Burden of poverty on women

By Mercy Njoroge

International Women's Initiative News Writer

Every day at dawn, Miriam Njoki leaves her shanty tucked in the heart of the sprawling Southlands Slums in Lang’ata, Nairobi. She braves the morning chill to catch a bus to Marikiti Market for fresh grocery supplies. At the market, it is a mad rush as she jostles to fill her basket with enough stock for the day. An hour or so later, she is back to open her iron-sheet makeshift grocery shop.

For four years now, Miriam has been running her business to fend for her family — to pay rent, school fees for her children and for medical care. She makes a profit of approximately Sh1,000 ($10) a day, to substitute her husband’s meager income. He is a casual labourer and even getting a kibarua (menial work) is not a guarantee.

Speaking to her, Miriam says she has to keep working hard to sustain her family. Her greatest fear is to not have enough money for essential necessities such as healthcare, food and shelter. She has been trying to expand her business for most of the year, but with no success.

“The cost of living is going up every day and the money I make is quickly swallowed by the never-ending household needs. The cost of essential goods at the supermarket keeps spiraling. I am like the breadwinner in my house because my husband’s job is unreliable. Year-in year-out, we have been living from hand to mouth,” she says.

Miriam attributes the current situation to the rising inflation and cost of living in Kenya and official statistics confirm her fears.

According to the Kenya National Bureau of Standards (KNBS), consumer prices in Kenya increased 6.34 per cent year-on-year in September of 2016, exceeding the original government estimate of 6.2 per cent. This was mainly driven by the rising cost of food and housing (the year-on-year food inflation stood at 10.94 per cent in September 2016).

Between 2005 and 2016, the inflation rate in the country averaged 10.38 percent, reaching an all time high of 31.50 per cent in May 2008 and a record low of 3.18 per cent in October 2010.

Miriam’s life demonstrates that poverty is not simply measured by inadequate income, but is manifested in the inability to access heath services, education, food, safe drinking water and other essential services.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 1 clearly states the need to end poverty in all its forms by 2030 and recognises that many different interrelated factors affect the lives of people living in poverty.

In Kenya the problem is perpetuated by certain traditional practices such as prioritising boys’ education while girls are taken out of school to attend to household chores (fetching firewood and water, looking after sick or disabled family members etc.); Female Genital Mutilation and early marriages.

Judith Asembo, who hails from Kisumu County could not pursue her college education after completing high school. She had to move to the capital city in search of employment to help raise money to pay school fees for her siblings.

She has set up a simple hair salon made of iron-sheets and decorated with some plastic seats and a wall-to-wall mirror. Judith has put her talent of plaiting hair to good use and, over time, she has built a good number of clients. Depending on the hairstyle, she charges between Sh300 and Sh800 and at the end of the month, Judith can comfortably send home at least Sh15,000 (ca. $148).

Most of her small income is spent on rent, food, transport, hair products for the salon and a daily levy fee of Sh50 to be paid to the local authorities. Even thou it remains unclear whether the levy collected by mean-looking council officials actually is submitted to the local government, Judith and other micro-business traders have to part with the money to avoid being harassed or their kiosks being demolished.

Although the government has taken steps to try to address the plights of the poor, as evident by the National Budget published in June, the burden of the high cost of living continues to oppress the majority of the population — especially women.

Deliberate measures put in place to economically empower women, notably the Women Enterprise Fund (WEP), the Youth Enterprise Fund and the Uwezo Fund, have not benefitted as many women as initially projected. The initiatives, passed by a law in Parliament, have been dogged by political bureaucracy, poor management of funds, allegations of corruption and lack of information on requirements to qualify for the funds.

When I asked Miriam and Judith whether they had applied for the loans, they were quick to mention that there was a lack of information on what is required of them to apply. They said they rely on chamas — informal community-based credit groups where members contribute some money every two weeks. Each member of the group can take a lump-sum in turn, rotating every fortnight. The groups ensure that by the end of the rotation each member has benefited before starting the process all-over-again.

The phenomenon of chamas has gone a long way to economically empower women at the grassroots levels in Kenya. Some have grown into multi-million shilling entrepreneurs, where they even offer loans to members and have invested in shares and immovable property such as land. Most of them, unfortunately, raise money to meet basic needs and for emergencies for the group members.

For women like Miriam and Judith, they are hopeful that the government will put in place measures to cushion them from the high cost of living, boost their businesses as well as enable them access loans from micro-finance institutions. These can be done through waiving collateral that often disadvantages women.