It is 8am in the rural Kenyan village of Sarwat, and 15 women are each sitting on a heap of gravel, each brandishing a heavy hammer. They are hitting hard on some stones, making such a loud noise that it can be heard from a distance. With each swing of the hammer, they disturb the peace of the surrounding cattle, which are ready to get their fill of food for the day.
Untroubled, the women, aged between 23 and 65, hit the rocks harder and harder, crushing them into smaller pieces to make gravel that will later be used for construction.
It is here, on a site they have rented themselves, in the rocky hills of the Tinderet constituency of the western Nandi county, that these women earn their daily bread. Tirelessly, they crush one stone after another to meet the demand for gravel in the surrounding villages and beyond.
They do it, they say, so they can earn an income and tend to the needs of their children. Some have to bring their children along, because they have no one else to look out for them while they work.
These women are part of the Chepkemel community’s Women’s Self-Help Group, and have been working as stone crushers to empower each other economically for the past 12 years.
Women’s self-help groups, which carry out grassroots self-improvement initiatives such as this one, have been booming in Kenya over the past decades, particularly in rural areas. In the 1970s, there were about 3 000 active groups in the country. By 1990, the number had seen a tenfold increase — and it has kept on growing until today, studies show. And although some groups remain part of the informal sector, many are now legally registered and able to maintain funding or loans.
Such initiatives are all the more relevant in Kenya, which ranks 95 of the 156 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021, and where significant inequalities between men and women remain, particularly in access to education and healthcare services, representation, and economic participation in the job market.
Over the past decade, legislative efforts have been made to ensure gender equality across all sectors, particularly thanks to a new, more progressive constitution introduced in 2010. But women are still disproportionately vulnerable to poverty, mainly because of gender-roles stereotypes.
They also have control over less land and fewer resources than men, which limits their full participation in the country’s economy. According to UN Women, whereas more than 80% of Kenyan women work on small farms, for instance, only 1% own land of their own. Women access less than 10% of available credit, and less than 1% of agriculture credit.
Sixty-five year-old Ruth Soi, a mother of seven, is the oldest woman in the group. She knows just how much hard work the group has put in to fend for their families in a tough environment.
“Through the work of our hands, we have taken our children through college and sometimes even universities, while taking care of the younger ones at home,” she says. “Some of the women have young children who are still breastfeeding; this all-women space allows them to bring their babies along so we can all watch over them as we work.”
Alongside stones, these women are crushing the stereotype that such laborious jobs belong only to men. And with each payday, they settle one more bill.
“We crush the stones until darkness falls when we return home, exhausted but happy that we have fulfilled every parent’s God-given duty — to provide for their children,” Soi says.
Everlyne Chirchir, another member of the group, says it takes them at least three days to turn stones into a tonne of gravel, the unit of measure used in the construction sector.
The group’s clients include neighbouring schools and other construction projects that have previously ordered the gravel, often from distant counties, including Kisumu, Kakamega and Uasin Gishu.
The group’s activities have helped the women get by for many years, but now most of their clients are looking into buying machine-processed gravel — which is more refined in texture. Some even use this option as leverage to lower their prices, says Chirchir.
“Before we could earn up to 1 200 [Kenyan] shillings [$11] per tonne of gravel. Now we make as little as 700 shillings per tonne,” she says.“There are times when we go an entire month without recording a single sale. But we keep hoping for better days ahead.”
These women live on tiny and rocky parcels of land, unsuitable for commercial crop farming activities; hence, they have very few alternatives other than crushing stones to make a living. They practise subsistence farming by intercropping vegetables, maize and beans to feed themselves and their families.
This painstaking process of breaking and stacking stones has left the women with scars all over their bodies. But despite both that and the dwindling market for their gravel, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, the women are not about to give up.
Fortunately, Soi says they have recently received confirmation that some local schools will buy some of their gravel, boosting their much-needed income.
This article is published within the framework of Towards Equality, a collaborative journalism operation involving 15 news media organisations from all over the world to highlight the challenges and solutions to achieve gender equality.