Dhobi Women’s Network: Compassion for Kenyan women care workers

Background and country setting

In Nairobi, Kenya, the site for this program, over 60% of the 3 million residents live in informal settlements. Living conditions across the informal settlements are generally very poor, with overcrowding a significant issue. Nairobi’s informal settlements have high unemployment rates, and where women are employed, many are employed as domestic workers. The vast majority – around 90% – are employed in informal employment. Dhobi Women’s Network (DWN) is a Women Rights not for profit organisation registered in Kenya that champions the rights of women and girls’ domestic workers (Dhobi Women).

It’s Founder, Grace Ngugi describes a typical bank holiday: ‘There’s an unwritten rule in most Kenyan families: Christmas and Easter holidays must be spent with family in your village, irrespective of your class or social status – and crucially this includes domestic workers. The holiday rule is however the trigger for holiday misery for domestic workers’ employers, especially the women. Social media is awash with lamentations of how tedious care work is and amazement at how their domestic workers do it every day’.

Reason for the initiative

Paid domestic work in Kenya is known for its precariousness; the long and arduous working hours; the poor wages; the lack of contracts; the abuse and mistreatment from employers; and the non-existent off days and leave days. The unspoken holiday ‘rule’ allows domestic workers, who are mostly women, a few precious days’ respite with their families.

DWN was set up to provide practical action, specifically providing:

  • a clear, and far-sighted vision, of a society where women domestic workers enjoy all their rights and have agency and advocacy.
  • job protection to women, as the truth is that there is very little employment for women from the informal settlements.
  • knowledge of their rights, as their vulnerability puts them at risk of sexual harassment and other degrading treatments which, like washing corpses may be deeply unsettling.
  • challenge to traditional attitudes, because in this traditional society it is women and girls who are still expected to oversee and take care of all the unpaid care and domestic work.

The approach – a compassionate vision for care workers

Dhobi Women’s Network offers women training, advocacy and support through a network of Champions – volunteers who are other Dhobi Women. Through the knowledge and skills acquired, and because of training, the Champions now know how to negotiate for their pay, enter contracts, where to report in case of rights violations, and they are expected to train others at the community / grassroots level. Networks come together as a way of strengthening women’s care worker’s coalitions voice and engage in meaningful advocacy at the community level. Grace says the approach is important because it:

  • ‘It is a 360-degree approach to empowerment’, says Grace. It is not just about women’s rights as care workers but their emotions and wellbeing, even faith and praying together.
  • Works with both the informal system and the formal agencies. By being in the community, it is better able to build relationships with schools, police, and the local government administration, as well as build the trust of the community.
  • Is strengthened by shared goals and action between different parts of the system, emerging from a shared vision for women’s protection, and peaceful co-existence in the settlements. ‘There are a lot of domestic workers from Uganda, and we want to accommodate that and that means ensuring peaceful co-existence and proper recognition’, said the Chief Police Officer in Kaleshua.
  • Demonstrates change, as the police, the women’s representatives and local government administration are jointly advocating to ensure formal papers for domestic workers.

‘It is putting empathy into practical action’ said a Dhobi Women’s Network board member. By collapsing the gap between the formal administration and the women – literally, bringing the administration to the women – the Police have been brought directly into conversations with women and as a result of what they heard, the Police have helped set up a phone number to call the police about violations.

  • The program is based on justice and inclusion as a core value. ‘In the informal settlements there are a lot of migrant workers. Extending the network to include refugees from neighbouring countries Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Uganda and empowering them with information to protect them from trafficking’.
  • It is a practical program, supporting women and girls by enhancing their skills on cooking, housekeeping, use of home appliances, first aid and communication, which helps them secure jobs in homes and hotels as professional cooks and housekeepers.

The impact on care outcomes

Dhobi Women’s Network is gradually changing attitudes to women’s work, raising awareness that in this country, it is mostly women who carry the double burden as carers and paid employees. It is systematically and structurally helping women to get work as carers. By training women in domestic work and, their rights, it is turning around a skill that was never valued and giving it value.

The impact on carers

The scale of protection the program offer is impressive. Recently in Mombasa County, 500 women were trained and 10,000 women reached. Specifically, the training provides personal opportunities.

The program is empowering and offers security. ‘Alice can get better domestic work after enhancing her skill in catering and housekeeping. She has educated three children and a girl who has just left university. The employer paid for her to learn to drive and now she has become a driver for the same household: ‘so better pay’ says Grace.

By supporting women to develop skills, the program improves dignity, it allows women carers a far greater sense of their own professionalism and by supplementing their income they can start businesses and employ others. When a woman goes to a home to be a carer, she’s expected to have certain skills. They might want her to use an oven, but she’s never seen or used an oven. ‘They don’t want to appear as if they don’t know what they must do. So, we have a kitchen here, to train them in cooking, first aid and home appliances’, says Grace. With those same skills some of the women have been able to get decent jobs in hotels as professionals.

Key learning points

The Dhobi Women’s Network has worked for around 13 years. It has learnt:

  • Embedding support for women needs a whole system approach which means working with community, church and faith groups, and the formal agencies like the police and government administration. Shared objectives, like getting papers for refugees and domestic carers, comes from a shared understanding and empathy for the challenges, aswell as a joint vision
  • Working with women as volunteers – every woman in the network also has a mentor who is herself a Dhobi Woman – increases the support and compassion for women whilst expanding the number of people involved. The joy and momentum, is palpable. The Champions are trained in mental health first aid to help integrate it into their lives.
  • The coordination – with other agencies and with women with experience, needs resource. ‘This has been made possible because the funding [by Oxfam] has no restrictions. Most funding comes with restrictions and doesn’t look at what women want’, says Grace.
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