Gender Equality; The Kenyan Situation

Alice and I had been in the same university years ago. We were in different departments but shared the education classes, so we did not get to know one another well at all. Just a simple greeting once in a while and nothing more. She was not one of the people I kept in touch with after campus as we barely knew one another at all.

I am quite visible on social networks and I have made lots of connections on those platforms over the years. I get many people contacting me about all manner of issues mainly through the Facebook platform.

I read the long Facebook inbox message from this woman who was having relationship problems. From the way she expressed herself, she seemed to have a badly damaged self-esteem. She did not believe in herself or her worth at all. She seemed really helpless. 

From what I gathered, she had been married for almost 15 years and the union had been blessed with four children. She was unemployed and was running some small business that was not doing well at all.

Dysfunctional Marriage

The marriage was clearly completely dysfunctional and it was apparent that she was a victim of emotional abuse and neglect. 

We started on the journey to helping her repair her damaged self-esteem. As I helped her to explore what skills and expertise she possessed that could help her turn her life around, I was taken aback to discover that she was a highly educated woman who once held a very rewarding job. That took me by surprise because there was nothing in this woman’s story to support such.

As I dug deeper into her background, I discovered that we both attended the same university and graduated the same year. Women change their names when they get married and at that particular time, I had no idea that this was someone I knew. 

Beneath the surface, this timid and helpless woman was highly intelligent and very talented. She just did not believe in her self-worth at all and was living a life that was nothing close to what she was worth.

When we got to meet face to face, I was even more saddened. Here was a lady who was once my campus classmate years ago. She was quite unkempt and overweight. She looked older than her actual age. 

Alice sounded terrified of new opportunities. We got to meet several times after that first meeting. She gradually blossomed like a flower that had suddenly enjoyed some refreshing rain.

Fast forward to 2017…. Alice has carved out a niche for herself and is an authority in matters to do with women and professionalism. She runs a communications company and there is no comparison between the woman she was years ago and the woman she is today. 

I have attended some of her events for professional women and clearly, this woman is going places. This is a typical case of a diamond that had been covered by dust for so long everyone passing by thought that there was nothing there but a heap of dust.

The Road to Gender Equality

Kenya is among a number of world governments that have committed themselves in a declaration to achieve gender equality by 2030.

The Beijing Platform for Action was a detailed commitment endorsed by 189 countries, Kenya included, to achieve gender equality. The endorsement was done at the fourth world conference on women in Beijing, China, in 1995. 
The Government of Kenya has affirmed the commitment to gender equality, empowerment of women and in particular, the implementation of the Beijing declaration.

Achievements so far

> Some funds have been set up to finance business opportunities for women such as Women, Youth Enterprise, and the Uwezo funds

> The government’s public procurement affirmative action‎ policy for women, the youth and disabled which sets aside 30 percent of public procurement for these groups. This translates into over $2 billion worth of business annually.
> The implementation of the free education policy and removal of tuition fees have given more opportunity to girls to attain basic education. 
In some communities, if resources were overstretched and families had to choose who to educate, they would choose the boy child, forcing the girl child to forego the chance to get educated. 
This has increased girls’ enrolment by over 40 percent, comparing the growth from 2009 to 2013. 
> The introduction of free maternity services in public hospitals that was done in 2013 has resulted in a 50 percent increase in hospital deliveries in the country.
> The constitution of Kenya requires that a minimum of one-third of either gender be represented in all elective positions. 
In the Cabinet, 33 per cent are women while in Parliament women form 25 per cent of elected legislators, an increment of almost 10 percent from the situation in 2007, while in the public service, women comprise 37 percent of all positions.

The International Women’s Day

Last month, the International Women’s Day was celebrated globally, including in Kenya. We have made some progress towards gender equality as a country but that progress is painfully slow. So much still needs to be done.

Women are stereotyped and made to feel that they are not good enough. Repeated acts of stereotyping penetrate the subconscious mind making women view themselves as incapable of any major achievements. 

Women often feel like they are breaking some rules by becoming successful, like they are putting the men folk at a disadvantage by excelling. There is need to focus on changing the mindsets of women.

Oppressive Cultural Practices

Cultural practices that oppress women are still practiced. Among some communities like the Luhya, it is believed that husbands should beat their wives as a sign of love. 

If a married woman who has never received a beating in her lifetime dies, her husband should thrash her body to seal the love. This is a cultural practice that encourages violence against women.

Violence against women and infidelity from their partners are viewed as some ills that women bring upon themselves. 

The general attitude is that the woman must have done something to attract it. It is like women deserve what they get. Many women who find themselves in this situation blame themselves, think that it is their fault.

The payment of dowry or bride price is still widely practiced in Kenya. When a man and his family approach a family and pay dowry for that family’s daughter, she now belongs to the family that has compensated her family by making such payment.

The situation is further aggravated by high poverty levels. Families would never do anything to jeopardize the marriage of their daughter because they would not want a situation that would result in returning the dowry that was paid to them. 

Parents and other family members will urge her to stay and make the marriage work even when it is clearly destructive to her and her children.

Women are under pressure to make relationships work even when those relationships are damaging to them, and the unfortunate thing is that other women are some of the sources of the pressure. 

Mothers and female friends are among those who push women to hold on to damaging relationships.

If a woman foregoes buying herself some presentable clothes or having her hair done so that she can feed her children, she is accused of kujiwachilia (being careless). 

If she works extra hours or accepts a job away from home in order to meet the needs of the family, she is accused of neglecting her roles and responsibilities in the home.

The attitudes of families towards the boy child and the girl child are as far apart as night and day. A man can get away with mistakes but not so with the woman. 

A typical example is the attitude of society towards women who have walked out of destructive marriages. They are likely to be stigmatized by their own families while if a man’s marriage ends, his family is likely to push all the blame on the wife.

Single Mothers’ Woes

Societal attitudes towards single mothers are very harsh. This is the case even when these women’s circumstances are not their fault such as in cases where women are abandoned when they get pregnant or they leave violent marriages.

Single mothers are stigmatized, judged harshly and associated with immorality. Women are to blame for just about everything. If a relationship did not work out, it is her fault; she could not keep a marriage. 

A good woman is the one who is submissive and remains loyal to her husband even if she has to cry in that marriage every day of her life. 
Submission in marriage largely means having the husband impose his own value systems on the wife, like the wife’s dreams and goals don’t matter.

Women and Leadership

Leadership in Kenya is purely a men’s affair, whether family, social, religious or political. A woman with leadership capabilities finds herself persecuted left, right, front and back. She is labeled a bad woman and all manner of derogatory terms used to describe her. 

She is disobedient, rebellious, a feminist, an agent of the devil and only fit for hell. She will be criticized and ridiculed and face rejection even from people who are close to her such as her parents and siblings.

A woman is not supposed to tell a man anything, even if it is her husband and she has great ideas that can benefit the family. She is supposed to be seen but not heard.

“I have seen this dynamic play out over and over. When a woman excels at her job, both male and female coworkers will remark that she may be accomplishing a lot but is “not as well-liked by her peers.” She is probably also “too aggressive,” “not a team player,” “a bit political,” “can’t be trusted,” or “difficult.” At least, those are all things that have been said about me and almost every senior woman I know.”
– Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

My experience working to empower women has brought me face to face with the way women view themselves and other women. Women are completely harsh and unforgiving to other women, believing that women are being done a favor by being in romantic relationships.

“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man. Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists

Some Kenya communities such as the Maasai, Kisii and Kuria still practice female genital mutilation (FGM). This practice is considered a rite of passage, a transition from childhood into adulthood. 

The practice is fought globally since it is hazardous to human health. It deforms the woman’s reproductive system predisposing her to dangers such as over bleeding and difficulty during birth. 
FGM denies the woman a fulfilling sexual life. It also poses risks to her such as the spread of diseases since it’s often done in unhygienic conditions. In some situations, one blade is used for several initiates, in this day and age when HIV is a real issue.

Rural women are exposed to hazards due to the use of cheap cooking fuels such as firewood, kerosene and charcoal. The Government is not doing enough to protect women against hazards brought about by exposure to polluting fuels.

Women and Poverty

Poverty levels among women are high. Women have consistently made steps to improve themselves financially. Self-help groups (chama) have been instrumental in women empowerment but their impact is still limited. 

Many of them are small and often short lived due to poor leadership. Few have achieved major achievements such as going on to become large investment companies that impact society in a big way. 
Many go as far as merry-go-round which helps the women to meet their basic needs and those of their families but they lack education and proper mentorship to grow bigger.

Poor women – both in the rural areas as well as in informal urban settlements – have a huge unmet need for family planning. 

They have limitations in being able to make choices about delaying pregnancies or limiting the sizes of their families. And when a woman ends up with an unplanned pregnancy, she is judged harshly and ridiculed.

Women and Careers

Women grapple with a number of challenges on their way up the career ladder. The domestic environment puts women at a huge disadvantage because society expects them to take care of the home, bring up children and become caregivers for sick family members including parents. Getting pregnant and raising babies slows down women’s careers.

Sexual harassment at places of work is rampant with some men in senior positions believing that it is their right to receive sexual favors from women who need jobs or promotions. 

Some women’s careers are unfairly cut short for declining such advances while others are frustrated with unfair transfers and unrealistic workload that forces them to give up on their dreams.

Kenya as a country has made some strides in improving the situation for women. A lot still needs to be done if Vision 2030 is to be realized. There is the need for reforms in the law, property ownership, education and the media.

This article is written by Susan Catherine Keter; life coach, personal development mentor, motivational speaker, freelancer and blogger.

Financial Independence Africa

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