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Kenya correspondent Tabitha Nderitu – WNN Features

Nairobi, Kenya - Kibera slum toilets

Public community toilets donated by charity in Kibera, one of the four largest slums of Nairobi, Kenya. Adjoining the toilets is a tailoring dress making shop. Image: Stefan Magdalinski

Nairobi, Kenya – When darkness descends in the ubiquitous slums and ‘informal settlements’ surrounding Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, women who visit and use communal toilets unwittingly become sitting ducks.

The dangers are high, for women living in the slums, that they may become targets of youth gangs and individual male rapists.

“I had heard that it was unsafe to visit the (community) toilet alone,” said forty-two year old, Rebecca Nduku, a single mother of three, when she challenged her friend’s ‘I-told-you-so’ warning. Acting against advice, Rebecca suffered irrevocably for throwing caution to the wind.

“I reasoned that since it was only 7:30 p.m., and there were many people walking around, it would be safe to visit the toilet, which was located only about 100 meters away,” explained Nduku. “The moment I unlocked the toilet’s wooden door to walk back home I was dragged to an abandoned house where I was abused, in turns, by five men until I blacked out.”

This incident happened in Kibera – the most populous slum in Kenya – only a ten minute drive from Nairobi’s Central Business District. Unfortunately the traumatic experience left Rebecca Nduku HIV positive.

“I do not know whether to blame God or myself for the misfortune that befell me,” she exclaims. “It was a Sunday and I had spent, ironically, almost the whole day in Church,” recalls Rebecca with tears.

The rape of women living in Nairobi’s informal settlements who are forced to use community toilets, located outside their homes, has now escalated to a clear and identified point of danger.

The July 2010 report, “Risking Rape to Reach a Toilet – Women’s Experiences in the Slums of Nairobi, Kenya,” by human rights organization, Amnesty International UK, offers a searing and detailed account on the lives of 130 Nairobi women who live in constant fear in the four largest slums surrounding the city.

In failing to include informal settlements and slums within mainstream urban planning, the City of Nairobi and the Ministry of Public Health has been faltering. In spite of social services and specific campaigns addressing safety challenges for women, successful programs remain a ‘mirage.’

Woman at shared toilet - Kibera slum, Nairobi, Kenya

Jane Iyeango, a resident of Kibera slum, gives a tour of her toilet, shared with numerous neighbors who hold a key to the locked facility. The toilet is not free. Jane pays monthly for this service which has no running water and can be hazardous, exposing her to numerous pathogens. Image: BBC World Service

“The continued exclusion of slums and informal settlements from the city’s planning processes, in particular the non-enforcement of existing sanitation standards, results in stark disparities in access to sanitation facilities between slums and informal settlement areas and other residential areas,” said Amnesty International after assessments were made on the continuing challenges and problems with sanitation and safety for women.

“Many women have suffered rape and other forms of violence as a result of attempting to walk to a toilet or latrine some distance from their home,” outlines the Amnesty report. “To avoid these dangers, women sometimes wash or use latrines in groups or ask male family members to accompany them at night. However, this does not alter the fact that facilities are inadequate and inaccessible.”

Women living within the settlements have been reduced to “prisoners within their own homes,” said Dr. Godfrey Odongo, a research associate for Amnesty International.

“Traditionally women require utmost privacy compared to their male counterparts when bathing or using the toilet; but because these facilities are inaccessible, or situated long distances from their homes, women are vulnerable particularly to rape,” explains Dr. Odongo.

United Nations statistics show that 16 million Kenyans – 40% of the country’s population – currently live in slums. This number has been swiftly growing. From 1990 to 2010, UN Habitat estimates that the number of inhabitants has increased to 50%, or 20 million Kenyans presently living in slum conditions. In the next 30 years, the number of persons living in slum communities in Kenya is expected to reach an unimaginable figure – “nearly 2 billion.”

With widening conditions of urban poverty come increasing inadequate protections for women. Police protection is often negligible inside the boundaries of the slums and informal settlements surrounding Nairobi. Sanitation is an ongoing challenge. Only 24% of residents in Nairobi slums and informal settlements have regular access to toilets at a household level.

“I always underestimated the threat of violence,” says 19 year old Amina. “…I would go to the latrine any time, so long as it was not late at night, until about two months ago when I almost became a victim.”

Amina was rescued just in time when 4 men accosted her in Mathare, a notorious slum located 20 minutes from Nairobi’s Central Business District. Lucky for her, nearby residents were alerted by her screams and came to her rescue.

“The lack of policing in slums increases the ever-present threat of rape and other violence faced by women. There is little police presence and no permanent police station or post in Kibera – Kenya’s largest slum settlement,” says the 2010 Amnesty International report. “The lack of policing in slums is mainly down to the fact that the government has failed to recognize slums for city planning and budgeting purposes.”

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