Born in an informal settlement on the outskirts of Nairobi, Naomi Barasa was a close witness to street violence, police brutality, impunity and the overwhelming inequality of the slums. Her journey as a human rights defender has embedded her in the struggle to improve living conditions for Nairobi’s 2.5 million slum dwellers. Naomi was instrumental in the campaign that led to the passage of the Sexual Offences Act in 2006, and has acted as Campaigns Manager for the Right to Adequate Housing with Amnesty International since 2009. She has contributed to the adoption of legislation such as the Housing Bill 2011, the Evictions and Resettlement Bill and the Slum Upgrading and Prevention Policy. Reflecting her personal history, the bulk of Naomi’s work takes a grassroots approach. She focuses on access to information and capacity-building, empowering affected groups to stand up and claim their rights.

On 13 November 2018, Naomi Barasa was awarded one of the first ever Henry Brooke Awards for Human Rights Defenders, in recognition of her resilience and dedication to combating the societal structures that drive inequality. In this interview from 2012, she describes her remarkable journey as a human rights defender.

On her work as a human rights defender

My name is Naomi Barasa and I’m a woman human rights defender from Kenya. I have been working on human rights for the last 22 years and my experience and interest has been in slums and the marginalisation of the slum population. I have worked on various issues, including gender-based violence and the exclusion of poor people in urban planning. Currently I am focusing on the right to adequate housing and how the violation of housing rights impacts negatively on people at different levels. At the level of involvement in government and democracy, but also looking at how this violation makes them vulnerable to violence, gender-based violence, manipulation and exploitation.

On how she became involved in human rights work

Maybe I was destined to do it. I don’t know why exactly I got involved but basically I trace my work back to my own background. As a child I grew up in the very slums that I am describing that are full of violence against women, full of police harassment especially against young people, domestic violence against women and girls, exclusion, marginalisation, illiteracy… it’s just a forgotten lot of human beings. As I grew up I kept wondering – why do I have to grow up like this, why did my parents have to come to such a place? I had so many whys. As a child you are meant to believe that your parents are not working as hard as other people work and that’s why you live in such an environment. That’s why you have no this and no that, you’re always suffering from diseases like diarrhoea, diseases like cholera, you have people being murdered everywhere and it’s nobody’s business, it’s not a big deal. But as I grew up I started getting conscious and I started understanding that it’s all about policies and laws that drive people into poverty – it’s all about exclusion, about marginalisation, it’s all about the equation of justice.

Then I thought – maybe I need to do something as a contribution. On my own I wouldn’t be able to change the situation as it is in the slums, but my contribution and somebody else’s contribution together could be good enough to change the situation and to even challenge the status quo. Our late Nobel Prize laureate, Wangari Maathai, she always talked about this little humming bird that always took water with its small little beak to this banyan forest to see if it could put out the fire. I think human rights work and activism is quite infectious and also very addictive. Once you get into it, you cannot easily get out; every day there’s a new thing that renews your energy to go on. I was quite young when I joined human rights activism but even before then I was always questioning and asking if things could be done differently. My mainstream involvement in human rights activism began when Kenya was still a one-party state and there were a lot of human rights violations. That’s why I got involved.

On the challenges she faces

I face similar challenges to other human rights defenders but there are particular challenges faced by me and many other women human rights defenders for the fact that we are women. Perceptions and societal structures and systems are always very skewed against women human rights defenders and this makes it a double challenge for women. Already being a woman puts you at a level where you have to struggle to prove yourself. Because of the gender prejudices that we have, people don’t want to look at you as a human rights defender, or recognise your contribution. They want to look at you as a victim and as somebody who should be within the realms of submission and not question the status quo.

I also work in a community that experiences a lot of inequalities as a result of poverty, which introduces a further set of challenges. One of the other things I experience, together with many other women human rights defenders working in the slums, is the fact that this is a community that is not yet legally acknowledged as part of Kenya or as part of Nairobi, so access to a lot of services and basic infrastructure is not a reality. In the event that we receive threats, for example, we cannot rely on security infrastructure because we do not have police stations or any other policing apparatus in the slums. We also have a challenge to access medical facilities and medical services due to fact that we have no hospitals in the slums. Information is not easily available. Although our constitution enshrines the right to information, the practical reality is that this is another thing that the slum community is yet to enjoy. This kind of environment complicates our work and even jeopardises our security as women human rights defenders.

On the protection needs of women human rights defenders

The most important aspect of protection for women human rights defenders is recognition that we are human rights defenders and therefore contribute a lot. This is something that needs to be visible. With recognition, there would be many other mechanisms – local mechanisms, local strategies – that could be put in place to ensure that women human rights defenders are protected. Laws and national strategies to ensure that there is support for women to enable them to undertake their work freely and effectively. The other thing we lack is access to information, which is for me a fundamental aspect of human rights defence and protection. I think that since our governments are signatories to UN mechanisms that oblige them to ensure security for women and protection for women, they need to scale down these mechanisms from the UN to local reality in terms of law, in terms of strategies, in terms of action plans.

Then of course there’s the need for resource-building around women’s human rights activism. If women cannot access justice, if women cannot build their capacities, if women cannot guarantee protection for other threatened human rights defenders then there’s very little they can do with regards to protection and security. So resourcing human rights defenders is a very important element. Once a state commits itself to these UN mechanisms then they should automatically develop infrastructure and resources around that protection. So basically, without going into the nitty gritty of our day to day challenges, I think that these are the major challenges that make women human rights defenders vulnerable to all manner of human rights violations.

On how the international community can support her work

There are two ways that the international community can support our work. The most powerful one is international solidarity – always having people on our side who understand what people in the slum go through. People who can remind the Kenyan government that it has an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil people’s rights. On the other hand, they can support the initiatives within the slums from human rights defenders who are working day in and day out to change the situation, to make it better, to ensure that people’s rights are protected. These defenders operate under very difficult circumstances. They are poor people who have to contribute the little resources that they might have to the human rights cause. If such efforts are complemented they will be very powerful.

On the role of PBI in Kenya

PBI can add a lot of value to the human rights cause in Kenya because the environment in which human rights defenders operate is a risky one. Not just because of the challenges in the slum but also because of the hostility and harassment that comes with their work, especially through state machinery. The government is yet to recognise that human rights defenders are an important element of society. And this puts the human rights defenders in a very risky situation because any time the government thinks this group needs to be silenced then police descend on the people, arrest people. They are disappeared, locked up incommunicado – they have no access to lawyers, no easy access to medical officers. And a lot of these cases go unnoticed; they happen without people’s awareness because there’s no publicity. If it happened to me, as an Amnesty worker, then Amnesty would probably create visibility around it. But a lot of my human rights defender counterparts in the slums do not have a similar platform. They work in these dangerous situations on their own. So PBI can offer a very important accompaniment. It would be this guardian angel that would be watching over as they go about their work, and in the event that things go wrong there would be somebody to give visibility to the issue. We have seen a lot of human rights defenders rotting in police custody, rotting in remand, rotting in jail without any visibility. Also I think PBI can be a very good international link between the human rights defenders in Kenya and the international community – this can bring a lot of value to our work. They can help us speak out on the role of government, on the UN mechanisms. I think it’s a very good way of bringing recognition and protection to human rights defenders in Kenya, especially women.

On her motivations to continue

What motivates me to do the work I do is the resilience of the suffering people and the desire to see a different world. A world that has a mathematics of justice, not of inequality. I think of my mother back in the slum, I think of my sisters back in the slum, I think of my daughters, and other mothers and daughters and sisters – there are lots of us back in the slum. It could be any of us – it could be me, it could be them. For me, my mothers and daughters and sisters are not just biological relations. And I think of how they struggle every day, every morning with a smile on their faces, despite all the difficulty.

If you share PBI's vision of a world where individuals and communities are free to protect their rights and lands without fear of reprisals and violence, you can help by donating to our Shoulder to Shoulder campaign.