?In the drylands of Marsabit, my home county in northern Kenya, people have traditionally regarded women as weak and timid. My people are nomadic livestock herders known as “pastoralists.” Livestock are our major asset and men own them, trade them, and handle the money. Women raise the children, cook, and depend on men to make any financial decisions.
My reality was quite different. I was raised by a single mother, Khadra, who every day challenged these societal norms and instilled different values in me and my nine siblings. She owned a business, managed the money, saw us through school and even found a way to help many families poorer than ours. She was able to make enough income from her small shop to at least put a roof over our heads.
Strong woman in my life
Seeing this strong woman in my life is how I first started to learn about women’s empowerment.
We don’t recognise Father’s Day in my culture. But, I know a bit about the holiday and it makes me think about my role as a father in teaching my children—both my son and daughter—about the empowerment of women. This is important because in Marsabit, people seem to think that being a man and working to empower women are two mutually exclusive concepts. I’m proof that they’re not.
Marsabit, near the border with Ethiopia, is one of the poorest regions of the country. With no jobs and no income, women and children are forced to beg for credit and rely on humanitarian food aid to survive. As a child, I learned about the struggles of women in my mother’s small grocery shop. I remember seeing one woman sitting outside the shop for an entire day. She watched people come and go and said nothing. That night she went home and came back the next day.
On the second day, she approached my mother and asked for help.
“My children have nothing to eat,” she said.
“Why didn’t you speak with me yesterday?” my mother asked.
“I was ashamed,” she replied.
That was many years ago, but the image of that woman has stayed with me. I looked at that woman then, and I said to myself, ‘I’ll go to school, study, be rich, and come back and help my people.”
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I didn’t become rich, but I now know that’s not the only way to help people. For me, helping means empowering women economically, so they cannot only take care of themselves and their families but also transform their communities. I co-founded the BOMA project, an organization supporting poor women in Marsabit with financial and life skills grants to launch small businesses—allowing them to invest in their children’s education, nutritious food for the family, and more.
I am often asked: “Why women? What are you doing to reach the men?” And as the son of a traditional, patriarchal society, I am also asked: “Why do you want to help women?”
Helping women be economically independent is good for the community. The cost of women not reaching their full potential affects more than her family, it drags the whole country down. According to the Africa Human Development Report 2016, gender inequality is costing sub-Saharan Africa on average $95 billion a year, or six per cent of the region’s GDP.
This is the case of Marsabit, where most women do not fully participate in the economy because men control the key sources of income. But the evidence shows that when women have managed to enter the economy, a family’s financial security improves because they are diversifying their sources of income. I’ve seen how it’s changed not only the lives of women, but also men.
One of the most rewarding outcomes we have seen in our program is the increasing support of men for women, from elders to husbands, brothers and fathers. Just recently two men showed up for the women’s training to represent their wives. Why? Their wives had just given birth and were unable to come themselves. They wanted to be there so that they could learn on behalf of their wives and take that knowledge home.
To be sure, we have met resistance. We have encountered individuals who balk at a change in power dynamics in their households, and men who would prefer that we help them, not their wives. Some men feel threatened. Usually, men are treated as the head and women are as the neck—important but existing only to support the head. “The neck cannot go above the head,” they say and that’s how they pin women down.
Changing attitudes takes time and men must be part of the process. They need to see the benefits of empowering and uplifting women, so teaching them about women’s empowerment is as important as training the women themselves. To be effective, women’s empowerment programs should include the entire household and specifically ensure that men undergo conduct gender sensitization training.
This Father’s Day I won’t be home with my children because I will be travelling for work, continuing to talk about the empowerment of women of my community. But as a father, I work to teach my children about women’s empowerment every day. In my household, my wife and I work as an equal team. My wife and I are each half the head. That is the example our children see.
Through my example, and my work at BOMA, I am raising my children in an environment where they see me rise every day to give my all for empowering women and girls just like my mother. I want my son to grow up as a man who respects women and their role in our society. I want my daughter to face this world with no fear, feeling strong and empowered to achieve all that she dreams of, without anyone telling her she can’t do something because she is a girl.
Mr Omar is co-founder and Kenya program director for the Boma Project. He was named an Aspen Institute 2018 New Voices Fellow.