Tackling GBV through bottles of hand sanitiser

Ann Sabania
Domestic workers waiting by the roadside for work; they are holding COVID hygiene items (hand sanitiser, soap and masks) distributed by CFLA (photo © Centre for Livelihood Advancement/CFLA Kenya 2020)

Ann Sabania describes how her women’s organisation in Kenya is helping domestic workers to stay safe from COVID – and from the ‘shadow pandemic’ of gender-based violence

I founded the Centre for Livelihood Advancement (CFLA) in Kenya to help protect women and girls who work in informal economies to earn their livelihoods. During the COVID pandemic, rates of gender-based violence (GBV) have increased so much that it has been described as a ‘shadow pandemic’. Just like COVID, the GBV pandemic has proven to be a global phenomenon – but it’s one that has hit women in the poorest and most marginalised communities hardest.

Currently, CFLA targets women and girls living in sprawling and deprived informal settlements in the capital Nairobi – many of whom make a living as domestic workers. We have tried to counter the sharp increase in violence against women by coming up with direct, innovative solutions that will work for the women we know and serve, in the new and challenging circumstances that we all find ourselves living through.

Because I once worked as a domestic worker, I have first-hand experience of the dangers these women face as they work in the confines of the home.

In Kenya we have three categories of domestic workers: those who live within the households they work (‘live-ins’), those who live in their own homes and come to the homes where they work every morning (‘live-outs’), and domestic workers who do not have a specific employer and move from one house to the other, looking for cleaning jobs (commonly called ‘Mama Fua’, which translates as ‘wash ladies’).

Domestic workers waiting on streetside for work
Domestic workers waiting by the roadside to be selected for work (photo © CFLA Kenya 2020)

The ‘Mama Fua’ travel from the poorest, most marginalised communities to gather in busy, more affluent neighbourhoods waiting for small jobs, or going door-to-door to offer services such as washing, ironing and cleaning. These women, unlike the ‘live-ins’ and ‘live-outs’ who may have regular pay and sometimes employment agreements, the ‘wash ladies’ do not have any formalised arrangements and theirs is a game of chance.

At CFLA we hear many reports of women facing harassment from police, and from men on the street, whilst they wait for jobs. But their problems don’t end once they get offered a cleaning job – far from it. Once they have secured employment, male clients sometimes withhold payment, unless the woman agrees to have sex. Others hire them for cleaning jobs but they ask for sex once they get to the house instead of cleaning jobs.

It’s currently very difficult for domestic workers to find work in the first place, so they are placed in a very vulnerable position.

To make matters worse, some of these women also face violence from their partners in their own homes. Their spouses tend to also work in the informal economy, doing casual labour or driving motorbike taxis, so they are also struggling to get work during COVID. As a result these men are stuck at home and tensions are running higher. The increased frustrations and economic pressures are contributing to increased incidences of violence in the household.

Domestic workers are also exposed to an increased risk of contracting COVID when they are out looking for work or when going into houses to work. At the start of the pandemic, masks and hand sanitiser were prohibitively expensive. Hand sanitiser cost around $12 and masks were $1.50, which is almost the cost of a day’s labour. Many women said that they were not hired for cleaning jobs because they did not have masks and could not afford sanitisers so the employers branded them as ‘high risk’ for COVID.

These inflated prices were definitely exploitative. At CFLA we tackled the issue by supplying women with face masks and soaps. But this also gave me an idea for a way to address both COVID and GBV at the same time – by adding a GBV helpline number to hand sanitiser bottles.

There is a government-run helpline where women can report abuse and access counselling, but most people aren’t aware of its existence. Using grant money from CARE’s Women’s Voices and Leadership programme in Kenya, partnered with Urgent Action Funds – Africa, we designed bottles of hand sanitiser that were labelled with details of the free GBV helpline, and handed them out to domestic workers.

Hand sanitiser bottle
The hand sanitiser bottle with details of the GBV helpline (photo © CFLA Kenya 2020)

Crucially, this also meant we could share the helpline number with women in a way which wouldn’t arouse suspicion from their employer or partner. In Kenya men don’t go looking through women’s handbags, so the intervention doesn’t put the women in additional danger.

Thanks to a second grant from CARE through UAF-Africa, CFLA is also trialing a second locally-led solution to the problem of GBV by working with women to identify known abusers and map the workplaces that women should avoid.

They will be able to blacklist abusive employers and discourage other women from working in their homes.

CFLA has also provided training for 10 domestic workers in Psychosocial First Aid (PFA) so that they can offer immediate support to women who may experience sexual abuse and eventually refer them for professional services. PFA provides critical support for survivors of GBV because it helps to build resilience and it helps the survivors to have confidence to seek further support.

CFLA has also provided on-call professional counsellor and support groups within the informal settlements so that survivors can seek help easily and confidentially. The services of CFLA and other local women’s groups have provided a lifeline for many during the pandemic.

Distribution of hand sanitisers to women waiting by a roadside
Distribution by CFLA of hand sanitiser, soap and face masks to women waiting at the roadside to be selected for work (photo © CFLA Kenya 2020)

These locally-led initiatives need to be backed up by change at the national and global level. As is often the case in the informal economy, domestic workers’ labour rights are unclear, and the law has grey areas.

The scale of the shadow pandemic has made it clearer than ever that women need strong legal protection against violence and harassment wherever and whenever they work.

The ILO convention to end violence and harassment in the workplace is completely relevant to the current situation. This convention now needs to be ratified and translated into strong laws at the national level.

This year’s 16 days of activism against GBV campaign (25 November to 10 December) is focusing on the plight of informal workers. Women need to be safe from violence and harassment at home, in the streets and at work.

But with a bit of ingenuity, and working alongside the women most at risk, together we can find the solutions that women need.

  • Find out more about how CARE is working with local women’s organisations, including CFLA, in Kenya’s informal settlements to address GBV and protect survivors. Watch the video:

Ann Sabania's picture

Ann Sabania is the founder and Executive Director of the Centre for Livelihood Advancement (CFLA) Kenya.