Woman-centred 'utuism' is driving change in Kenya

A grandmother with her kin outside their home in a village in Botswana. [iStockphoto]

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is ‘Invest in women: Accelerate progress’. While I am tempted to write about all the ways that women lack financial, institutional, political, and social support to progress compared to men, I choose to take a different approach.  

At the heart of investing in women to accelerate progress is ‘Utu’.  Raised on the shoulders of strong, wise, initiative-driven and by all means ordinary African working women, I often find it frustrating that the African woman is portrayed as one that lacks strength, resilience, voice and agency to speak, do and be all that they want to be not just for themselves but for their families, communities and fellow women.  

I have grown up around women who just got things done. Women who fend for their children and bathed the wounds of their sisters. Women who gave their money to support a sister's business. Women who paid fees for other women’s children. Women who organised fellow women for philanthropic causes. Women who went to court to fight an injustice for other women. Women who refer their sisters to opportunities they see. Women who take a chance on fellow women in the boardroom.

Almost every other African woman or girl I know has somehow benefited from the love, generosity, courage and kindness of a fellow African woman. But why is this? 

At the heart of the African woman is ‘Utu’, an ideology that the late Micere Mugo described as a philosophy in which ‘the soul is paramount and that losing it is worse than losing all ones’ material wealth.’

For the African woman, ensuring that the soul is nourished, well taken care of to alleviate the suffering or meet the needs of a person, so that their humanity is upheld is of great importance. This guardianship of the human soul is at the centre of African women investing in each other and their communities, going beyond the ‘giving back’ mentality.  

But what has ‘Woman-Centred Utu(ism)’ birthed in Africa and Kenya to be specific? We can attribute the birth and continual survival of ‘Chamas’ or group investments from the 1980s to it. Today, it is estimated that 300,000 chamas control Sh300 billion around the country.   

Continually, woman-centred utuism has enabled the voice of women to be heard against gender-based violence that has ensured the change of legislative policies, accountability of perpetrators and protection of women and children.  

Woman-centred utuism has enabled women to get seats at higher levels of office, with the percentage rising from 12 per cent in 2012 to 36 per cent in 2021.

And finally, it is reflected by women in diaspora who consistently send more money to the country than their male counterparts because they deeply understand the household needs of their relatives.  

While much progress has been made, women and men can do a lot more for women. A lot more investment needs to be made in promoting women’s healthcare, access to higher education, protection from violence, protection of the lands that they own, and increasing their financial stability. 

I challenge all women and men to welcome and embody the practices of ‘utu’ from the lens of women.

-Ms Mulema is executive officer at Emerging Leaders Foundation-Africa

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