Their name is Warembo Ni Yes, a Swahili phrase that roughly translates to “Young women are Yes.” Yes for what? The new Kenyan constitution, which is igniting a fierce debate both in Kenya and thousands of miles of away in the United States. There has been a long push to pass a new constitution in Kenya in order to correct the drastic power imbalances among ethnic groups and between men and women so that 2007’s disastrous, violent election aftermath will not be repeated.
For Warembo Ni Yes, the proposed changes are monumental. On Wednesday morning, I sat in on their second planning meeting. The women surrounding me couldn’t be more diverse: in age, size, ethnicity, economic background. Some were straight, others queer. A young girl, no more than 16, sat on my left. From Africa’s biggest slum, Kibera, she threw out dynamic ideas in her scratchy quiet voice. The women were brainstorming. They wanted creative, effective ways to reach Kenyan women on how to vote for and take advantage of the expanded liberties the new constitution would give them: exceptions for the mother’s health in the case of abortion, equal property and citizenship rights.
The popular idea was to rent a fleet of mkokotenis, or rickshaws, and decorate them with the “Yes” slogan as women activists rode them through town. Zawadi, a Kenyan friend I met in Mexico City and an outspoken member of Warembo, suggested that the male rickshaw drivers be dressed in drag. “We are demanding, not requesting, these rights,” one woman declared. Everyone murmured in agreement. If the constitution is approved, the group plans to petition Parliament for more latitude in abortion choice.
But they have a few foes. Republican members of Congress incorrectly say that the constitution significantly expands abortion rights (it still outlaws abortion, though it spells out exceptions if the mother’s life is at risk — which was always the case in the penal code). American evangelical groups are still up in arms, funding the opposition to the constitution here and even setting up websites targeting pro-choice Kenyan leaders. Meanwhile, thousands of Kenyan women die each year in secret, poorly performed operations. “What’s really problematic is how much funding is coming in from right-wing Americans in order to control women’s bodies even more than they’re already controlled,” Zawadi told me later.
*Edited. F.U.C.K. (Feminists United for Change) is not associated with Warembo Ni Yes.
Photo via Changia Kenya