‘When You Empower a Woman, You Empower the Whole World’

  • Ruth Mumbi, founder and national coordinator, Bunge La Wamama, Kenya. (Photo: The Carter Center/M. Schwarz)

In Kenya in the early years of this century, young men in Nairobi’s Mathare slum were dying one by one at the hands of police and security officers. Sometimes it happened out of sight in custody, sometimes in broad daylight in the street. Other youths simply disappeared, their fates never determined.

Everyone knew it was happening, but what could anyone do? Ruth Mumbi didn’t have the answer, but she knew she had to do something.

“No one had the guts to talk about it,” Mumbi said during the 2017 Human Rights Defenders Forum at The Carter Center, where activists from around the world gathered in May to discuss mutual concerns, explore solutions, and build support networks. “No one had the guts to blow the whistle. I couldn’t understand why the society was so silent while such injustices were happening.”

As a teenaged resident of Mathare — a densely crowded settlement of narrow alleys, metal shacks, profound poverty, rampant crime, gang rapes, no hospitals, and no legal utilities — Mumbi took the only action available to her: She began keeping a record of the deaths and disappearances in a private journal.

“When I started doing human rights work, I didn’t know I was working on human rights issues,” she said. “I would just document in a very simple way: ‘Today So-and-So died, and he was killed at this time and in this location.’ It was that basic. I wanted to keep it in my diary to make sure that their memory would live, because these were young men whom I’ve grown up with, whom we went to the same school with, whom we played our childhood games with, being executed while we watched.”

Mumbi, the seventh of nine siblings, lost her father when she was 10, making the harsh Mathare environment even harder for her family to survive. Nevertheless, she counts herself fortunate.

“I was a lucky girl in my family because there was a church that partially sponsored my primary education to a certain level,” she related. “It was not a full scholarship, but at least I can say that through them I was able to get a basic education.”

Her younger sister was a brilliant student, but the sponsorship was not available to her, Mumbi said. The community scraped together money so the younger girl could go to school too. The sister completed high school but could not afford to continue her education.

People in the community knew Mumbi was keeping a record of the deaths and disappearances. Eventually she learned some civil society organizations were interested in that information, and she became a point of contact for them inside the slum. Security forces also became aware of her activity, and she soon started receiving threats on her own life. She fled to another area of the capital where she feels somewhat safer.

“When I was being hunted all over by the security agencies, at first I was fearful; I thought that I should quit, stop talking,” she said. “But when people started sending me messages of encouragement, when people started speaking on my behalf, I gained a lot of power from the supporting pillars that I’ve got out there. So solidarity is key in terms of overcoming fear.”

As Kenya experienced political violence after elections in 2008, Mumbi shifted her focus. Much of the violence was directed toward women.

“The violence was instigated by the politicians, but the people who were mainly fighting were from the informal settlements — fighting on behalf of the politicians. Fighting for what?” she said.

“I could not understand this. As a people, we were raised in the same society, we were facing the same struggle. Why should we fight among ourselves? I thought, as women, this was the perfect time for us to stand and find a way for people to be reconciled in our society. So I took an approach of starting a platform for women to speak about peace, because I realized only women could. The guys who were fighting were the sons and husbands of women, so if we will not lack starch talking to these young men when they come home, it will make a difference — which it did.”

Out of that effort Mumbi founded Bunge La Wamama, a women’s chapter of Bunge La Mwananchi, an advocacy movement for social justice and accountability in Kenya. She is the group’s national coordinator.

“When you empower a woman, you empower the whole world,” she said. “If my mom had been empowered, especially economically empowered, maybe I would have been a different person. Maybe if my dad was alive, because he knew how to hustle his way out, I might have been very different, maybe in a very different career.

“But now I am in human rights because my mother could not even afford to give me the best education. For me it’s personal because there’s nothing else I can give my daughter but an education. When you give women rights, especially rights to an education, and you educate a girl, you educate the whole society. I am so passionate because education is the only tool or weapon that can help girls and especially women to break the bondage of poverty, and it puts everyone at par, regardless of social class. But when you don’t have access to education, then that cycle of poverty still goes on.”

The message Mumbi has for her daughter and for all human rights defenders is to remain focused, remain resilient, remain consistent, and support one another.

“I know the terrain is rough, but we can make it better,” she said. “The pavement has already been set, and it’s for us now to make it smooth for the upcoming generation to enjoy human rights and to live in a better society than the one we are living in.” 

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