Do Kenyan women get a fair deal?

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Kenya is a mass of contradictions when it comes to gender, argues our co-editor Nic Cheeseman. So how well are women faring in terms of education, political participation, health, and economic opportunity? And what can be done to ensure that their prospects improve in coming years? 

When it comes to gender inequality Kenya is interesting set of contradictions. It is one of the few African countries to have had a serious female presidential candidate, but very few women have ever been elected to the National Assembly. Similarly, while more girls are enrolled in primary school than boys, the higher up the educational ladder you go, the more male dominated it gets. So do Kenyan women get a fair deal?

The 2013 Global Gender Gap global rankings make for interesting reading. Kenya places 78th out of 136 countries, just below Uruguay and above Cyprus. This is not a fantastic performance – the highest placed African country is South Africa in 18th, while regional neighbors Uganda come in at 46th. But neither is it a terrible ranking. The gender gap is smaller in Kenya than in the Czech Republic, Malta, Chile, Mauritius and Botswana.

This mixed picture reflects the uneven situation facing Kenyan women. We can get a sense of this if we consider Kenya’s performance across the four criteria that the Gender Gap study assessed: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment.

Education and economic opportunities

Kenya is ranked lowest in education, where it places 107th. This is a little misleading, as in fact the country’s absolute score is actually reasonably good – the country’s ranking is so poor because this is a category in which other countries tend to do well. However, there are also obvious areas of concern. According to UNICEF, while girls make up a majority (52%) of primary school children, boys are more likely to complete primary education and go on to secondary school. This pattern tends to be repeated at higher levels of the education system: when it comes to tertiary education there are almost twice as many men enrolled as women.

Researchers have also highlighted the great variation in female education across the country. In general, girls are far more likely to go to school in the wealthiest parts of the country than in the poorest. In places at the top of the income scale, the majority of girls go to school. But in very poor areas such as Wajir, this figure can drop as low as 25%.

One consequence of lower levels of educational achievement is that women tend to earn less than men. Indeed, when it comes to employment Kenyan women face something of a ‘double whammy’. On the one hand, women are less likely to be employed than men. On the other, employed women are likely to earn less than men. Although good data is hard to come by, it seems that on average women earn 67% of the salary of men – in other words, a third less. As a result, while the estimated earned income of the average man is $2,139 per year, the figure for women is just $1,384.

Although this difference is large, Kenya ranks better than you might think compared to the rest of the world, because women’s pay generally lags far behind that of men, even in some of the world’s most developed countries. As a result, Kenya placed 57th in terms of the Global Gender Gap’s study of wage equality, above the United States and only one below Switzerland.

A similar pattern emerges when it comes to women’s participation in the labour force. Although fewer women of working age have jobs than men (62% as compared to 72%) this is actually a smaller gap than exists in a number of other countries. As a result, when it comes to the overall rankings for “economic participation and opportunity stakes” Kenya ranks 44th, which means that it outperforms countries like Greece, South Africa, and Spain.

Politics and health

The situation looks worse when it comes to female political empowerment. Kenya has had serious female presidential candidates, most notably Charity Ngilu, who won 8% of the vote in the 1997 general election. In the process, she placed 5th, beating established male counterparts such as Martin Shikuku and Koigi wa Wamwere.

However, despite this promising start a woman has never come close to winning the presidency, and female representation in the legislature has always been poor. Under the one-party state, the National Assembly was almost all male. In 1974, only five women won constituency elections, just 3% of the total. This dropped to just two women in 1983 and 1988. Throughout this period, neither President Jomo Kenyatta nor President Daniel arap Moi made any effort to enhance the representation of women by using their powers of appointment to increase the number of females in the upper echelons of government.

Sadly, the situation has not got much better since the reintroduction of multiparty politics. Only six women were elected in 1992 and in 1997 – the year that Ngilu and Wangari Maathai became the first women to contest the presidency – this dropped to just four.

To be fair, in 2010 Kenyans voted in their thousands for a constitution that contained important new provisions designed to promote gender equality, including a clause that women should not comprise less than one-third of the legislature. However, because the gender quota introduced was suspended ahead of the 2013 elections, women currently make up only 19% of parliament and just 15% of Cabinet Secretaries. As a result, Kenya is ranked poorly when it comes to political empowerment, placing a disappointing 85th.

Kenya also does badly when it comes to health and survival, measured in terms of the ratio of male to female births and life expectancy. The problem here is not that women live shorter lives than men. In fact, Kenyan women are now expected to live to 65, three years longer than their male counterparts. The reason that Kenya ranks so low is that, in many countries, women outlive men by an even longer period of time.

The roots of the gender gap

What explains this mixed picture? The position of women in Kenya today owes much to the historical evolution of gender relations. During colonial rule, sexist gender stereotypes were imported by British officials who were used to living in a society with a marked gender gap. As a result, wage labour and other economic opportunities were opened up to men, with the expectation that women would stay behind to look after the family. Similar attitudes held back women in a variety of other ways. For example, one of my PhD students, Michelle Sikes, has just written an excellent thesis that demonstrates that while British officials opened up opportunities for male Kenyan runners, they closed them for women. It was many decades before women were able to catch up.

Of course, the problem can’t just be blamed on colonial rule. Most variants of what is often called ‘traditional rule’ in the pre-colonial period vested power in the male lineage and women were often denied the right to wield political power. One of the reasons that colonial assumptions regarding gender inequalities often went without challenge was that they fitted so well with the way in which many Kenyan men viewed the world. As a result, male political and economic dependence got worse, rather than better, after independence. The name ‘Big Men’ was apt, because women were rarely able to rise to the apex of customary or economic authority. This meant that the networks of power and patronage that would govern Kenya over the next forty years had men at their centre, which in turn exacerbated existing inequalities over time.

Taken together, these developments have held women back for over a hundred years. One consequence of this is that women have often been denied their right to inherit land. Given the emotional and financial importance of land in Kenya, this has undermined gender equality in both practical and symbolic terms. Moreover, one of the knock-on effects of relatively low levels of female land tenure is that it is harder for women to gain access to credit, which is critical if the wealth gap between women and men is to be closed.

What is to be done?

The gender gap is important for all Kenyans, whatever their gender. Because women earn less then men and are less likely to control land, they pay less in taxes and are less likely to be at the forefront of entrepreneurial innovation. A recent study by the World Bank found that partly as a result, farms owned by women tended to be less productive than those owned by men. This represents a significant loss to the country’s finances and economic development. In other words, the goals set out in Kenya Vision 2030 are far less likely to be achieved if the country does not first succeed in reducing the gender gap.

This is easier said than done. Overturning deeply engrained social problems is never easy, or quick. But there is some good news. First, Kenya is starting from a better position than many other African states. The number of women in the workforce is rising, and the gender gap in education has narrowed as a result of the introduction of free primary education. Kenya also features a number of powerful female role models, such as the late Wangari Maathai, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and Muthoni Wanyeki, who was recently appointed Regional Director of Amnesty International in East Africa.

What can the government do to build on these foundations? Moving forwards, a good first step would be to open a public dialogue about how to implement the gender quota clause in the constitution. This needs to be done now, otherwise there will not be time for it to be introduced ahead of the next election. President Kenyatta could also look to promote females within his Cabinet. Women currently make up an even lower proportion of Cabinet Secretaries than Members of Parliament, and this is something that could be improved overnight.

Women’s rights to inherit land also need to be proactively enforced, which would have the positive side-benefit of making it easier for female land holders to access credit. And, of course, the government should also enact policies that would help to persuade more girls to go on to secondary school. Additional bursaries targeted at those parts of the country with low levels of female school enrolment would be a good first step.

But President Kenyatta should go further. A few years ago the Kenyan government showed an interest in the Bolsa Familia, the Brazilian scheme in which rural families were paid small amounts of money by the state so long as their children remained in school. This would be an excellent initiative, for both boys and girls. As Mary Wollstonecraft argued in her seminal text of 1792 on the rights of women, gender equality is unthinkable without high quality education for all.

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