Poverty, stigma, sexual assault. These are some of the threads that knit together what life is like for women on the streets. Basic needs such as food, shelter, clothing and healthcare are luxuries that are often too expensive to afford.
For these women, dawn sets them out to struggle and persevere.
It’s early in the morning and Jane Atieno sits with her two sons on the pavement next to an abandoned house in the CBD in Kisumu. She has a metallic plate in front of her, from which she feeds the younger two-year-old. Ms Atieno is a street beggar.
“It’s now two years since I came to the streets. Life is tough but I have to persevere,” says the mother of two.
The majority of these women are forced to go to the streets to escape the challenges they face back home.
“When my husband died, I was rejected by my in-laws. I was forced to live on the streets. I move from one area to another begging for food,” she says.
She adds, “Some restaurant owners and guards chase us away when we ask for something to eat. I go everywhere with my children because these streets are not safe. I have seen women whose children have been taken away by child abductors. I don’t want that to happen to me.”
During her menses, Jane uses ripped clothes or old mattresses and sometimes gets infections.
“Sanitary towels are expensive yet I need to feed my kids. I cannot afford them.”
This narrative is echoed across major towns in the country, The Saturday Nation found out.
Ciku, who only identified herself by one name, lives on the streets of Nakuru. For her, getting her period every other month is a nightmare.
“I use plastic papers, socks or whatever clothing I find in the dustbins. You know, it’s terrible. Sometimes it comes when I have washed my only underwear and I am waiting for it to dry. When that happens, I cut a piece of cloth and find ways to tie it around so it doesn’t fall as I walk. Later, I throw it into a garbage heap and life continues,” she revealed to us.
“Occasionally, some women organisations come here and donate menstrual pads. However, once they leave, street men take them away from us and sell them at a throwaway price to hawkers. These men are just as hungry and they tell us to choose between pads and having money to buy food and cigarettes,” she adds.
Ciku, who is 19 and a mother of two, found herself on the streets about four years ago, at 15, when she fell out with her boyfriend.
Ciku’s last-born came as a result of a sexual assault on the streets and besides the jabs her baby was given after birth, she has never gone back to the clinic for any follow-ups or check-ups.
“Sometime back, some health officials came here and told us that there was a polio campaign. They administered some jabs on him but I didn’t bother to find out what it was all about,” she says.
To buy milk and food for her family, she sometimes takes up laundry jobs, which are also hard to come by.
On the streets, these women are exposed to untold cruelty and vulnerability. For protection, they offer themselves up for marriage to street men.
“When you come to the streets, you have to find out who rules there. There are those who are much feared and respected and if you can find a way to make them like you, then your safety is guaranteed,” shares Christine Mwende, a street woman in Nairobi.
Christine has been a street woman for the past five years. Before she came to Nairobi in 2016, she had lived in Meru and on the outskirts of Thika town.
“I disagreed with my grandmother when I was in secondary school and she chased me away from home. We used to live in a rented house in Meru town and she was the only family I knew.
After living on the streets for about one year, I went back to the house to try and make peace with her, only to be told that she had passed on and nobody knew much about her; not even where she was buried. With no one else to turn to, I returned to the streets,” she offers.
Sick of pickpockets and street men taking away her money, she resolved to get married to a man who has been her protector for the past two years.
“Nobody dares to occupy our sleeping corner or steal our bedding. They all fear my husband,” she explains.
To ensure she does not get unwanted pregnancies, her friend took her to a local clinic and got an implant inserted in her upper arm.
“With this, I was told that I could go for five years without having to worry about getting pregnant. I don’t want to be a mother yet,” she says.
In Mombasa, a street woman called Mary Mwasia, who has been living on the streets since 2011, has learnt how to make ends meet instead of begging to feed her family.
The mother of seven moves from one house to another looking for laundry jobs. She says her husband abandoned her and she could not go back home as she was not in good terms with her sister.
“I try to give my children a good life even though we live on the streets. However, there are days when I don’t find work and when that happens, we sleep hungry,” she narrates.
Mwanamkasi Hassan, another street woman, ran away from home to escape her violent father, only to fall pregnant twice while on the cold streets. She is 18.
“My father would come home drunk almost on a daily basis. He once hit me with a glass, leaving a big mark on my temple. I did not want that life. I became stubborn and that is how a friend convinced me to come here, but before long I became pregnant and it has now been three years on the streets,” she said.
Mwanamkasi said she could not get rid of her unborn baby and opted to keep the pregnancy. She delivered at the Coast Provincial General Hospital.
“A lady who occasionally visits us encouraged me to give birth at the hospital. I made sure that I attended antenatal clinics and that they received all the necessary vaccines and jabs. When I go there, I don’t pay. I only have to explain to them my situation,” she told The Saturday Nation.
To survive, she wakes up every morning to pick up used plastics and pieces of scrap metal, which she sells for Sh25 a kilo. She then buys rice and soup to feed her children.
In the evening, she depends on hotels to provide her with leftover food, which she feeds her two children with.
Mwanamkasi has not only survived her father’s violence, but also on the streets. She says a group of boys attempted to attack her when she first got there, but she managed to escape after biting one of them on the hand.
“I was just walking when they approached me. They hurt me but I fought back and they have since stayed away. You need to be tough to get through every day. It’s a difficult life,” she says.
Reporting by: Lilys Njeru, Elizabeth Ojina, Winnie Atieno, Francis Mureithi and Siago Cece