Africa and Kenya, in particular, has come a long way from the stereotype of a man walking on the road with a staff in his hand, his wife trailing behind carrying firewood on her head, a child on her back, and another suckling her breast. A long way yes, but not far enough.
A lot has been said and written about women’s empowerment to the extent that it has become almost a cliché, especially in political and civil society circles. While most people agree that it is necessary and desirable many tend to only consider the economic aspect of women’s empowerment. The subject is much deeper and more multifaceted than that.
WHAT IS ‘WOMEN’S EMPOWERMENT?
So what really is women’s empowerment?
Women’s empowerment is the process of accepting and allowing women into the decision-making process where they were previously outside of it. It means giving power to individuals over their own lives and in society at large. People are empowered when they are able to take advantage of the opportunities available in life, without limitations and restrictions in areas such as education, profession, lifestyle and politics.
EDUCATION THE KEY – Knowledge is Power
Take education for instance, it is key to the competence a woman has in making life decisions.
Educated women tend to have fewer children and earn higher incomes, improving both their lives and that of their families, and their countries’ economy simultaneously.
And knowledge is power. Educated women stand a better chance of obtaining their rights such as child support and accessing social services. They are also more likely to have gained the knowledge and the confidence to defend themselves against social malpractice such as discrimination at the workplace and sexual harassment.
Teenage pregnancies and child marriages, on the other hand, take away the opportunities for women to get an education that would save them from a life of drudgery and broken dreams.
Physical and psychological health cannot be ignored. When an individual is able to maintain good health, they are able to participate in all facets of life.
SEXUAL AND REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH
Sexual and reproductive health and rights are critical to empowering women, because a woman who has no control over how many children she can have and when, loses power over the quality of her life and that of her children, lacking the time or the resources to gain the skills or income that she needs to improve this quality.
While Kenya tops the East African region in the use of modern contraceptive methods among married women (55 percent), there is a larger population of unmarried women and girls who do not access or use family planning services.
And have no doubt about it, planned families empower women.
A young woman who holds back from having her first child until she has finished her education faces a much better prospect of greater opportunities in life, higher earnings and better health for her and her family.
If she then spaces out the births of subsequent children again she and they will continue to will in all likelihood to benefit from a more constant and larger income, a healthier family and better chances in life being passed on to the next generation.
WHAT’S STOPPING WOMEN’S EMPOWERMENT IN KENYA?
Even though the Kenyan constitution (Article 53) gives a child the right to receive parental care and protection from both parents regardless of whether they are married or not, the penalties attached do not serve as sufficient enough deterrent to reign in absconding fathers, leaving the women to fend for themselves and their children. Many single mothers then struggle to make ends meet in a working environment that is rife with discrimination against women.
The empowerment of women in Kenya is also hampered by gender-based violence including sexual violence, rape, physical violence and sexual harassment. Polygamy, early marriage and other harmful cultural and traditional practices such as female genital mutilation also still hamper the progress of women.
Traditional practices governing inheritance, acquisition of land and benefits accruing to land produce continue to favour men and women still face challenges including the inability to participate effectively in decision making and leadership.
The problem with the empowerment of women in Kenya is that we are largely a patriarchal society that tends to have a high fertility rate and earlier marriages.
Such societies believe that women are more specialized in the role of caregiver and child-bearer than men, therefore women are encouraged sometimes forcefully to practice childbearing in order to be more efficient producers exercising their specialized task.
Gender norms and related behaviors are reinforced in systems and institutions, reaffirming women’s position as less advantaged than men in terms of access to health, education, financial and agricultural extension services.
WOMEN’S EMPOWERMENT – A ‘SOCIETAL SHIFT’
There must therefore be a societal shift in gender norms and related behaviors through the adoption of policies and initiatives to empower women. Our political leadership must promote the adjusting and setting of social norms by discussing and encouraging women’s participation in society.
Legislation alone cannot achieve this paradigm shift. Penalties do not break patterns.
Let’s be a bit more creative and use the carrot rather than the stick–rewarding couples which delay and space childbearing reinforced through social network channels to empower the girl-child through learning by peer group influence.
An empowered female population will enhance both the quality and quantity of human resources available for Kenya’s development.