Despite strides made, it's not yet Uhuru for women in Kenya

Women demonstrating against rape, Nairobi, October 2015. [Jenipher Wachie, Standard]

This year's International Women’s Day was clouded by the distressing image of the screaming young woman who was violently violated by rogue boda boda riders.

The occurrence of the assault on Wangari Maathai Road was the ultimate irony, remembering the torchbearer this Nobel Prize laureate was on women’s issues. A lot has been written on that dastardly affair and it will not be the  focus of this column today. It does however demand that we reflect on the fate of women’s liberation from the oppression of culture, religion, economics, and general patriarchy over the years.  

Forty-three years after the passage of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 27 years after the passage of the Beijing Platform of Action, and 12 years after the passage of a gender empowering constitution, how has the fate of women fared?

There is no doubt that in Kenya, the last 12 years has produced significant developments on women’s empowerment. When Nairobi hosted the 3rd Women’s International Conference in 1985, there was no female Cabinet Minister and the 200-member Parliament boasted of only two elected female MPs. There was no female Permanent Secretary. Only two Parastatals were headed by women.

The judiciary had only one female judge and a spattering of magistrates many of them at the lowest cadre.  The story is significantly different today. Though both Cabinet and Parliament are still in violation of the constitution’s “not more than 2/3rds” requirement there has been improvement. Cabinet comprises 29 per cent women. 22 per cent of Principal Secretaries are women. Parliament comprises 27 per cent women a matter that has been consistently litigated.

We have numerous parastatals headed by women and in the judiciary, the ratio of men to women favors women. Indeed, the three heads of the judiciary, the Chief Justice, the Deputy Chief Justice, and the Chief Registrar of the Judiciary are all women. Three women were elected governors. There is a real possibility that the next Deputy President will be a woman. The issue that begs question is whether all these gains have translated to enhancement of the status of women “kwa ground”.

On gender-based violence, a key indicator of women disempowerment, the passage of the Sexual Offences Act in 2006, was a major milestone in dealing with the mushrooming cases of gender-related violence. Studies on the impact of the law indicate a tremendous rise in convictions for sexual related gender violations after the passage of the law. But they also indicate that over time, gender-based violence has increased, with cases of intimate partner violence rising to more than 40 per cent of all women between 15 and 49 years.

For those interested in an equal society and value evidence-based information, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics Women’s Empowerment Report 2020 is a must read. While the report indicates substantial improvements in women’s welfare, it also contains some worrying realities. Despite women being more than 50 per cent of the population, they occupy only 39 per cent of wage employment, with the bulk of this employment in vulnerable jobs; a staggering 78 per cent of women in risky employment!

Based on carefully defined weighted indicators of empowerment, including human and social relations, economic domain and control of sexual relations, the report showed that the empowerment index for rural women stood at only 22 per cent, compared to 40 for urban women. 

They say that a society is only as good as those at the bottom perceive it to be. In Kenya, while the fortunes of the top and middle tier women continue to improve, for the millions at the bottom, it remains “Not Yet Uhuru”.