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I was forced to wash a corpse

NAIROBI, Kenya, Feb 3 – Those who live in informal settlements the world over are considered second class citizens. In Kenya the situation is not any different.

With extreme poverty levels many slum dwellers, especially women, find themselves doing everything within their will just to rake in that extra income.  Often times the working conditions come as an afterthought.

In Mathare and Kiamaiko slums of Nairobi, some women perform household chores for as little as Sh100. Gladys and Anna are such women. But their horrid accounts of human rights violations, at the hands of their clients, are disheartening.

"A man came asking me if I was interested in household chores. After the usual haggling we settled for Sh150 and I went to his house to wash clothes as well as tidy up the house. When I finished, he called me into a room telling me he wanted me to do something else before I left,” she recalled.

"He then took out a corpse and told me to wash it for Sh800; I said no! That\’s when he pulled out a gun, held it to my head and made me wash it with nylon paper bags covering my hands. When I finished he gave me some lotion and asked me to apply it on the corpse. I had no choice," says 35-year-old Gladys.

Thirty year old Anna has a different account but one that she would like to forget.

In November 2007, one of her clients held her against her will for two weeks and would rape her every day. He would lock her up in a dark room and only got her out when he \’needed\’ her.

"He had a gun and he would threaten me with it every day. After the first two days, I gave up the fight; I had no strength and I lost all hope," she says.

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But her story does not end there; her ordeal followed her.

Anna became pregnant with twins and as if that was not enough, she became infected with HIV/AIDS. She unsuccessfully tried aborting the pregnancy and in the end she gave birth to premature twins. Of them, a girl, was taken up for adoption while she went home with the other.

Her health also took a toll on her; if it wasn\’t tuberculosis it was pneumonia and if none then it was malaria.

Anna, who lives in a shanty in Kiamaiko slums, is the first born child in her family. She found herself in Nairobi, alone, after her family was evicted and displaced following the 2002 general elections.

Her first two children live with her mother in Korogocho slums.

"I feel very bad because I cannot afford their upkeep. My children dropped out of school and I can hardly do anything. I get food from a missionary centre in Kiamaiko and clothes from donors," she says before breaking down.

Sometimes the domestic workers are also denied food and they have to go about their tasks on an empty stomach.

"We normally don\’t get any food and we are even used to it. I remember this time I had gone to Eastleigh and the person who I was working for emptied all the food remains from the plates to a container and gave me."

"Knowing the situation I had left at home, I took the remains to my children and we shared them. We hadn\’t had anything to eat the previous day," says Gladys.

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The Dobi Women\’s Campaign movement has brought some reprieve to the likes of Anna and Gladys. It brings together such women and gives them an opportunity to document their stories. One of the organisers, Beatrice Karore, adds that the group educates the women on their rights.

"Women who live in the slums give up on hope very easily; they don\’t put up a fight when their rights are violated. Maybe it is because they have been ignored for a long time. Our movement gives them a chance to air their grievances and also lets them come up with ways forward," she says.

The women\’s group, which is free for all, is also planning on increasing the security of its members.

"We will be following each other up such that if someone goes to wash clothes in a certain house, then we will know which house it is they are in and they will alert us in case of anything," she says.

The group is however facing financial constraints which risk paralysing its activities.

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