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‘It is in me to work to support my community’: How a local NGO in Kenya is helping vulnerable people during COVID-19

07 Jul 2020


A man uses a handwashing station provided by Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) in Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: SHOFCO

By promoting best practices to prevent transmission of the coronavirus, distributing water, hygiene supplies and food, and supporting women survivors of gender-based violence, Caroline Sakwa and the Shining Hope for Communities non-governmental organization are mobilizing vulnerable people in Kenyan to support one another during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Loisa Maloba, UN Volunteers Communications Assistant, and Saviano Abreu, Communications Team Leader, in Nairobi, Kenya

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in Kenya in mid-March, Caroline Sakwa and her colleagues at Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) have not stopped working. The local non-governmental organization (NGO) has been supporting thousands of vulnerable people living in informal settlements across Kenya to protect themselves against the virus and making sure they have at least the basics to survive these hard times.

As Gender Director of SHOFCO, Ms. Sakwa has been focusing on providing protection and other services to survivors of gender-based violence, as cases of physical and psychological violence against women continue to increase during the pandemic.

“The first thing we did was make sure the population of the 14 slums we work in across Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu had enough water and hygiene products. We installed handwashing stations and continue distributing water, soap and sanitizers to every family in the settlements where we work,” explains Ms. Sakwa.

But it doesn’t stop there. SHOFCO has been working continuously to mobilize slum communities around the threat of COVID-19, and sensitize them about the best practices to prevent transmission of the virus. As it has continued to provide services during these past few months, the organization has had to adapt some of its programmes.

“We have hundreds of groups and a platform of more than 160,000 people that we work with, training them to be advocates of their own change and promoting social transformation within their communities. In Kibera, Nairobi, alone, we have 600 groups of women, groups of youth, of men, and also mixed groups. The leaders of these groups are now reaching a mass of people to raise awareness and support the distributions,” says Ms. Sakwa.

The organization’s efforts have led to positive results. While many of the people SHOFCO works with at first thought the coronavirus was, as Ms. Sakwa puts it, “a disease that affected the rich and those who travelled abroad”, they have begun changing their views. For example, many people now put handwashing stations at the entrance of their houses for their neighbours to use, as well as wear and distribute masks and maintain physical distancing as much as possible. “We can see the change,” notes Ms. Sakwa. 

Another important part of the organization’s work includes supporting those people affected by the humanitarian impact of the pandemic. In Kenya, about 74 per cent of people living in informal settlements in Nairobi were forced to skip meals in May after losing their incomes as a consequence of the COVID-19-related restrictions, according to the results of a survey conducted by the Population Council and the Ministry of Health.

At least 84 per cent of those surveyed have lost all or part of their income due to COVID-19, while expenses have increased for more than 87 per cent of families as a result of the pandemic and higher food prices. SHOFCO has distributed food to more than 3,200 families and cash transfers to another 11,500 families thus far.

The restrictions and the increasing economic pressure have also contributed to more violence against women in Kenya. Ms. Sakwa and her team have supported more than 1,000 women survivors of gender-based violence. They have seen a monthly increase of nearly 300 per cent in the number of cases reported since April, compared with the average they used to receive prior to the pandemic.

A truck delivers clean water to residents in the Kibera settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, as part of a campaign to improve sanitation in order to tackle the coronavirus. Credit: SHOFCO

The work that SHOFCO does seems to be a lot for the small team of motivated staff. But if you ask Ms. Sakwa if she is tired or fears contracting the virus herself, she has no doubts.

“I take good care of myself. But it is in me to work to support my community. Being able to help someone’s health and or just support humanity as a whole motivates me to continue working,” she concludes.