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'I Can't Plant a Rose in My Own Name'

Zawadi Nyon'o

It is not likely that many people who purchase a bouquet of roses think about where those flowers were grown, or under what conditions.

Through her Division III project, Zawadi Nyong’o (00F) learned that flowers grown in Kenya for the European market come at a very high price: the systematic sexual harassment of poor women, who comprise the majority of workers in the industry. Nyong’o, a recent Hampshire graduate who is from Kenya, returned to her homeland last year to do an internship with the Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya, also known as FIDA-Kenya. Among other things, FIDA-Kenya runs clinics that educate women about their legal rights. During her internship, Nyong’o learned about the widespread problem of sexual harassment of women who work on the country’s flower farms. The daughter of a prominent politician and a journalist, Nyong’o is well educated and urbane, but had never heard about this problem before. She decided to investigate the issue for her Division III.

Nyong’o talked to community activists in Naivasha, a town where the majority of Kenya’s flower growers are located. Then she interviewed women who work on the Naivasha flower farms and in greenhouses. “All sixty-three women interviewed complained and talked about basic human rights abuses they had experienced involving sexual harassment and violence,” Nyong’o said. “Supervisors and managers regularly make sexual advances on these women, forcing them to engage in sexual activities or take nude photos. They threaten that they will fire them if they refuse.”

Nyong’o researched the flower-growing industry and discovered that it is one of Kenya’s leading sources of foreign revenue, employing some 50,000 workers in a country with devastatingly high rates of unemployment. About 75 percent of the workers are women, many of them young single mothers who work for the equivalent of less than one dollar a day. The women are unable to meet basic housing and transportation costs and are victimized by the advances of managers who promise overtime or transfer to better departments in exchange for sexual favors. Nyong’o learned that many of these women live in company housing projects, where apartment managers also frequently offer better housing in return for sex.

Nyong’o discovered that the problem, while not well documented, appears to be widespread. She also learned that efforts to remedy the situation are scant and inadequate, failing to address the complex cultural, political, and economic factors that are at play, in addition to the legal issues. Nyong’o searched library archives for news articles about sexual harassment of female workers in the flower industry; she could find only three written since 1998.

“These companies don’t allow women workers to talk to outsiders,” she said. “Anyone talking to a journalist or human rights organization risks being fired.” And because jobs are so scarce, particularly for women—some 200 wait outside the farms each morning to be hired as day laborers—few are willing to take the risk. Nyong’o herself found it extremely difficult to get women to meet with her and discuss the problem; eventually, she was able to reach them through meetings held in secret.

In addition, cultural norms within Kenya prevent women from speaking out. Nyong’o said anything having to do with sex is considered a taboo subject for discussion. While one women’s rights organization has approached the government about the problem, it has been brushed aside for lack of evidence. “The politicians say there might be a problem, but it’s not a collective thing. They claim there’s no evidence,” Nyong’o said. “But these women are young, single, poor, and easily exploited. And there’s a power discrepancy. All the general workers are women and all the managers are men. Top management is involved in these activities, so where can a woman go to complain?”

Naivasha also lacks any women’s rights organizations. A woman who is willing to lodge a complaint would have to travel to the capital city of Nairobi, losing a day’s pay in the process.

“There are just so many layers to this issue and it can’t be looked at in just an isolated way, say, through the legal system,” Nyong’o said. “The public has to engage in a dialogue. Sexual harassment needs to be looked at as gender-based discrimination with an institutional structure underlying it that silences women and perpetuates abuse.”

In addition, Nyong’o believes the government itself has an interest in protecting the status quo in the flower-growing industry because it is integral to the nation’s economy. Kenya is the third largest exporter of flowers to Europe. Nyong’o eventually plans to have her Division III project (titled “I Can’t Plant a Rose in My Own Name”) published in Kenya and hopes that it may prompt policymakers to further investigate the issue.

This article, written by Sandra Dias, is taken from the summer 2004 issue of Non Satis Scire, a magazine for alumni and friends of Hampshire College

 

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