Urban settlements in Kenya, especially in Nairobi, are characterised by unplanned, informal and congested houses, dense populations, and lack of sound infrastructure and social amenities. The general environments are unhygienic and full of blocked drainage channels, heaps of uncollected garbage, and a lack of clean water. Due to inadequate sanitation facilities, residents revert to communal toilets located far from their houses. Residents thus have to walk to the toilets, which can be far away and often in darkness because street lighting is insufficient or nonexistent along narrow paths and street alleys. This exposes residents, especially women and children, to the risk of becoming the victims of crime and violence. Urban settlements have little or no access to vital necessities or public services such as education, job training and employment, and healthcare services, among others. Those places that have large groups which share similar characteristics, like unemployment, high levels of poverty and overall declining economic fortune, foster a shared identification and physical space.

Kenyan Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) face numerous challenges and threats, particularly if they work in these urban settlements and if they work on sensitive topics such as proprietary rights, corruption, sexual offenses and other right violations committed by security agents.

Women Human Right Defenders (WHRDs) are subject to the same types of risks as any HRD, but as women, they are also targeted for or exposed to gender-specific threats and violence. The reasons behind the targeting of WHRDs are multifaceted and complex, and depend on the specific context in which the individual WHRD is working in. Often, the work of WHRDs is seen as challenging the traditional notions of family and gender roles in society, which can lead to hostility by the general population and authorities. Due to this, WHRDs are subjected to stigmatisation and ostracism by community leaders, faith-based groups, families and communities who consider them to be threatening religious norms, traditional honour or cultural values through their work.

As an effort to discourage WHRDs from pursuing their work, members of their families also become targets for threats and violence. Women defenders, in a deeply patriarchal society like Kenya, are more at risk of being subject to certain forms of violence and other violations, prejudice, exclusion, and repudiation than their male counterparts. It is therefore important to recognise the specific challenges and unique environments this group of defenders face and work in. This will help strengthen existing protection mechanisms for WHRDs both locally and internationally.

Ordinarily, investigation and verification of threats, violence, intimidation and other abuses against WHRDs, whether committed by State or non-State actors, should be undertaken promptly as a matter of urgency. The situation in practice is, however, a complete contrast and often leaves WHRDs without effective redress and protection mechanisms.

The crucial role played by HRDs and WHRDs in advancing the cause of human rights and justice has been increasingly recognised in recent years. However, their particular challenges and needs have not been entirely understood and addressed from outside or inside the human rights movement. This toolkit aims at providing an overview of the situation and challenges of WHRDs in the urban settlements of Nairobi, as well as possible avenues and resources for improved protection and support. In order to fully understand the scope of the needs of WHRDs in the urban settlements of Nairobi, a needs assessment survey was conducted.

Needs assessment survey

Following the workshop held in early 2015 with the WHRDs in Kenya, a sweeping survey for more information and further action was recommended.

The goal of the survey was to amplify the information gathered during the workshop and more specifically capture detailed information for WHRDs based in urban settlements of Nairobi.

The information and data sought during the survey include that to help understand:

  1. The challenges of basic security of the WHRDs in Nairobi’s urban settlements
  2. The challenges WHRDs face from state and non-state actors in Kenya
  3. WHRDs personal self-care and psychosocial state and how these impact their work
  4. The level, if at all, of political and moral support WHRDs get from the various actors and the society they work in
  5. Any unique set of risks WHRDs may face in the course of their work

In order to generate and gather this information, written questionnaires and focus group discussions (FGDs) were employed in a carefully selected sample of WHRDs within Nairobi urban settlements (Mathare, Kibera, Mukuru Kwa Njenga and others).


The study covered a wide array of different actors involved with or working as WHRDs in Nairobi’s urban settlements. Respondents were known Human Rights Defenders WHRDs living and /or working in these areas together with a host of other actors involved in related activities or offering support services.

The study employed several qualitative methods, including review of relevant secondary literature concerning the situation of WHRDs in Kenya. In addition, a team of researchers conducted key informant oral interviews with experts, workshops, focused group discussions and self-examining interviews through structured questionnaires and interview guides. This was meant to complement the existing information and gain more up-to-date insights. The questionnaire consisted of sections inquiring into the nature or work of individual Human Rights Defenders WHRDs or organisations and the categories of rights being promoted or protected. It inquired into the obstacles and challenges as well as specific rights violations faced by WHRDs during their work. The respondents were asked to identify the sources as well as causes of those challenges and violations.

Further inquiries were made on protection mechanisms available to WHRDs at national, regional and international levels, their effectiveness and the extent to which defenders are utilizing them. Respondents were asked about the availability and efficacy of any economic, psychosocial support or any form of solidarity networks that are involved in enhancing the work of WHRDs, especially when violations of their rights occur.

A total of 199 Respondents participated from different informal settlements. Oral interviews were conducted to persons with expertise in areas of children welfare, health services, policing and security and research. FGDs, workshops and the filled Questionnaires included members from Gender Defender groups, community justice centers, sex workers associations, LGBTI representatives, Volunteer Children Officers, paralegals, community health workers, teachers, security committees, refugee representatives, youth groups and community groups working on extrajudicial executions, economic empowerment groups for women, NGOs representatives and Rapid Response Teams on housing rights.

Relevant documents and literature pertaining to the legal, policy, and institutional framework on WHRDs in Kenya as well as other regional and global mechanisms were reviewed.

Scope of the Survey

The survey was conducted in Nairobi County. The researchers interviewed through written questionnaires and conducted focus group discussions with respondents from Nairobi’s informal settlements of Mathare, Kibera, Mukuru Kwa Ruben and Mukuru Kwa Njenga. A total of 18 respondents were interviewed through the written questionnaires, four group discussions were held in Mukuru, Mathare & Kibera and also an in-depth oral interview with a veteran health care giver (nurse) /HRD; Alice Ngema from Mukuru’s Alice nursing home was conducted.

Limitations of the Survey

In comparative terms, the survey is based on a broad and diverse sample population from Nairobi that may not be truly representative of all views/core messages of WHRDs in Kenya. While this does not in any significant way affect the validity of the survey findings, it nevertheless suggests that some issues in the survey may require fuller investigation to obtain a more comprehensive understanding of the situation.

Needs identified

Some of the key needs identified were –

  1. Capacity and skill building (most defenders are in informal and artisanal occupations). The overwhelming majorities are volunteers, meaning that they never had the requisite skills or background experiences but were thrust into this by the sheer enormity of the situation and their passion for alleviating the problems in their underprivileged communities.
  2. Physical and psychosocial needs are considerable amongst those who participated. Debriefing services to alleviate the enormous burden from traumatic experiences is lacking.
  3. Security is one of the major concerns and the most overarching issue across all the respondents who took part in this survey. For example in Kibera, the defenders are threatened by use of a common Kiswahili colloquial threat “chunga usiende shambani”, ‘meaning be careful lest you end up in the graveyard’, or “unaweza jipata kwa reli”, translated as ‘you may end being dumped on the rail tracks where no one will know whether you were dumped dead or accidentally run over by the train.’ These are not simple threats. The security issue is more frightening when perpetrators of abuse turn to hunt the defenders of victims. Police complicity and collusion make it an urgent issue to be addressed.
  4. Lack of effective collaborative networks. Some WHRDs noted the need for the empowerment of local networks as well as the setting up a national umbrella network, while others emphasised the need for more formal and well-structured grassroots WHRDs networks. Many saw how membership in such networks would impact on security as it symbolises local WHRDs as being part of a bigger project/network that would be difficult to intimidate.
  5. Lack of safe havens/houses and local asylum facilities where those under dire threats can be transferred and accommodated temporarily until those threats are eliminated or addressed. There was a case, for example, where a WHRD house in Mathare urban settlement was razed after receiving threats from a local vigilante gang due to her opposition to public land grabbing on that earmarked for a school. This would have been avoided if there was a mechanism for relocation or safe havens.
  6. Inadequate international and regional links with the international community was noted as lacking both for political and technical support.
  7. Broader recognition as legitimate human rights advocates. There is an urgent need to mainstream WHRDs working in Nairobi urban settlements to the formal and conventional human rights movements.
  8. Security training. WHRDs expressed their need for greater awareness of protection issues, and increasing their capacity to appreciate their own risk levels. Some WHRDs reported that they had attended general security training workshops. Several attendees mentioned that while the workshops had certainly raised their security awareness, there had not been any follow-up to the training, and they did not have the capacity to implement full security plans. They also emphasised how this training should be at the grassroots level and should include a component on Information Computer Technology (ICT) security.
  9. Monitoring WHRD risks. One national NGO noted the need for a database of HRDs in different sectors to assist with defining existential risks and probable protection measures.
  10. Opportunities for WHRDs to reflect and strategise. It was noted that WHRDs had not done this consistently or broadly enough in recent times and it was important for forums that would facilitate meeting space be encouraged and held.
  11. Safe working stations/dignified office spaces. WHRDs working in urban settlements noted that a safe working station would be a boost to their work. The need for a safe office space, especially as with no place to work from and small homes, there is no proper document filing/storage and working from cyber-cafés is dangerous and prone to unnecessary exposure. Some of the mentioned issues included; Ways to be identified that will ensure temporary removal from insecurity while mid and long term protection measures are being explored to prevent fatal eventualities when in cases of high degrees of threat.
  12. Establishment of a Rapid Response Mechanism – RRM. Verification of genuinely threatened WHRDs such as (but not limited to): A particular contact within the already identified WHRDs; Peer mechanism where other WHRDs would vouch for the threatened WHRDs; Creation and activation of a regularly updated data base that would profile WHRDs to minimise bureaucracy in such times when urgent protection response is needed.


Responsibility for the information and views set out in this Toolkit lies entirely with the authors.