“At times, he would come home drunk and would take a knife and want to kill me with it,” Akinyi says. “On many occasions [he tried] to throw me off the balcony of the house we lived in. Only my strength would save me and let me see the light of day.”
Her husband took another wife, who later left him. Several times, Akinyi tried to leave, too. But she always ended up coming back, for one reason: She couldn’t afford to support her children on her own.
In 1999, Akinyi, then 41, finally took the step of moving out. “Just like many women, I used to depend on my husband to provide for us as a family. I moved into the slums where housing was cheaper and put up a food kiosk so that I could put food on the table for my two children,” she says.
Then, she discovered the Wangu Kanja Foundation, which brings together survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in the Mukuru slums in Nairobi. Akinyi found solace in being able to share her story with women who had been through the same trauma. And she also found a way to earn a living – by making and selling peanut butter.
No Income, No Escape
The Kenya Demographic Health Survey of 2014 reveals that 39 percent of women aged 15–49 who are or have been married have experienced spousal physical or sexual violence. It also points out that the main perpetrators of physical violence against women are their husbands (for men, the culprits are more often parents, teachers and others.)
And women living in the country’s slum areas are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence. “Violence against women in the slums is rampant,” says a 2008 report by the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), part of which is focused on Nairobi. “It is this single issue which emerged as perhaps the strongest cross-cutting theme in [our] study.”
“If women here are able to make an extra coin to sustain themselves and not fully depend on their husbands, then domestic violence will reduce as they will be able to leave.”
When Wangu Kanja, who lives in Mukuru slum, was raped, she knew that part of the reason violence against women is so endemic in some areas is that women are often afraid to report their assaults. But when she went to the police to tell them about her attack, she was ridiculed. So in 2005, she decided to start a support group. Since then, the Wangu Kanja Foundation has been bringing together women from different parts of the slums who had been through sexual and domestic violence, giving them somewhere to talk openly about their traumas and guiding them on where to get the help they need.
“We advocate for parents, friends or family members to support anyone who has gone through violence with proper psychological care involving a professional counselor or psychotherapist,” says Kanja. “And then [we help get] protection for the victims and survivors against retaliation from the perpetrators.”
But one common issue that the foundation couldn’t help with was money. As Akinyi knew all too well, women often can’t escape violence at home because they have no other way of feeding their children. Catherine Kamau, program assistant at the Wangu Kanja Foundation, says it is essential for women, especially those living in low-income areas, to have a way to make their own income so that they are able to walk away from abusive relationships.
“These women cannot find formal employment and [they] depend on casual jobs such as washing clothes for people living in estates. But if women here are able to make an extra coin to sustain themselves and not fully depend on their husbands, then domestic violence will reduce as they will be able to leave,” Kamau says.
So, when officials from the Australian High Commission visited the foundation in 2016 and asked the women how it could help them set up a business, they had several plans. The most popular idea was making peanut butter. The high commission gave the group funding to buy the machinery and to attend training courses in Kibera. Twelve women went for training, and came back to train 24 more.
Now the women spend part of their days making Queenz peanut butter. They make the butter to order, producing and packaging it in a makeshift factory just outside the same Nairobi building that houses the Wangu Kanja Foundation’s offices. Containers of 14oz (400g) sell for 200 shillings ($2), while 800g containers cost 350 shillings ($3.50). Selling their peanut butter in a shop outside the factory and to other local shops, the women make about 44,000 shillings ($440) a month.
“When women are economically empowered, we are able to eliminate their vulnerability to violence, not necessarily only when they are in a relationship but also when seeking opportunities,” says Kanja, the foundation’s founder. “When you empower a woman, you empower the whole household because they have the capacity to make decisions that they are unable to make when they don’t have money.”
The Chance to Live With Dignity
Any profits the peanut butter business makes is split between the women, depending on which batch of peanut butter they worked on, and the foundation uses some of the money to run awareness-raising projects on the dangers of gender-based violence and ways of curbing it.
Akinyi says the business means that, finally, she always knows that she and her children will be able to eat. “Sometimes, even when we … do not finish the day’s job, we are still paid and we can go home with food and finish the job the next day,” she says.
But the business isn’t big enough yet to provide the women with their sole source of income, so Akinyi and many of the other women still have to run other income-generating projects on the side to get by. “Marketing the butter is a huge problem,” Akinyi says. “We have always hoped to have a higher demand, so that we can work on producing the butter on a daily basis and working full time.”
As she waits for that day to come, Akinyi is grateful that for now she has the chance to earn reliable money with decent work. And she knows that, for many women, making an income can be the difference between suffering through a violent marriage or building a life of their own. She encourages other women not to sit and wait for their husbands to give them everything.
“Get out and find something to do so that you can live with dignity and be able to sustain yourself and your family,” she says.