Meet the resilient women of Utonga

HIV/AIDs remains a scourge in most developing countries, and Kenya is no exception. In Kenya, fishing communities confront challenges that put their health on the line. That is why, during this year’s International Women’s Day, ICS pitched camp in West Sakwa, Siaya County among the Utonga community. For many, it was their first time to hear about Women’s Day. But at the end of the day, they all agreed that women too matter.

About Utonga Community
Utonga community is one of the communities with the highest HIV infection rate in Sakwa of which the majority are women. According to Mr. Hillary Okoth, the local chief, 3 out of 7 people in every household are infected bringing the percentage to 42.8%. “I am crying for my community, I have attended more funerals than community meetings, anytime I hear about death when I go back and check on my children, fear is the order of the day,” says Mr. Okoth. Sex transactions commonly known as jaboya are a major predisposing factor. Here, exchange of sex for fish is a norm, leading to high HIV prevalence.

During International Women’s Day, ICS took lead in conducting community dialogues to address pertinent aspects of family life that empower men and women at household level. These life-changing lessons are anchored in our Skilful Parenting program. The areas of focus included:

1. Role division at household level

This was one of the critical areas that lead to a lot of discussions around male dominance. Utonga community believes that a man should be taken care of by a woman, pampered and listened a role women of this community have effectively played. However, lack of provision exposes women to prostitution and infidelity. As they toil and soil their hands, men take an inactive role in fending for the family.

Today in this community, despite massive participation of women in community forums, the sharing of time among men and women between household works is still highly differentiated by gender. Women focus on education and at the same time balances it with household chores which make this community an enlightened community (Quoting JOOUST as one of the leading women empowerment centers).

2. Equal decision making power between men and women

The first response was “that never happen here.” Utonga is believed to be one of the areas where men have a lot of say, but women have the do. Children equally are less involved in decision making. Though still a critical area to look at, most men felt that they take the lead and that the women should listen to them and children follow suit. The men seemed over protective on this point, and thought women could dominate them in any case they lead in making decisions.

3. Self-esteem and confidence

This is considered one of the biggest challenges in this area. Most couples exhibit low self-esteem but are rather aggressive outside the house. This is believed to be due to male dominance, and a lot pride from the men. Women agreed that most of them had low self-esteem due to Lack of motivation, fear, illiteracy, and HIV status among others.

“I am bold and courageous when I tell you, we should support our children, our girls to school, love our women, listen to them and give them that opportunity to sprout”

Professor Hellen Agak of JooUST University shared her inspiring story. She encouraged girls and women to be bold and go for the best. According to the don, no lady should settle for mediocrity. “I am bold and courageous when I tell you, we should support our children, our girls to school, love our women, listen to them and give them that opportunity to sprout,” said Professor Hellen Agak.

4. Women and economic empowerment

The major economic activities along this area are fish selling and farming. Most women farm while most men fish, this makes it hard when it comes to balancing the household income since one comes with quick money while the other is a long term investment. Though the land is big and conducive for farming, most women engage in fish selling which goes hand in hand with “joboya” (people who exchange fish for sex). Here, no sex, no business.

Most men who attended the International Women’s Day were reluctant to talk about women empowerment as they have more authority and can sustain them and the larger household. Most of the women here rely on their sweat to develop the households

It is also noted that, economic conditions generally give men far greater power than women. Women rarely hold land in their own right in this area, they work much longer hours than men but largely because of their domestic responsibilities are far less able to sell their labour. Consequently most are economically dependent on men. The gendered division of labour extends to most areas of work, except for certain farming activities and whilst it gives women power in specific spheres, in general it greatly benefits men, which some men recognized.

However, these patriarchal relations have been being eroded for quiet sometime as they put it. However women's entrepreneurial skills and hard work give them an advantage in the informal sector, reducing their economic dependence on men and the rationale for marriage.

Those who attended the event included Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB), American International Health Alliance, FASCOBI, Mentors, JOOUST Dream Girls, fishermen Association of Kenya, the administration, Professor Hellen Agak, a lecturer at the JOOUST and the Utonga Community.