Jane Anyango is a grassroots woman living in Kibera, Africa’s second largest slum in the city of Nairobi. She has struggled to bring up four children with limited access to gainful employment her entire life. Yet for years Jane upheld a strong mission to empower and improve the lives of women and girls in Kibera.
In 2004, Jane started a campaign to empower Kibera girls called Polycom Development Project after her eleven year old niece was caught in a sexual relationship with a local security guard. Desiring to take action, she sued the security guard. To her surprise, her niece still continued the relationship. This is common in Kibera, she told me after we spoke via Skype several weeks ago. “These young girls are not empowered. They don’t understand self-respect and they certainly do not know their power and their worth. That is why I do what I do. I want to show them how important and valuable they are”.
Through her organization, Polycom Development Project, Jane meets with girls and provides them with a platform to talk about abuse, no matter how traumatic it is. She started by meeting them at her house, then at photocopy shop next to the Kibera Law courts. As the forums grew, she took them into schools.
In 2008 political, economic and humanitarian crises erupted in Kenya after incumbent President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner of the presidential election held on December 27, 2007. Supporters of Kibaki’s opponent, Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement, alleged electoral manipulation. A 15 year old Kibera girl that Jane mentored was shot and killed in an incident of ethnic violence. Women and children in Kibera and other areas of Kenya suffered extensively caught in the crossfire of the upheaval. Knowing the dangers of mobilizing local Kibera residents, Jane and a friend organized a march where 200 people came to District Officer Kepher Marube asking First Lady Lucy Kibaki and Ida Odinga to talk to their husbands about the suffering of the women and children. This began the formation of Kibera Women for Peace and Fairness. Jane’s motivation was to get the people of Kibera to co-exist and to start dialogue about key issues regarding their daily lives. To date, Kibera Women for Peace and Fairness is still operating with regular meetings next to the District Officers’ office.
Through this Jane won a visa to travel to the United States under the US State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program in 2010.
In 2011, Jane was also nominated for the International Women of Courage award.
Several months ago, her laptop crashed and she was unable to afford a new one. Mobilizing the hundreds of women she desires to mobilize against a recent rape court case is difficult without the aid of technology, but Jane is used to such obstacles.
In February 2012, Jane desired to attend the United Nations 56th Session of the Commission on the status of Women in New York city. The subject of the meeting was rural women and technology. The goal of this meeting was to find solutions to the common technological barriers that rural women face. As a grassroots woman currently working with women and girls, Jane was looking forward to representing the unheard women of Kibera at the United Nations. Unfortunately, she was unable to attend due to the cost of airfare and accommodations.
Unlike Jane, I was able to attend this meeting where I presented on a panel and sat through countless other presentations by researchers, university professors, feminist writers and politicians. All of these experts talked extensively about rural women- the challenges they face in organizing other women, technological and educational barriers and reproductive rights. I wondered when and if I would meet the rural women that were the subject of the meeting. Very few were present. I managed to speak with an NGO group of women from Khartoum, Sudan another from Kabul, Afghanistan and several from Iraq and Yemen, yet the majority of women attending were not rural, grassroots women.
In our Skype conversation, Jane expressed her disappointment about not receiving the opportunity to be included in the proceedings. She felt that she could represent the women and girls of Kibera by discussing the limitations and challenges they experience. She desired to gain exposure for her program Polycom Development Project and network with other women who could provide her the necessary support.
“Affluent women get their travel sponsored all the time as do university professors” Jane told me. “But what about women like me- a grassroots woman? I am working with women in a setting where it is needed the most and I am doing so with many technological and financial challenges”.
After witnessing the absence of the “Janes” at the United Nations, I thought extensively about their lack of presence. How could the United Nations hold a meeting about rural women when so few of them were in attendance? Are panels and panels of “experts” and “feminists” who sit in air-conditioned offices at universities and societal organizations going to be the deciding factor of the fate of women’s rights globally? Why didn’t the rural women have their rightful seat at the discussion table?
I have never understood why the voices most in need of listening ears are undervalued in comparison to fancy diplomas and societal connections. We need women like Jane seated at the table. We need to hear their voices, listen to their challenges face to face and collaborate on how we will better serve these grassroots women in doing their important jobs of mobilizing other women to demand equal rights. The research of a professor is valid and important, but the real impactful solutions lie in the grassroots with the “Janes” of this world. The “Janes” are on the front lines and in direct contact with women from their own cultures. The “Janes” are the true changemakers, the voices of the thousands who cannot speak for themselves.
A good example of this lies in the commentary section of the PBS documentary series Women, War and Peace. Renowned feminist Gloria Steinem was asked to provide commentary about the usage of women as weapons of war in a documentary entitled I Came to Testify about the Hague trials resulting from the Bosnian War. Ms. Steinem is a celebrated feminist, but honestly, what connection does she have to this experience? Where is the commentary from the victims? Why would we not include their voices? It appears the “experts” always receive the visibility on these issues and the victims and women deep-rooted in the direct action and on the front lines are rarely seen and heard.
For the documentary Peace Unveiled, the Women, War and Peace series did a phenomenal job of following three Afghan women who immediately began to organize to ensure women’s rights don’t get traded away in peace talk deals. It presents a unique view into their daily lives and reveals the often dangerous situations these women encounter attempting to mobilize other women for women’s rights in the war-torn country.
This is why my approach with “50 Women” is pro voice. I want the women of this book to tell their stories in first person without outside commentary. I like to think of it as a paper documentary. I am not interested in feminist agendas, I just wanted to create a space where we can hear the stories and experiences of global women; namely women like Jane. In fact I want Jane to tell the story of any challenges she faces because it is my hope that publishing her story in”50 Women” can help connect her with other women and other systems of support. We cannot help Jane or any of the other “Janes” if they do not receive a chance to speak.
In the long-term aspect of is project, The 50 Women Foundation will provide micro grants to the “Janes”, allowing them to continue their important work. It is the “Janes” of this world who are truly leading the most important change.