What you need to know:
- To many, Muhoroni Sugar Company offers countless opportunities; but to hundreds of women and girls, it also a reminder of bitter experiences.
- Supervisors take advantage of their positions to request sexual favours from the time the cash crop is planted and weeded to the time it is harvested and transported to the factory.
The lush green sugarcane plantations covering swathes of land in the Muhoroni sugar belt, Kisumu County, is a sight to behold.
From a distance, a first-time visitor would mistake the farms for large sports grounds. They have over the years placed Muhoroni Sugar Company among the leading sugar producers in the country, providing jobs to thousands of residents.
To many, the farms and the company offer countless opportunities. But to hundreds of women and girls, they are also a reminder of bitter experiences. Here, they have to offer sex in exchange for jobs. They are now demanding action against the thirsty bosses.
Supervisors take advantage of the limited slots to request sexual favours from the time the cash crop is planted and weeded to the time it is harvested and transported to the factory.
Nancy* says she started working on the farms when she joined Form One five years ago. “My parents, who worked as farmhands, could not raise my school fees, so I had to chip in to help.”
This only meant she had to be in the fields as early as six in the morning and only leave after clearing her workload. Nancy says the task is daunting, but they are paid peanuts. At times she would only make Sh130 a day. What worried her, however, was her supervisor’s habit of leaving early and asking women to go to his home to get their cash.
“When I first visited his home, he had a request. He made me aware that my payment was little and could not help much, but he could increase the amount if only I agreed to his sexual demands,” she says in an interview in Miwani.
“Declining an offer is often difficult, especially knowing well how much you need the money.”
According to her, declining the offer meant she would earn less or could lose her job. With school fee arrears and financially unstable parents, she was at a crossroads. She chose more money and ‘job security’. She says this is the pain she had had to endure for the last five years.
She sat her Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exam but has not had the opportunity to join college. Meanwhile, she continues to work on the farms. “If only they could pay us as per the work we do, this kind of sexual exploitation would stop.”
Her greatest fears are that the supervisors who have multiple sexual partners may end up infecting her with Sexually Transmitted Diseases including HIV.
Akoth* is also not in any different situation. The widow says she turned to sugarcane farming shortly after her husband died in 2017. She used the money she had raised to lease a three-quarter acre in Miwani, Muhoroni sub-county.
Ms Akoth, however, adds that one of her greatest challenges is getting the cane harvested and taken to the factory on time. “Once harvested, the cane should be transported to the factory within three days for good tonnage,” she says.
For women farmers, ready cane might even stay on the farm for a week or even end up drying because of the unrealistic demands by middlemen who help transport harvests. Akoth says the exercise is never complete without the men asking for sexual favours, either directly or indirectly.
She explains that the men quote higher harvesting and transport costs to trap vulnerable women. “They pave the way for negotiations, which involve satisfying their sexual desires,” she says.
“If we turn down the offer, they leave saying we are tough-headed.”
But her greatest fears now are having her young girls work in the same plantations. They, too, would be at risk sexual abuse and that would be “an abomination”.
Anne* says widows and schoolgirls are the main targets of the sex pests. She expresses concern that they go unpunished arguing that their sexual encounters are ‘consensual’.
Nicholas Mirema, a convener at the Miwani Social Justice Information Centre, a community-based organisation, says the perpetrators should be brought to book. He notes that with the area’s growing population, the sugarcane sector remains competitive, with most jobless residents struggling to secure the limited job opportunities. It is due to this that those in charge of hiring take advantage of vulnerable women.
Mr Mirema says they received 36 cases touching on economic violations and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) last year and another 14 from January to March this year.
To a number of locals, the plantations are slowly becoming a “green lodge”. Mr Mirema says some men have sex with both mother and daughter. "At this rate, many homes will break because of infidelity, and the rate of HIV infection may also rise," he says.
He explains that arresting the perpetrators is also difficult as they insist that whatever they are doing is not forced, even though the law says young girls cannot consent.
The justice centre recently embarked on creating awareness of labour rights. In one of the villages, it holds a baraza where women air their grievances and are advised on the way forward.
“We have advised them to form their own cooperatives with a leadership that understands their grievances. We are also appealing to advocacy partners to help us amplify the voices of these women," he said.
*Names changed to protect identity.