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26 years after Beijing, the issues are still raw, rugged

By Christine Koech | June 1st 2021

Passengers ride a tourist boat that navigates the waters of the Yangtze River in Wuhan, China's central Hubei province, on September 5, 2020.[AFP]

After hearing my story about attending the Fourth Conference on Women in Beijing, China in 1995, most people focus on the subject of my age and my reasons for attending the meeting. 

And so I tell them that I was 15-years-old, a Form Two student and a daughter of a woman who was and still is passionate about women's issues. At this point, they do their calculations.

Along with owning my age and being proud of my achievements, my mother instilled in me the important lesson of faith in God and His purpose for my life. I believe it was God’s plan that I attend the famous conference. And my mother was the instrument He chose to ensure I did.

Twenty-six years later, I am a mother of two girls and a journalist tasked, alongside my boss Najma Ismail, to run The Standard Group's Gender Desk at a time when the world is looking back at the gains made since more than 17,000 women converged in China. 

For the first time, I heard the big words and phrases that dominated the hundreds of sessions. At the NGO conference, which preceded the UN conference, my sister (10 years old) and I wandered from tent to tent (categorised in continents or organisations), popping our heads inside and listening to the proceedings.

Brave women stepped up to various podiums to articulate what needed immediate action. They told stories about “equality at the workplace”, “affirmative action” and even “lesbians”. We filled our free canvas bags with colourful pamphlets and pored through them while our mother lovingly answered our questions, in-between listening to the proceedings alongside fellow Kenyan delegates from Maendeleo Ya Wanawake and other organisations. 

How different the discussions were in ‘our’ tent — the African tent! Things were more familiar but a little bit scary, the stories sadder and less hopeful and the pamphlets less colourful — merely white sheets of paper with a print that was obviously photocopied.

The tent was often filled beyond capacity. Journalists jostled into position and clicked their cameras while the women spoke, tears flowing freely. Gender-based violence, injustices against widows, female genital mutilation, girls denied an education...

And then someone tapped my mom’s shoulder and asked us to step outside. Was there a problem? Were we not supposed to be there? It turns out we were only two of three girls from Africa. A skit about the girl-child needed to be performed and they were excited to see us there. Finally, something exciting for us to do!

The next day, we performed the skit about a girl who had earned an unkind nickname because she had refused to get married and wanted to go to school. At the end, we sang, "Send Your Girl Child to School" by Suzanne Kibukosya. Never mind we had not had time to memorise our lines and were reading them from sheets of paper — someone (we later learned was UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali) watched the skit and loved it so much, we were invited to perform at an official ceremony of the UN conference a day or two later. 

The issues at this conference were raw and fresh (and still are). Few people had talked about them openly before and even fewer had given them as much attention and time. 

Even when then US First Lady Hillary Clinton made her speech, there was tension in the air as she named the issues at hand one by one. Her declaration at the end of the speech, “Women’s rights are human rights," earned her a standing ovation. 

Christine Koech is the deputy editor, Gender at Standard Group


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