It’s 8 a.m. in the rural Kenyan village of Sarwat and every 15 women is sitting on a pile of gravel swinging a heavy hammer. They shatter stones and make a noise so loud that it can be heard from afar. With every blow of the hammer, they disturb the calm of the surrounding cattle, which are ready to feed themselves with feed for the day.
Between the ages of 23 and 65, the women carelessly hit the rocks harder and harder and break them up into gravel, which is later used for construction.
Here, in self-rented land in the rocky hills of the constituency of Tinderet in western Nandi County, these women earn their daily bread. They tirelessly crush one stone after the other in order to meet the steadily increasing demand for gravel in the surrounding villages and beyond.
They do it, they say, for an income and for the needs of their children. Some have to bring their children with them because they have no one to look after them while they work.
These women are part of the women’s self-help group of the Chepkemel municipality and have been working as stone crushers for 12 years in order to strengthen each other economically.
Women’s self-help groups that run grassroots self-improvement initiatives like these have seen a boom in Kenya in recent decades, especially in rural areas. In the 1970s there were about 3,000 active groups in the country. By 1990 the number had increased tenfold – and it has grown to this day, studies show. And while some continue to work in the informal sector, many are now legally registered and eligible for funding or credit.
Such initiatives are all the more relevant in this African country, which ranks 95th out of 156 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report 2021 of the World Economic Forum and in which there are still considerable inequalities between men and women, namely in access to education, health services, representation and economic participation in the labor market.
Legislative efforts have been made over the past decade to ensure gender equality in all sectors, thanks in particular to a new, more progressive constitution introduced in 2010. However, women are still disproportionately vulnerable to poverty, mainly due to gender stereotypes.
They also have less control of land and resources than men, which limits their full participation in the country’s economy. For example, while over 80% of Kenyan women work on small farms, according to UN Women only 1% owns their own land. You are accessing less than 10 percent of the available credit and less than 1 percent of the agricultural credit.
Ruth Soi, a 65-year-old mother of seven, is the oldest woman in the group. She knows how much hard work the group has put into providing for their families in a difficult environment.
âWith the work of our hands, we took our children through college and sometimes even universities while we looked after the younger ones at home,â she says. âSome of the women have young children who are still breastfeeding; This women-only room allows them to bring their babies so we can all take care of them at work. “
In addition to stones, these women smash the stereotype that such arduous jobs are only reserved for men. And with every payment they settle another bill.
âWe smash the stones until it gets dark when we return home, exhausted but happy that we have done the God-given duty of all parents – to care for their children,â says Ms. Soi.
Everlyne Chichir, another member of the group, says it takes them at least three days to turn stones into one tonne of gravel, the unit of measure used in the construction industry.
The group’s customers include neighboring schools and other construction projects that have previously ordered the gravel, often from distant counties such as Kisumu, Kakamega and Uasin Gishu.
If the group’s activities have helped the women for many years, most of their customers want to buy machine-processed gravel instead, which has a finer texture. Some even use this option as a leverage to lower their prices, says Ms. Chichir.
âBefore we could earn up to 1,200 [Kenyan] Shillings ($ 11) per ton of gravel. Now we only earn 700 schillings per ton, âshe adds. âSometimes we go by a month without a single sale. But we still hope for better days. “
These women live on tiny and rocky plots unsuitable for commercial agriculture. As a result, they have very few alternatives to make a living other than crushing stones. They practice subsistence farming by growing vegetables, corn and beans to support themselves and their families.
This laborious process of breaking and stacking stones has left scars all over their bodies. But despite everything and the dwindling market for their gravel, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, women are not giving up.
Fortunately, Ms. Soi said they recently received confirmation that some local schools are going to buy some of their gravel to add to their much-needed income.
This article is part of “On the way to equalityâ, A collaborative journalistic operation that brings together 15 news media outlets from around the world, highlighting the challenges and solutions to achieving gender equality.