She is the definition of what it means to have the strength of a woman. Born and raised in Mathare slums in Nairobi, Mwikali is a grassroots women rights and feminist activist. Many teenage girls in Kenya come from poor backgrounds where it is difficult to access opportunities and skills. Consequently, they end up in abusive relationships. For many girls, a sanitary towel or facility is a big deal. ‘It was very difficult to get out of the abusive relationship I was in because I had no power or choice. But I don’t use that as an excuse because I now have a voice, power to make my own choices and decisions and to fight for and defend my own rights,’ Rachael Mwikali recalls.
Her independent breakthrough came when she was employed to do a casual job by promoting Ruby Cups. Right now, she is a ruby cup trainer and ambassador. Ruby cups are menstrual cups used as alternatives to pads and tampons. They are medically approved and comfortable to use. Rachael says they last for 10 years. Through this, she was now economically empowered. Thus, the violence reduced because she no longer depended on a man to buy her pads.
‘Healing from emotional and physical abuse is a very difficult process. If not addressed, one can become emotionally numb. This isn’t healthy and can easily lead to depression. I encourage women to cry when they need to and to support each other. You don’t always have to be strong. I’m not happy about the challenges and violations I went through but I’m proud they have enabled me to be the person I am today,’ she smiles.
‘The topic on menstruation is still taboo. People are afraid of talking about periods which makes it difficult to engage with young people. However, we are determined to tell adolescent girls they have a choice. They can choose tampons, sanitary pads or menstrual cups. In the end, they select what they want and what makes them happy. We also train them on sexual reproductive health rights, breaking the bloody menstruation taboos and on hygiene,’ she explains.
As the years went by, she developed an interest and passion to advocate for human rights and especially those of girls and women. In 2016, their social movement, in which she is the convener, the Coalition for Grassroots Human Rights Defenders was formed. Rachael witnessed many women and children going through violence and not having the opportunity or the awareness to speak out against injustice when she was growing up. Over time, the social movement has grown and spread out to different parts of Nairobi including Kangemi and into other counties such as Migori and Machakos.
They are very keen on empowering both boys and girls equally. They need to learn how to respect each other and compete for the same opportunities. This usually happens during the sessions they have during the school holidays. One of the ways is through football tournaments.
The organization has different programmes:
They have the movement building and social justice programme. This is a form of capacity building for upcoming activists in the community. Through this, the members of the social movement are trained on how to handle injustices that happen in the society. It is a form of knowledge building, something that Rachael notes is very important for any person working in the human rights sector.
Second, they have human rights education. ‘It is important for people to have knowledge about the current laws and how they go in line with the new constitution. This allows them to work collectively and also to solve injustices through the right channels. At the heart of the movement is solidarity and psychosocial support. If something happens, people are encouraged to speak out not only in risky situations but also when there are none. However, the work can involve burn out and very many risks. Thus, the members of the movement are encouraged to look out for each other,’ Rachael elaborates.
The last arm of the movement is very keen on feminism and a feminist economy. They do this by selling T-Shirts branded with feminism messages and the money raised is then used to support some of the movement’s activities especially on women and girl’s rights. Members also get some cash for sustaining themselves. They also hope to use sports and arts to bring awareness on localizing feminism at the grassroots level.
Many people misunderstand what feminism means. In their blog post on The Misconception About Feminism on the Huffington post, The Montclair Diplomats put it out well; ‘Feminism is not the hatred towards men. The point of feminism is not to discriminate against men. Feminism is not a movement to discourage men. Feminism is not a movement plotting to pull all men out of power. Feminism is not a movement to promote women superiority. Feminism is for everyone.’
In the Mathare office, they have a small room which is used as a safe space. The room also has some beds. This is because in the beginning, whenever a child or woman was violated or got lost, they would host them in their homes. However, sometimes it would be very difficult because they would be accused of child trafficking. The office therefore allows them to help the child while curbing the challenges that come with the work.
With time, they have realized it is important to work with the legislature through writing letters so that law makers and policy makers are also aware of the issues facing people. Rachael is also keen on allowing children from Mathare to be exposed to different environments. For example, they have had an exchange program where they went to the Swedish Ambassador to Kenya’s residence in Nairobi. They had a conversation with the Swedish students there about gender equality and Swedish feminist foreign policy. In turn, the Students from the Swedish school also visited Mathare. This opens their eyes to know that there are many challenges facing youth but there are also many opportunities.
The members of the social movement usually come in as volunteers from the community level. It is therefore very difficult for them to fund their activities, a challenge that many grassroots organizations in Kenya usually face. However, this does not deter their zeal to do what is right. In 2016, Rachael was the winner of the ‘We Effects Lobbyist for Change Award.’ It came with funding which allowed her to keep doing their meetings and human rights training. This was a breakthrough but she believes more can be done.
Due to her tenacity and focused attitude, Rachael continues to get opportunities to be involved in other platforms and she also wins awards for that. For example, she is the assistant chairperson for Kenyan human rights award jury that has been hosted by the Dutch/Netherlands embassy and now by the Belgium Embassy. Further, she was a delegate on behalf of African youth and women by giving opening remarks at the African land policy conference BY the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2017.
An independent woman is one who is willing to take the risks to make sure not only her life improves, but also the lives of others. Once she walks through an open door, she lives it open for other people to use it.’ Rachael Mwikali truly fits Michelle Obama’s definition of a leader.