Given this week’s media coverage on the need to respect mothers, it is worth delving deeper into the real problems faced by girls and women in Kenya. To be blunt, we are still very far from achieving true gender equality.
This is not to say that we have not made some good progress – such as in narrowing the gender gap in primary and secondary school attendance. Yet while things may be better than they used to be, we still have a long way to go. In our personal and public lives, we remain dangerously tolerant of misogyny and its abhorrent consequences.
The case for gender equality is straightforward: women are human beings. Regardless of wealth and status, level of education, identity, or where they happen to live, all girls and women deserve to be treated fairly and afforded equal opportunity to live their best lives. This ought not be viewed as a radical statement.
Yet there are those who go out of their way to misinterpret the push for gender equality as somehow implying the denial of opportunity to the ‘boy child.’ That is far from the truth. The fact of the matter is that as long as we maintain personal and institutional prejudices against girls and women, the society suffers.
If we choose to deny girls a proper education and a fair shot at gainful employment once they leave school, we are also choosing to confine our households to poverty and to limit possibilities for innovation and economic development. If we tolerate gender-based violence against girls and women, we are also planting seeds of societal brutalisation. We cannot have a healthy society when we do not consider more than half of our population to be equal enough. What should we do to demonstrate that we are serious about respecting girls and women? The first step should start in our personal lives.
From the media, to churches, to schools, to workplaces, to the household, we should do our very best to engender equality. Part of the reason misogyny persists is due to the reinforcements that we are constantly bombarded with. If we genuinely care about having a public sphere that is intolerant to all manner of abuse targeted at women, we must start by teaching and modeling it in our personal lives.
The second remedy would involve institutional reforms. Women are terribly under-presented in our civic institutions. This is not due to any innate gender-based differences in ability. Rather, it is due to the way we have organised our politics. By elevating violence and wealth as the means to political success, we have effectively made politics either unappealing or too expensive for aspiring female politicians.
The knock-on effect of the under-representation of women is that they are often not part of the networks that determine who gets to sit at the table and make important decisions. This must change.
The Constitution already gives us a blue-print (the two-thirds rule) for enforcing significant gender representation in our civic institutions. Failure to live by the spirit of this constitutional requirement is a shameful surrender to misogyny.
Some may say that women do not add that much value to politics, and that some may be just as corrupt as the male politicians. But this very argument reveals deep-seated misogyny. As human beings, women are prone to the same faults as men. Which is to say that electing or appointing more women to civic positions is not a substitute for continued institutional strengthening. With this in mind, the next your hear people crow about respecting mothers, ask them where they stand on personal and institutionalised gender-based discrimination.
-The writer is a professor at Georgetown University