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Economic empowerment for women requires political push

By Dominic Omondi | December 15th 2015 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

Dr Jennifer Riria, the CEO of Kenya Women Holding (KWH), has made great efforts to draw women into the financial fold. In the early 1990s when many banks believed only rich, old men were bankable, she banked on women. Today, financial institutions are scrambling for women’s money.

And though KWFT, a subsidiary of KWH, has benefited more than four million women and their families, Dr Riria believes the fight for women’s empowerment is far from won. With the benefit of hindsight, she now sees economic empowerment for women must go hand-in-hand with political empowerment.

There is a lot of money that the Government has earmarked for women, yet uptake remains low. Why?

There are many funds for women, but what channels are being used to deliver these funds? Are these channels friendly to young people and women? The terms and conditions attached to the money also makes it difficult to deliver these funds sustainably.

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There is also a conflict between the institutions that receive these funds to disburse to the youth and women, and the institutional approach. When you ask a financial institution to borrow a fund at 1 per cent and then say it can only lend out the money at a maximum of 8 per cent, it means the spread is 7 per cent. Yet, for an institution to exist tomorrow to manage these funds, it needs to lend the money out at 12 per cent to cover costs. But institutions are being asked to subsidise these funds.

In addition, these funds have a political connotation by being called Government funds. And when you say that they are Government funds, experience shows that people do not want to repay.

Third, the reporting mechanism takes too much time. With these funds, you have to create a different set of reporting mechanisms for the Central Bank and Registrar of Companies.

You now seem to be putting more emphasis on the need for women to be given greater democratic space ....

Women are not just about money alone, or politics alone. They are all these things combined. If you put money in a woman who cannot control what she is doing with that money, it is a waste of time. If you put money in the hands of a woman who has no voice in the society in which she lives, she will never maximise the benefits of that money. Women need money, they need a voice, they need to participate, to be recognised, to be respected like anyone else in society.

So is politics your next frontier in the fight for women’s equality?

I think one of the major drivers of inequality and injustice is exclusion. So, you cannot fight injustice if you cannot address the drivers of poverty and inequality. And one of them is exclusion. Exclusion not only from financial services, but also from democratic processes — being excluded from positions where people make decisions that affect the country, being excluded from decisions that affect them as human beings first, and then as women and girls, being excluded from sharing in the country’s natural resources. These are the exclusions that drive poverty, feed into inequality and fertilise injustice.

Generally, efforts towards women’s empowerment have been successful. However, women are still not well represented in areas like cross-border trade or science-related fields. What can be done?

Even if you gave women money and put them in a big business and told them to run it, they won’t run it. They will run it down. First of all, they need skills. And that is why I talk widely about financial education.

It is also very important to get women connected and enable them to think broader, think impact, think creatively. There is also the domestication issue, where women still think, “I am woman, I cannot make it, this is a man’s thing”.

There are those who say affirmative action for women has contributed to the boy child being neglected. What is your take on this?

I have heard this several times that I am beginning to think it is true. However, if you look at the numbers, it is not true. You may see many girls in primary school, but once you get to university, how many are there? Even in the banking sector, many women are stuck at the middle management level. These are the numbers we should be looking at.

However, I am not, and have never, advocated discrimination of boys. I am a mother of both girls and boys, and I need them to have the same level of opportunities.

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Kenya Women Holding Dr Jennifer Riria entrepreneurship
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