Achieving Gender Equality in Kenya: ‘A constitution is just a piece of paper if it’s not implemented’

The 2010 constitution was intended to transform the lives of Kenya’s marginalized groups, but, 10 years on, women remain significantly disadvantaged. Natasha Kimani speaks to Lyndsey Jefferson about the obstacles that remain for women in Kenya as part of a series exploring women in international affairs.

Interview Updated 7 July 2021 Published 1 July 2020 5 minute READ

Natasha W. Kimani

Former Academy Associate, Africa Programme

In your paper, you write about how the Kenyan government allocated funds to women so they can participate in entrepreneurial activities and gain financial independence. However, many of the women who were able to access these funds came from more privileged backgrounds. How can the government make sure that these programmes reach marginalized and minority communities?

It’s about how the funds are advertised. The people who have access to this information are often more educated and have a deeper understanding of how the systems work. So, women in very rural areas rarely, if ever, hear about these opportunities. And when they do, even when they access the funds, they don’t know what to do with them. They don’t get the necessary training or equipment. Rarely does it go into developing their business ideas which leads them further into debt and places them in a worse position than they were before.

Do you think greater representation of women in public life would help Kenya achieve its gender equality goals? What challenges are there for women running for office in Kenya?

We have a constitution that is enabling gender equality, but a constitution is just a piece of paper, if it’s not implemented.

I believe an increased representation of women in government at various levels would differentially impact the lives of women and children because they are the most marginalized in society.

2017 was one of the most violent elections that women have participated in and there were increased cases of kidnappings and sexual harassment. Women were specifically targeted in very gendered ways and a lot of women backed out of the elections.

The environment has not been conducive for women and access has been extremely problematic especially at the party level. Even within the party structures themselves, women are unable to make their voices heard, and they need someone at a very high level to endorse them.

There are a lot of respectability politics that a woman must juggle. She must be married and it must be to a man of means who is respected in society. She must have children. She must be a woman who is scandal-free. And, mind you, scandal can be interpreted in many ways including a woman who refuses to fit into boxes that she has been placed in by society.

What about a woman who is single or divorced? There are many challenges that women face when they want to engage in politics. A lot of it is politically structured but it’s societal as well.

We have a constitution that is enabling gender equality. But a constitution is just a piece of paper if it’s not implemented – if the letter of the law is not respected.

In addition to tackling gender inequality, Kenya’s 2010 constitution also called for the devolution of government, with financial and administrative autonomy transferred to 47 county governments. This was intended to bring government services closer to the people and address the needs of minorities and women. It’s been seven years since this reform was implemented in 2013 – how has the devolved system done so far in achieving these goals?

The results have been slightly disappointing. While there has been increased participation, we see that the representation and responsiveness to women has remained exceptionally low. And if you look at the numbers, even when it came to the last election, the number of women who were elected into office was still quite low – for members of county assembly it was only 96 out of 1,450.

In Kenya, running for office is exceptionally expensive. If you do not have the financial backing to do so, chances are you will not even get heard. As you know, women still are struggling to make ends meet. A good example of this is that even though women make up 80 per cent of farm labourers and manage 40 per cent of the country’s smallholder farms, they only own about one per cent of the agricultural land.

When it comes to devolution, sometimes we’re devolving corruption, but most importantly at the lower levels of government, the more rural it is, the more defined the paternalistic structures are.

You’ll notice that the county governments only engage women when it comes to conversations around maternal health care, breastfeeding or markets. When it comes to things that still affect women’s lives, like the repairing of roads, there’s rarely a woman in the meeting. Yet most of the women who walk to get water or travel to health facilities are women. They’re the ones who take their children to school, so why are they not being involved in this conversation? Women are not involved, they’re not represented and budgets and policies are not responsive to their needs.

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A woman poses with a message as hundreds of activists marched to protest repeated failures to apply laws that women must hold at least a third of government seats in Nairobi, Kenya, on 22 January 2018. Photo: Getty Images.

A woman poses with a message as hundreds of activists marched to protest repeated failures to apply laws that women must hold at least a third of government seats in Nairobi, Kenya, on 22 January 2018. Photo: Getty Images.

— A woman poses with a message as hundreds of activists marched to protest repeated failures to apply laws that women must hold at least a third of government seats in Nairobi, Kenya, on 22 January 2018. Photo: Getty Images.

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One problem you highlight in your paper is that government officials don’t understand the impacts of budgets on women and the budgets are considered to be gender-neutral. Why is gender-responsive budgeting so critical to ensuring equality for women in Kenya?

We view budgets as something quite separate that doesn’t need the involvement of women or young people. Gender-responsive budgeting does not mean a separate budget specifically allocating funds for women. Nor does it need a specific amount of resources to be spent on gender equality objectives. It simply means that we are taking into consideration the different effects that government plans have on women and marginalized communities.

What policy examples from other countries can the Kenyan government learn from in order to meet the promises of the 2010 constitution?

Our neighbour Rwanda has made several strides. There is a specific gender office that is engaged to scrutinize the gender representation and responsiveness in the budget and give feedback to both local and national governments on its effectiveness.

Another example is South Africa which was the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to embrace gender responsive budgeting. One of the distinguishing features of South Africa’s gender budgeting initiative was the partnership between parliament and civil society. This arose following the end of apartheid with the adoption of the new constitution. So, what happened was, NGOs carried out research and fed this back to parliament which they used to scrutinize the budget.

Governments often claim that they do not have the technical expertise but you do not need to reinvent the wheel. There are organizations that already have this key information that can assist in shaping conversations and gender-budgeting initiatives. What are we doing to ensure that there are structures in place to allow organizations to give feedback to parliament on the policies being developed?

I would love to talk about Australia but I’m also cognizant of the fact that, oftentimes, Western solutions may not necessarily fit into African contexts. But Australia is a key example of ensuring that there is a gender statement so that every time there is an annual budget, governments are scrutinized for their impact on women and girls. Personally, I think that is a phenomenal approach.

You acknowledge that there are powerful cultural, political and economic factors that maintain the status quo. Which one do you think is the most pressing? Do you think change in Kenya will be achieved through only technocratic means or will mass movements also have to play a part?

Women’s movements have been doing the groundwork. There is a campaign on Twitter called ‘We Are 52%’ (#WeAre52pc) where Kenyan women are trying to highlight the constitutionality of the Kenyan executive, cabinet and parliament.

There’s only so much we can do if the executive and parliament are not actually taking cognizance of what’s happening. We have taken them to court, the courts have made their rulings and the last hurdle is adherence to the letter and spirit of the constitution.

A lot of Kenyan women and organizations are coming together to push for change. I am part of several caucuses and institutions that are trying to push for women to get elected in 2022. But there is only so much we can do as individuals, because we can only afford to back one or two women to run for office.

Kenyan women are coming together to push for change but there is only so much we can do as individuals.

So what happens to the many others who want to engage? There is still a lot of work to be done especially in reshaping how we view women as presidents and county governors.

I saw a study the other day and young people were asked to draw a leader. 89 per cent of these young people drew a man! How do we ensure that there’s a shift between now and 2022, of how young people especially – because they’re the largest demographic – view female leadership?

There are a lot of gaps and not many organizations are focused on social and behavioural change campaigns which are needed so we can change the narrative around female leadership.