Fighting for invisible women in Kenya: a story and podcast of an extraordinary changemaker in the pandemic

Filippo Artuso Gender, Innovation, Research

“I am a reflection of how a widow can  thrive. I am a reflection of how widows can remain invisible…” Roseline Orwa, advocate for Kenyan widows, is star of the first episode of a new podcast series telling four stories of changemakers in a time of Covid. Filippo Artuso and Barbara van Paassen tell us more about the series – and the research that informs it. Listen to the podcast here

Portrait of Roseline and series heading
Click here to listen to the first episode created in partnership with the People Vs Inequality podcast, hosted by Barbara van Paassen, under the series banner “Emergent Agency in a Time of Covid”

While many of us were living through the pandemic on interminable Zoom calls or watching Netflix, activists and changemakers around the world were finding new and innovative ways to respond to the pandemic. The curiosity to learn how these responses were growing in civil society, and what we could learn from them, is what pushed Oxfam’s Emergent Agency research which aims to take positive lessons from civil society’s responses to the pandemic.

During the research we had insightful conversations about the dilemmas and challenges that social movements, activists and other changemakers faced. We learned about the importance of local agency and pre-existent trust for fast and targeted responses in communities, how the pandemic has rewritten relationships between civil society and public authority, and how new forms of leadership and unusual partnerships emerged (stay tuned for our research report, out soon). Whilst the contexts in which frontline responders operate are diverse, the exchanges showed they often deal with similar themes – from balancing urgent and long term needs to managing digital inclusion.

Oxfam and the People vs Inequality podcast are sharing these lived experiences in the coming weeks: we will highlight the stories of four changemakers who responded to the pandemic in new and innovative ways. From social entrepreneurs to organizers and movement leaders: what did they see, do, and learn in these past two years? How did they adapt and what does this tell us about how to move forward?

We start with Roseline Orwa, an award-winning advocate for widows and the founder of the Rona Foundation. When she became a widow at a young age, she soon realized just how much discrimination widows face, and the importance of supporting and championing the rights of widows across Kenya.

The voices of rural widows left behind

In our conversation with Roseline, we tackle some pressing questions: how were widows affected during the pandemic? How did they respond and adapt to challenging and fast changing circumstances, in which their urgent basic needs and rights were both at risk?

Our widows deserve to be seen, to be heard, because they’re the only ones there. We are talking about a community with 80% dead men, the women are at the centre of the […] socioeconomic development in this community, the women are the ones raising this community

Roseline Orwa

She says: “I am a reflection of how a widow can heal and thrive. I am a reflection of how widows can still remain invisible. Despite the achievements we made, I am still invisible in very many spaces.”

“One of the things that shocked us, was that every gender conversation was on Zoom, for two years it was all online. And what this actually meant was that rural widows were left behind even more.”

Roseline’s lived experience of the pandemic speaks to many of the themes that characterized civil society’s response, from the emergent leadership of women to the importance of local response and trust in the community. But it also touches on the difficulties they faced, including financial and mental exhaustion or the challenge – and opportunities – of going digital.

woman collecting water
A water distribution point set up after Cyclone Amphan, which struck western Bangladesh in May 2020. The Emergent Agency research is looking at how communities across the globe are responding to such challenges as they intersect with the pandemic (Picture: Fabeha Monir/Oxfam)

She says: “Our widows deserve to be seen, to be heard, because they’re the only ones there. We are talking about a community with 80% dead men, the women are at the centre of the […] socioeconomic development in this community, the women are the ones raising this community.”

From sending food on overloaded buses and mentoring young women in the community, to closing a deal with the police after an arrest: Roseline vividly shares the stories and experiences from her community. She has been working tirelessly, in her community and globally, to reclaim the agency of the widows to take up their seat at the table; advocating for their needs and of the community at large. Roseline shows us what emergent agency is all about, and how incredibly important this is for women facing multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination. She also challenges the international community, and especially funders, to build on the trust and leadership of widows, and to overcome their biases.

Here’s the podcast link again.


Filippo Artuso

Filippo Artuso is a Research Manager at Oxfam GB


Barbara van Paassen

Barbara van Paassen is an advocate and independent consultant who supports change-makers working for social justice. She is also the creator and host of the People vs Inequality Podcast and an Atlantic Fellow at the London School of Economics

The People vs Inequality podcast is a production by Barbara van Paassen (creator and host) and Elizabeth Maina (producer). The Emergent Agency series is a collaboration with the Emergent Agency in a Time of Covid-19 research project, which is led by Oxfam GB and funded by the Atlantic Fellowship on Social and Economic Equity based at the International Inequalities Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science. The research aimed to understand positive lessons from civil society’s responses in the pandemic.

This piece was first published on the From Poverty to Power blog, where you can find out more about the Emergent Agency research. You can also read a blog from last September co-authored by Roseline about her work with widows.