Where is it best to be born a woman in Kenya today?
By Amos Kareithi
If tomorrow comes, Mary would like to be a ‘woman’. It would be nice being a mother, cuddling her own baby. Nothing would please her better than to learn to love and be loved.
To her, all these are wishes, which have little chances of coming true. At 36, Mary is lucky to have a roof over her head. She does not know what it is to be a woman, although fate thrust motherhood into her face when she was only 15.
Twenty years and three marriages later, Mary has known nothing but agony and loneliness for being female. She cannot fathom the sensations of being a woman for her womanhood was snatched from her in her teenage, after she was married off.
A few months later, she was a mother. Kaptembwa village in Nakuru did not have adequate facilities to deal with her childbirth complications and she lost her baby and developed fistula, which saw her unable to control her bowel movements. She was chased away by her husband and later rejected by her family, who could not understand how a ‘mature’ woman could wet her bed. No man, no matter how desperate, could withstand her condition and each prospective husband took off as soon as they learnt of her condition.
For the last ten years, Mary has been trapped in a loveless relationship with a handicapped man. When Mary tried to have her condition rectified, the operation went awry, denying her an opportunity to be a mother.
But her plight is no better than that of Jane, who has been forced out of school by circumstances beyond her control. Her parents want to marry her off and fear if she continues with her education, the bride price will be reduced.
"Ordinarily, the dowry for a healthy girl is about 60 goats in her Pokot community. If she is educated, getting her a suitor is a problem for there are few educated men. You can only hope to get a dowry of 20 cows," explains an elder, John Boit.
Life in the harsh torturous ridges of the North Rift and indeed North East Province is rare than rain. Arranged marriages are the order of the day and the role of women is predetermined.
Halima, from Marsabit explains that since she got married five years ago, her work has been to cook, take care of the children, fetch water and look after the small stock. Whenever the family is in need of a roof over their head, Halima will have to construct an appropriate structure.
Life for women in Kenya has steadily improved in general since they were first ‘recognised’ by the State, and issued with national identity cards in 1979. The walk thus far, has not been a bed of roses.
Ideally, Mary Muthoni who works in Kiambu town should be happy — she is educated, salaried and liberated. However, Muthoni who has been widowed for the last five years and is juggling between her career, raising her three children and paying rent from her meagre salary.
"Shortly before my husband died, I had taken a loan using our shamba in Githunguri as collateral. My husband was a businessman. After his death, my in-laws kicked me out and demolished the house I had constructed. Now I am homeless and still paying the loan," Muthoni says.
North Eastern Province
But if Muthoni’s case is desperate, life for women in rural areas in North Eastern Province is a daily nightmare as they struggle through the impossible tasks of fending for their families in a society where they are only supposed to be seen and not heard.
"It is my duty as a woman to marry a man chosen by the family, with the approval of the clan. I have no right to love a man of my choice. This cannot be tolerated. Once I become a wife, my duties will be to cook, look for water and fetch firewood. I am also expected to have babies and build houses," Aisha Khalifa, from Moyale says.
In the event a woman is killed in one of the frequent banditry attacks, the traditional rule is that she will be compensated at half the rate of a man. If an elders’ court rules that the family of a deceased man receive 60 camels or heads of cattle, a woman’s family in a similar tragedy will get half. A boy, no matter how young will be treated and compensated like a man.
Elsewhere, the myth has always been that coastal women are pampered by the society, which treats them delicately while the man provides for the family. This, Magdalene Daraja explains, is fantasy as her colleagues in some coastal areas are treated as sex objects.
"Every time you hear of tourists trooping to the coast for holiday, they are not coming here to stare at the coconut trees. A number come for sex and many children have been lured into prostitution. In some cases, parents rent out their underage girls for sex in return of a few coins," she adds.
In Malindi, there have been cases of some wives being rented out to tourists by their husbands for money, while some men too have been known to form lose liaisons with female tourists during the high season to earn some money.
Patricia Mburia lives and works in Nairobi, but swears she could not trade her birthplace in Chogoria for any other place.
"True, while I growing up, we had to walk for long distances looking for water and to go to school. However, compared to the daily stress I have go through in Nairobi, I feel happier, and secure while in Chogoria than in Nairobi," says Patricia, the hustle and bustle of city life and the insecurity too much for her to bear.
But in Nyeri, Esther Mwangi, a hotelier, believes her dream will come true if she gets an opportunity to live in Nairobi, where she hopes to enjoy the liberties of the modern woman, compared to Nyeri, where women are perceived as a weaker sex.
In Western Kenya, Paulina Onyango, too debunks the myth of women from the lake region, being treated like queens by their dotting husband. She says widows are viewed as sub-humans, to be inherited by polygamous men.
"In most cases women are not consulted on important issues. They are looked down upon by society which expects them to be subservient to men," Paulina cautions.
So, where is the best place in Kenya to be born a woman? There appears to be no consensus for the best region for being born a woman although many feel that the quality of life of the city woman is better than her counterparts in the rural areas. The pastoral areas are worse than many other parts.
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