Focus Group Discussions with Community Leaders in Nairobi Slums
Growing urban informality is a highly significant global phenomenon and is multidimensional and complex in nature. It also increases the pressure on cities to plan for and manage urban growth. In our programming and advocacy, the Huairou Commission works with many grassroots organizations operating in informal settlements. In order to better document grassroots women’s leadership in solving issues in their informal settlements, and to understand their priorities in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a team led by Lene Egeli, Global Organizer for Huairou, conducted focus group discussions in two of the biggest slum settlements in Nairobi: Kibera and Mathare. We will continue to conduct such focus groups in multiple countries in order to consolidate grassroots women’s priorities and work on the ground. This is an important tool for the Huairou Commission’s transitional process, as it becomes an increasingly member-led and decentralized organization, emphasizing local realities and their linkages to the national, regional, and global levels.
Kibera is the largest slum in Africa, and attracts high-profile attention and funding from many international donors. Although Kibera has seen many slum upgrading efforts and community-based projects, the group of 14 women who participated in the discussion listed a number of prevailing issues. The remain concerned about prevailing gender-based violence; insufficient school facilities and poor quality education; inadequate water and sanitation services; hunger, malnutrition, and disease; and a dysfunctional legal system. The grassroots women have nonetheless risen to the challenge and seek to actively create change in their community. For example, in order to reduce gender-based violence, the women have created safe spaces by opening up their houses to victims. They work to spread awareness about HIV/AIDS to decrease the stigma attached to the virus, to bring rape cases to the court as a collective group, to encourage girls to continue their education and install “talking boxes” in schools for girls to report issues they are facing. One woman in particular disclosed that she speaks to at least five girls each day to educate them on human rights:
“I want to change their attitude and make them aware of their rights. Empowerment starts from a young age; we need to raise girls who can stand up for themselves.”
– Kibera resident
Sitting some 12 miles northeast of Kibera and receiving far less attention from global agencies, Mathare is the oldest slum settlement in Nairobi. Of the 500,000 residents in Mathare, the Huairou team met with a group of 8 innovative grassroots women. They recounted the steps they have taken in order to foster a stronger and more sustainable community. For example, women leaders have formed cooperatives to practice ‘table banking,’ a form of peer-to-peer lending. They have invested in urban agriculture in order to cultivate food security, they distribute contraceptives to staunch the spread of HIV/AIDS, and they hold trainings to promote better sanitation. To deal with rampant problems of security, including gender-based violence, the women organize workshops and dialogues in order to build a sense of community responsibility.
“Some tend to think that people living in informal settlements live as squatters, not as contributors. This is important for us to prove wrong as we feel a sense of ownership in improving our community.”
– Mathare resident
The women in both settlements expressed that they had found the Millennium Development Goals to be overly complicated, but that the current SDGs are more holistic and practical. In their words: “The truth is, now that we know about the SDGs, we realize that we’re already implementing the goals through the work we do on solving issues in our settlements.” The women expressed concern, however, over the missing linkages between the local and global. As one focus group participant conveyed, “We’re not just Kenyan, we are African. We need to strengthen the partnerships at all levels, including making our region stronger and more coherent. I believe in a world where all women can speak for themselves. Participation and representation are powerful instruments for our voices to be heard.”