A man’s death in Kenya can mean a double disaster for his wife and children. Not only do they lose an important figure in their lives like husband, father and breadwinner, they may also lose their source of livelihood, land and home. In some Kenyan cultures, the property is often taken over by one of the man’s relatives, who may evict the grieving family from their home. If the man had HIV/AIDS, people may blame his wife for his death, and anyway expect her also to die soon afterwards. Children are also evicted with in order to eliminate traces of HIV Aids in that family.
Widows and orphans often lack the documents, legal knowledge or money to challenge an eviction in court. And even if an evicted person wins a court case, recovering the property may be difficult as powerful people often ignore the court’s decisions. It is not always straightforward to decide who the rightful owner of a property is. For example, someone may illegally acquire the title deeds, so be recognized as the legal owner.
GROOTS Kenya, a local NGO, helps local communities, often in rural areas, fight against such abuses. GROOTS facilitate them to form “community land and property watchdog groups” to safeguard the rights of the vulnerable who have lost their land and property through disinheritance and asset striping and recreate social fabrics in order to halt the vice. The watchdog group members gather information about the more vulnerable members of the community, and use this information to create public awareness, shame the aggressors, rallies community members for support and hence protect and preserve the vulnerable peoples’ rights. They also act as the bridge between aggressed members and the justice system whenever legal action is required.
A watchdog group consists of community members (mostly women) who work together to preserve, monitor and guard against violations of property and inheritance rights in their communities. The watchdog groups evolved from the work of home-based care providers (mostly local women) who took care of ill people, many with HIV-related illnesses. Their work of care became difficult when incidences of eviction became rampant. The watchdog groups are based on the idea that concerned community members (both men and women) and local leaders must work together to prevent property rights violations within the community.
The watchdog groups
Below is how the watchdog groups are formed and how they operate.
1) Enumeration, needs assessment and documentation. GROOTS guides a core group of local grassroots residents to gather information about their community. Local people use a structured questionnaire to identify how many people in identified vulnerable households are experiencing tenure problems, and to document the factors contributing to violations of property and inheritance rights. They then validate
the violations and corresponding needs through community feedback sessions, where local people analyse the problems further, decide on an approach to solving them, and make recommendations.
2) Mobilization. The community members identify and mobilize the key stakeholders (village elders, human rights organizations, provincial administrators, etc). They share the results of the survey and explain how the violations affect individuals and the community. Gaining the support of key individuals is important to open up multiple avenues to address violations. The mobilization process also allows the core group to start planning how to address violations they encounter and to agree on how to engage the stakeholders.
3) Dialogue. Community leaders bring together the key stakeholders to discuss the issues and recommendations, and to build relationships between the community members and other stakeholders. The dialogues also enhance everyone’s awareness on the extent and magnitude of the asset stripping and disinheritance.
4) Formation of groups. The watchdog group is formed at this stage. A group usually has 15–25 volunteer members from the community, both women and men. Because women face more land-rights violations than men, GROOTS encourages the watchdog groups to have a majority of women. Widow and orphans whose property has been reinstated become effective/reliable/active members of the watch Dog group as their lived experiences become key. The watchdog groups meet regularly to discuss land disputes, report on the progress of cases, and explore opportunities to collaborate with officials who are not aware of the initiative. The groups also plan how to raise or create awareness on land rights through barazas (meetings led by the village chief), open forums, church events and funerals. Each group keeps simple records of their meetings and interventions.
5) Handling cases. Based on the information gathered in the initial survey, group members know about actual and potential instances of land rights violations. With their detailed knowledge of needy people, the home-based care providers also keep the group informed about problems. If a violation occurs – for example, if a greedy relative evicts a widow or orphans from their home, the watchdog group steps in. It determines the facts of the case, alerts other people in the community to the problem, and mediates to ensure that the perpetrator returns the property to the dispossessed individuals. Various mediation methods are used, involving community leaders, local government officials, chiefs and elders. If necessary, the watchdog group arranges for the case to be filed in court and ensures that the ruling is executed. Watch Dog groups have asserted themselves as committee members in burial planning particularly for deceased males to ensure that orphans are acknowledged as next of kin. They work with government official such as the registrar of person to increases access to identification documents to the population in rural communities.
6) Community feedback. It is important that a broad section of the community supports and owns the process of safeguarding rights. The watchdog groups conduct community evaluations and reviews to gauge their effectiveness and lessons learnt including challenges.
7) Replication. GROOTS encourages successful watchdog groups to share their progress and practices through peer exchanges or visits to other communities that face similar problems. As a result, many communities have formed their own watchdog groups to safeguard the rights of vulnerable people in their midst. Watchdog groups already exist in Kakamega, Kendu Bay, Kisii, Limuru and Gatundu, and will soon be replicated in Budalangi and Kitui, as well as in Mathare (a slum in Nairobi). Since the first watchdog groups were formed in 2005, they have become an important way to help vulnerable members of the community access both the informal and formal justice systems. They advocate for vulnerable people’s property rights, both within the community and with the authorities. They also organize communities and facilitate negotiations to help vulnerable people realize other needs, such as support for schooling.
Advantages of community land and property watchdogs
The watchdog groups have improved the security of tenure for widows and orphans, and increased the number of women and their level of involvement in decision-making to reduce tenure problems.
Engaging women. The watchdog groups involve women in two ways. Because women are more subject to rights violations, most of the cases the groups handle support vulnerable women in the community. Likewise, many of the group members are themselves women. They have demonstrated to be best placed consistently and truthfully support and relate to the vulnerable women and orphans.
Alternative to the formal system. The watchdog group approach is cheaper, easier, quicker, and more effective than relying the formal legal system to resolve cases. That means it is more accessible for the poor, who could not otherwise afford to reclaim their land. It also ensures that those whose properties have been reinstated are safely able to utilise them with support a community and family members who were involved in dispute resolution as opposed to protracted legal redress that maybe only two parties would be involved.
Accountability. The watchdog groups create checks and balances to ensure that the authorities deal with cases in an appropriate way. They surface in the open and bring cases to the attention of the authorities, and counterbalance any undue
influence that rich and powerful people may have in influencing their decisions. The groups collaborate closely with provincial administration and other government officials, and have raised the accountability of local leaders and enhanced their role in safeguarding the rights of vulnerable members of the community.
Replication. Because the watchdog groups are composed of community members rather than outsiders, they are easy to replicate in other locations. One group can learn from another, with relatively little input from outsiders. The watchdog groups can readily be adapted, replicated and scaled up. This approach has been
noted as a best practice by Women Land Link Africa, a continent-wide initiative to improve women’s land and housing rights.
Appropriate level of resolving problems. The watchdog groups try to resolve cases amicably, within the community itself. It draws on outsiders or the formal legal system only if attempts to solve the problem locally fail. This both strengthens the capabilities of the community dispute-resolution mechanisms, and avoids burdening outside authorities and courts with cases that can be resolved more simply.
Community-based. Before a watchdog group is formed, the needs assessment, mobilization and dialogue involve a large number of people in the community. This means that the watchdog group is not seen as an isolated set of individuals, but as representing the interests of the community as a whole.
Provision of information. The watchdog groups meet regularly and frequently engage local leaders. That provides an avenue to disseminate information to local people on land ownership policies – information that communities would not normally be able to get.
Leadership and empowerment. Members of the watchdog group have developed their leadership skills. Several have been chosen by their communities to represent them in various decision-making bodies. For example, two
very active women group members now sit on the Land Dispute Tribunal in Rachuonyo district and the Poverty Eradication Committee in Gatundu District.
Below are some lessons gathered by GROOTS through its diverse experiences with community watchdog groups and participatory enumerations in Kenya.
- Concrete problems. Participatory enumerations are stimulated by specific problems: a threatened eviction, lack of tenure rights, the need for services, and so on. Grassroots women and communities respond by getting organized (or by strengthening existing organizations) and undertaking action research. The direct participation of community leaders and members play a key role in the design and implementation of the research. Community leaders and volunteers led in identifying the needed information, designing the questionnaires, gathering data, and validating the information through community meetings. Because the residents themselves designed and implemented the enumerations, they were able to collect data that official sources might have missed – such as the existence of households led by women, the opinions of local residents, and subtle but important features of the tenure system. Once gathered this information can be useful to challenge official figures and planning processes.
- Qualitative and quantitative data. Enumerations not only generate quantitative data to support residents’ claims to informal land rights (for example, the length of occupancy of a vacant, un-used property). They can also generate qualitative information (for example, people’s opinions on threats to their tenure security, or on a prospective relocation).
- Data verifiability. Because much of the information is quantitative, it can easily lend itself to validation by others. The data can also be used to check and correct more formal, official data which are often outdated and replete with errors.
- Value of data. Enumerations gather data that can be used to make informal settlements visible and convince government bodies and opposing groups of the facts in a particular situation. When they realize the potential costs and impact of a course of action, such as a planned eviction or relocation, they may be persuaded to change their minds. Data about living conditions and lack of services and amenities can also result in remedial measures as well as inform national planning processes.
- Using the law. The enumeration process can lead to the use of legal processes to the advantage of local residents. This is especially true where the law, and government policy, are broadly supportive of the rights of residents in informal settlements – as in the Philippines. Assistance from organizations with legal skills may be invaluable in helping residents assure their legal rights (the process results inform advocacy policy by the local community members that result in better service provision and utilisation of legal policy).
- Strengthening community confidence and resolve. The community’s confidence and resolve to take, and stick to, specific courses of action is increased when they are armed with information they know is real, as they have gathered it and participated in coming up with the solution.
- Useful within the community. Enumerations generate information that is useful not only for communities in dealing with outside threats, but also for tackling threats to more vulnerable community members from within. They can identify who is vulnerable to what types of threats, and can blow the whistle and help concerned residents mobilize to support them.
- Conferring legitimacy. By generating credible data, enumerations confer legitimacy on the organizations that implement them in the eyes of local residents and of the formal authorities. This legitimacy is important in negotiating with authorities or with community members who are exploiting more vulnerable residents.
- Basis for many types of community action. Enumerations can generate information that may be useful for many purposes: to defend tenure security, to correct injustices, to identify where various types of assistance are needed, and to act as a platform for further organization and self-generated development efforts.
- Enumerations may result to social transformation. Communities become aware of the things they did not know. It also helps them to desire to know what they may have said that they do not know: for instance, if you ask a guardian if she has any information about children rights. If they do not know this question will make them to desire to find out.
- Raising expectations. Enumerations are likely to raise residents’ expectations – in terms of improved services, better tenure security, and so on. If these expectations are not fulfilled, residents may come to see the exercise itself as a waste of time.there is need to start every process by clearly articulating the use of the data and how it will benefit the residents.
- Enumerations do not solve all the problems. Even if enumerations result in an improvement, they do not solve all the problems in a community. For example, if residents are granted titles to their property, they may sell them immediately to raise much-needed cash. Alternative example is that communities may be sensitised that they need title deeds, but may not have resources to access them.
- Limitations in local skills and capability to do surveys. Local organizations may have limited capacity to undertake an enumeration. The logistics may be daunting, and the difficulty increases if the enumeration is to cover larger areas or more people. Community organizations may lack the ability to design the survey, develop a questionnaire, undertake the research, and consolidate and analyse the data. Building the organization’s capacity to do so is an important area of intervention. However, whatever shortcomings exist, such capacity issues can be addressed along the way, rather than having to be dealt with beforehand. The enumeration is a learning exercise in itself; it may not be perfect, but may still result in both usable data and an enhanced level of community capacity and strengthened organising.
- Enumerations take time. That makes them difficult to undertake if an immediate threat exists, such as an impending demolition. Ideally, enumerations should be part of a long term strategy for securing land tenure, and the information should be revalidated on a regular basis. However, it is precisely an immediate threat that often triggers the need for a survey. How mature the organization is will be a major factor determining whether it can effectively use the enumeration to support strategic, long term action.
- Learning and adapting. When designing an enumeration, it is possible to learn from experience in other countries, but it is necessary to adjust the approach to take local cultural and political considerations into account – such as officials’ suspicions that the enumeration was an effort to take over or undermine the government’s roles.
- Different interests in the communities. Communities are not homogenous. Especially in the informal settlements where residents are extremely diverse, with residents from many different backgrounds, socio-cultural background, religion, political, class, tribal and ideological biases, competing with each other from scarce resources. Even families may not hold together. Enumerations can help identify this diversity and raise understanding of the issues that bring people together or divide them. It is particularly important to ensure that vulnerable groups fully participate in community processes, and the lower classes are able to contribute positively and are not made to feel inferior.
- Trust in leaders. Residents may not trust their local level leaders or people appointed by the government to represent them. Where local level leaders are appointed by the government, they may not truly represent their constituents’ views for fear of losing their appointment. Building relationships community base leaders and government leaders is important e.g through dialogues.
- Problems with feedback. Residents may be reluctant to criticize the NGO or project that facilitates the enumeration for fear of losing its support. That makes it difficult for external groups to know what strategies to use in empowering the residents. Residents should play key role in the enumerations process so that they participate and provide feedback without fear of consequences. Incorporating community members as enumerates makes the community members be open.