Two films came to mind when I saw Sheila Kanini’s insta stories last week, which was the genesis of #PayModelsKe. One was ‘True cost’ which is a documentary on the plight of workers in sweat shops and the over reliance of the fashion industry on the cheap labor in Asian countries to mass produce affordable clothing. The second was a TV series, ‘Unreal‘ which was a behind the scenes look on what happens on sets of reality shows. Both were staggering revelations on the world of show biz and fashion but they weren’t anything new.

The exploitation of women in the entertainment industry has been a running theme for years. Model Cara De Lavingne and Tyra Banks have been vocal about the eating disorders and sexual abuse that goes on behind the runways. Recently, the publicized sexual assault allegations on Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, Woody Allen and others mentioned in the #Metoo movement show just how deep and wide these roots spread.

Closer to home, Nick Mutuma, a prominent actor and David Ngibuini, a radio presenter, have also accused of sexually harassing  women both physically and verbally.

Sheila Kanini, who’s hashtag mentioned major publications like True Love Magazine, Couture magazine, Drum Magazine, Samantha Bridal, Pulse magazine and companies such as Darling Kenya and Uber Kenya, modelling agencies such as City Models, Black Models Agency, Versatile Models and the now defunct Platinum Modelling Agency were among those in the list of shame. The con that most of these recruiters use is to ask aspiring models to pay a non-refundable fee for a portfolio shoot after which they disappear and the models never hear from them. Those who are chosen to appear in adverts are either paid piece meal amounts or nothing at all while the brands continue to flourish using the model’s pictures.

Some media houses have also been called out for being complicit by interviewing the people who have named as being exploitative to frame the narrative around #PayModelsKe instead of the victims. Case in point Olive Gachara, owner of Couture Magazine who appeared on K24 morning show and the former manager of Platinum Modelling Agency who was on Capital FM show, Hits not Homework. Capital FM also came under fire for a sham audition for a radio presenter a few weeks ago.

Kanini has started a conversation about the malaise of exploitation that spreads beyond the modelling industry. Its reflective of the low value that as a society we place on the creative industry. It’s not only in the corporate world but in our households as well during kitchen table conversations that deem ‘unconventional’ careers such as blogging, music, acting, photography or modelling as hobbies rather than legitimate income generating sources. It is these skewed perceptions which are honed in private that manifest themselves in advertising agencies or companies that don’t pay creatives for their work.

There are many layers to this conversation, another being the space that women occupy in the society. Oppression bleeds into every corner of our lives. I’ll take you back a little into the origin of the word ‘Wanjiku’ as explained in a series of essays published by the Goethe-Insitut Kenia, in the book, ‘ Wanjiku; A Kenyan sociopolitical discourse’. The name was coined by former president Moi during the constitutional review processes that began in 1997. While civil society wanted to involve ordinary citizens in the making of a new constitution, Moi remained adamant about the futility of such an approach, asking civil society whether Wanjiku who sells vegetables in the market has the mental aptitude or time to understand the intricacies of law making in Kenya. The term Wanjiku has since then broadened to mean common mwananchi and not just a female grocer.

Moi’s statement on Wanjiku helps to inform the space women occupy in politics and governance that go back as far the fight for Kenya’s independence where women were assigned apolitical roles instead of being in the front lines. Because we are thought to be vulnerable and ignorant, as Moi subliminally alluded, we are seen as mere consumers of policy rather that generators of it. Back seat passengers in the vehicle to any form of political liberation. It’s not just women, Wanjiku is everyone and its evident in the way the government comes up with new policies such as the ban on night travel without taking into account how it will affect the citizenry.

How do we empower ourselves as creatives? It is by realizing that oppression is intersectional. That #PayModelKe is the same as #WeAre52pc, or the clamour for safe and affordable birth control because they all push for the visibility of women socially, economically and politically. These movements aren’t separate and that by uniting and seeking to understand the two and all movements against oppression in general, is to begin to recognize that the colours are the same and we are fighting a common enemy, be it patriarchy, capitalism, neo-liberalism or blatant constitutional disregard.

It is my hope that #PayModelsKe will continue beyond next week and the week after and for years to come as we examine how we individually contribute to the fight or enable oppression in general society and in the creative economy.