Mathare, an informal settlement outside of Nairobi. The troubles of these domestic workers has risen as a result of a stipulation in Kenyan law which recognises only those domestic workers who live with the family they work for. These women, known as Dhobi (which means ‘laundry’ in Swahili), are frequently exploited by their employees who offer them a below minimum wage and then assert the right not to pay the women if they have found their work for the day to be unsatisfactory. Instances of physical abuse and rape are not uncommon. An issue central to the predicament of the Dhobi is their lack of opportunity to pursue legal recourse. In order to do so they need first to request a form for which they have to pay one dollar. This expense amounts to half of their daily earnings. Having done so they then have to organise a consultation with a doctor to approve the proceedings. The doctors, however, are located a days drive away from the informal settlement. Legal recourse, in short, has been made impossible for many of these women. Wamama wa Dhobi has attempted to remove many of these barriers by educating the women about their rights and by making it more accessible for them to lodge legal complaints. Their success is evidenced by a few of their cases making it to court. More than just offering advice, however, the organisation provides a platform for these women to unite, and encourages the community at large to recognise their hardships. It represents, says Ruth, “an ownership of their struggle.” A struggle against the inequality of their specific oppression as well as the broader political inequalities and gender discriminations that exist in the Kenya of today. For more information concerning Ruth and Wamama wa Dhobi click on the links: Front Line Defenders and Strength of a Woman: Ruth Mumbi By Gregory Carter