The breadwinner, the mother, the slave: Tales of Tana River women in grip of GBV

Women sell miraa in Hola Town in Tana River County.

Women sell miraa in Hola Town in Tana River County.

Photo credit: Stephen Oduor | Nation

What you need to know:

  • Most households in pastoralist communities are led by women according to a 2022 study.
  • It is hard for women to engage in business as men view women who are financially independent as having lose morals.

That most women in herder communities are the breadwinners in their families is undisputed.

The burden of raising a child, paying school fees among other responsibilities have fallen on women, while the men take a back seat.

In the streets of Garsen, Bura, Madogo, and Hola towns of Tana River County, women are engaged in small-scale businesses selling milk, food, ghee, miraa, and farm produce.

Nuna Rashid, 34, is a mother of six who has been hawking ghee and milk at the Garsen-Lamu bus terminus for years.

Before she became divorced, her life was a bitter experience at the hands of a cruel man who demanded every coin she made from her business to use for his own pleasures.

“He would take all the money, at times leaving us with nothing. He would do it every day and he would apply force at times tearing my garments. There is no single day that I did not cry,” she said.

Ms Rashid recounts that, in one incident after she denied her husband money for a week, he dragged her to the bush, tied her to a tree, and whipped her with a rope until she disclosed where she had hidden the money.

He abandoned her there for hours, only to inform her sisters to go for her around 2am.

“He took Sh11,000 that I had saved from the business and destroyed items I had prepared for the market the following day,” she recounted.

She petitioned the council of elders for justice, but the case dragged on for more than nine months since her brother-in-law was a member of the council.

In the nine months, she suffered more abuse ranging from beatings to forced intercourse from her husband and even had a miscarriage.

“It got to a point where my children and I would sleep hungry while he would continue in his merrymaking. He would make sure that as long as I was in business, I would not have peace,” she said.

A group of women hawk milk and ghee by the roadside in Minjila Town, Tana River County.

Photo credit: Stephen Oduor | Nation Media Group

In August 2020, she sought a divorce, a request that would earn her a beating that left her with a dislocated hip joint.

The elders did not grant her desire and she had to find her way out of the misery once a for all.

“I took a concoction of some poisonous traditional herbs so that I could die, and I went to his father's home and fell at his door so that If I died, they would be held responsible,” she said.

Fortunately, she was rescued in time, and three days after her recovery, her husband divorced her. She left with her children and has never looked back.

Fiyan Abdulahi, 29, a mother of five from Bura, is another victim of an insecure and violent man.

Her husband would sit at a strategic place watching her as she sold miraa. Any conversation with a man that took too long in his estimation would earn her a through beating at home.

Her husband would collect all the money she made from the business, leaving her with just enough to restock the next day.

“I wish I could show you my back. It is striped with scars from the whippings. This body has suffered, but my children have to feed and I am the one to buy uniforms and pay fees,” she said.

When the elders could not intervene to ensure her safety, she sought the help of gender-based violence activists in the county, who called the police.

Her husband fled to evade arrest and has never returned. He sent a divorce letter to her last year in March.

“I wanted the divorce and when he granted it, I withdrew the assault charges against him, but I have not seen him since,” she said.

Ms Abdulahi and Ms Hassan are a few among the many who have managed to escape toxic marriages.

According to Tana River Gender-Based Violence Foundation Director Ralia Hassan , 90 per cent of domestic abuse cases reported are in pastoralist communities, according to a survey carried out by the foundation in 2022.

The survey also notes that, out of 10 families, eight have women as the breadwinners.

“Very few men are taking responsibility in the families, the women are the ones supporting nearly all families but they are having a hard time,” she said.

Tana River Gender-Based Violence Foundation Managing Director Ralia Hassan speaks to Nation.Africa in Hola, Tana River County.

Photo credit: Stephen Oduor | Nation Media Group

Ms Ralia said it was difficult for women in pastoralist communities to engage in business as men view women who are financially independent as having lose morals. She added that the alternative dispute resolution mechanism at the village level, which is the prerogative of the council of elders, is not structured to help the women.

“Cases of gender-based violence is on the rise every day and the council of elders does not deliver justice to most women who suffer such violence. The judgment is either too lenient or biased and that has encouraged the vice to thrive,” she said.

Dakan Huko, a member of the Oromo Council of Elders, refuted claims that the elders are biased against women victims of gender-based violence.

He said that the council have laid down procedures to tackle every matter and that most of the cases brought by women touching on marriage and domestic violence are first referred to ta women-only tribunal and elders simply adopt the decision of the tribunal.

“If the women’s tribunal finds it fit to impose a fine of three goats against the abuser, we cannot reverse the decision unless the defendant appeals the fine and we have to examine his financial capability,” he said.

He advised the women who find the decision by the elders to be unfair to always report the matters to the police for action.

The council of elders, he insisted, does not support gender-based violence and champions women’s empowerment.