Women Participation in the Kenyan Society

Published on 19th December 2010

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Key Points

1. Women were affected by the land redistribution experienced by most Africans during the British colonial era. As Kenyan women lost access to and control of the land, they became more economically dependent on men, which led to an intensification of domestic patriarchy, reinforced by colonial social institutions.

2. Female participation in political processes is limited in several ways, mostly through voter registration processes and family voting practices.

3. Government, civil society, and non-governmental organizations must work together with young women to overcome the political, social and economic barriers to empowerment faced by Kenyan women.


A wise lady  once said, “There never will be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers.” This statement was made in reference to the political role of women in the United States during the 19th century and applies to the political role of women in countries around the world today, including Kenya. Women constitute over 50 percent of Kenya’s population, but the majority of them are illiterate and poor. A number of them are still affected by customs and traditions that have long since been declared as harmful cultural practices.  My essay aims to critically analyze the role of a young Kenyan woman in Kenyan society and what empowerment means to her, the barriers she faces, steps that the Kenyan government and other non-governmental organizations have taken to enhance the participation of women in government, and possible solutions that would increase the participation of women, both young and old, in Kenyan society and the current reform processes.

Brief History on the Role of Women in Kenya

In order to understand the extent of women’s participation in Kenyan society, one needs to understand the history of Kenya and the journey women have had to make from pre- colonial, to colonial to post-colonial times.

Pre-Colonial Kenya: Before the British colonized Kenya in 1890, Kenyan communities were governed by councils of elders, consisting mainly of elderly men in the community. The role of women and girls was to farm the family land, harvest, care for the children, maintain the homestead, and tend to their husbands. Girls were socialized to be homemakers and cultivators. Women were economically empowered as they sold their farm produce in the markets. However, in some communities, decisions affecting the community were left for the council of elders and the men in the community.

Colonial Kenya; The British ruled in Kenya from 1890 to 1963. Women were affected by the land redistribution experienced by most Africans. However, women appear to have been more personally affected by this land alienation. This is because as women lost access to and control of the land, they became more economically dependent on men. This led to an intensification of domestic patriarchy, reinforced by colonial social institutions. Land alienation reduced the economic independence enjoyed by women by compromising their economic productivity. As colonialism continued in Africa, the perceived importance of female agricultural contributions to the household diminished as their vital role in food production was overshadowed by the more lucrative male-controlled cash crop cultivation.

Post-Colonial Kenya; Colonialism instilled a feeling of superiority over women in Kenyan men. A patriarchal order emerged, where the male dominated the female. This order suppresses women, restricts the full development of their potential, prevents them from exercising their rights, makes them live for others, forces them to reproduce, and usurps their right to self-determination. After independence in 1963, the lucky girls that managed to go to school were those whose parents were involved in mission work and had interacted with the Christian missionaries during the colonial period. Many girls were not sent to school and were instead married off as early as 12 years old. As a result some communities like the Maasai and Samburu are still struggling to get rid of the practice of early child marriages. The 1995 Beijing Platform for Action brought a change in the status of Kenyan women. It led to a rise in female consciousness and self confidence as women began to speak up and say ‘no’ to continued social scorn and disrespect. Women today refuse to accept injustice and strive for gender equality.

Currently, the tenth Kenyan Parliament since independence has the highest number of female legislators. There are 16 elected and seven nominated female members of parliament, out of 222 members in total.

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By Claris Gatwiri Kariuki

Claris is a young upcoming Kenyan lawyer who is very passionate about women and girl child empowerment. She holds a bachelor of Laws degree from the Catholic University of Eastern Africa and is currently undertaking a Masters in Laws from the University of Nairobi with keen interest in Public International Law. She has dedicated her career to contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights, democracy and good governance in her country as well as globally. She is a strong believer of the saying “Be the change you want to see in the world!” She is currently the assistant program officer at Amani Communities Africa.

This essay was a winner in the Center for International Private Enterprise's (CIPE) 2010 International Youth Essay Contest. For more information on the essay contest and to read the rest of the winning essays please visit www.cipe.org/essay


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