Common Issues: Where are Womens’ Voices?

Published on 3rd June 2017

On the 24th of March, I celebrated the 34th birthday of my daughter. I gave birth to her during the long closure of Kenyan Universities by the Government as a result of the attempted military coup in 1982. As a student mother, I had limited resources to finance the delivery and buy the necessary items needed for a new baby. I had only small savings from my university allowance or 'boom' as it was known.

As I reflect on the just ended strike by doctors and lecturers, I identify with many women whose due delivery dates were during the period of the doctors strike and many students who were disoriented as I was then. Had there been a doctors’ strike in 1982, I would probably have done my delivery  at home. I cannot imagine the random tears I would have shed and the septic wounds that would have ensued. My daughter would not have accessed a doctor after delivery.

There are many women in Kenya who still do not have the chance of delivering in hospitals but we have to appreciate that we are all responsible in one way or another in making our country what it is today. Bishop Desmond Tutu says that for forgiveness and justice to take place, we must realize that we are inextricably connected to each other. It is on the basis of this that we should begin our discussion.

Being a student mother introduced me to feminism. It confirmed to me the Gikuyu myth that when the men wanted to usurp leadership from women, they conspired to impregnate all of them. When the women were pregnant and vulnerable, the men rose up against them. The women lost because they could not fight. I also realized the binding force of individuals with a common problem. I remember that when I was in the hospital ward, a woman would lead us in reciting the rosary in the evening. If women could come together using the common bond of being mothers, they can change the world.

My first paper on women issues was a review of efforts to mainstream gender in Kenya’s development policies. I demonstrated the struggle to incorporate gender into development policies in health, agriculture, employment, education, industrialization and security. While most development plans have made little effort, gender activism has intensified and one of the achievements realized has been having 47 women representatives in parliament to challenge the masculine frame of parliament.

We had hoped that women would work together to address common issues especially those affecting women, like health. The few scripts posted on television when the government and doctors were negotiating demonstrated a scenario of two bulls locking horns. The unrelenting stance on both sides was beyond the usual labour disputes. The reactions on social media took sides. The opposition used it to demonstrate the failure of the government while the government saw it as stage-managed by the opposition. In all this, the sick became sacrificial lambs.

Around the same time, I visited the Resurrection Gardens in Karen. The group ahead of me in the procession doing the Way of the Cross made very emotive prayers for the doctors and government. They narrated the sufferings of their parishioners and pleaded for God’s intervention. Unfortunately, women leaders, parliamentarians, gender activists and feminists like myself chose to keep quiet and reside in the comforts of our parties. We chose to ignore the plight of many women whose due dates had commenced. We chose to betray our mission of making our conditions better for women in a masculine patriarchal governance framework.

This makes me to question the rationale and sincerity of the women movement. In 1997 I believed that Charity Ngilu would dismantle the masculine framework of governance but she was lured into a male coalition in 2002. In 2013, I had full faith in Martha Karua as a woman presidential candidate but to my dismay, she has resorted to the comfort of her party.

I know the gains of the women movement have been supported with a lot of donor of aid. What have women shown in return for donor aid? Why couldn’t they unite and say 'No!'  to the masculine melodrama in the strike? Why didn’t the anti FGM activists respond with the gusto that has made them receive accolades to address the problem of women and mothers during this period?

We need to revisit the issue of the ethos and logic of women movement. I know trainings on gender budgeting and domestic violence are ongoing but what is the sincerity of this when we witnessed women and children suffer but we never did anything to solve the problem? Many elite women travel to world capitals to attend gender conferences but I am not sure whether they know what they are doing. Gender concerns are in the comfort of our parties. Unless women break this, we are going nowhere and let us not use other women as our pedestal to access the comforts of the male kingdom.

By Dr Mary Njeri Kinyanjui

Institute for Development Studies, University of Nairobi.

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