For 12 years Margaret Sepengo was a renowned female circumciser in the remote village of Leparwa tucked in the north of Isiolo County.
In 2015 she abandoned the cut all thanks to the sensitization efforts by CREAW auspiced under the Tunza Mama Na Mtoto project aimed at empowering communities to abandon retrogressive cultural practices such as Female Genital Mutilation (FMG) that inhibits on maternal and newborn health.
With the support from UKAid through Christian Aid, the project that is in its third year of implementation adopted a community mobilization approach dubbed SASA! (Start, Awareness, Support, Action),to educate and inspire communities to take actions for social change.
Margaret was lucky to be among those who were capacity built on maternal health issues and how they can use the knowledge to advocate against FGM, early marriages, teen pregnancies and gender based violence all of which are rooted deep in culture and the leading causes of maternal and newborn motilities and morbidities in the larger Isiolo County.
“It is the trainings that enabled me shun the practice and engage in alternative source of livelihood,” says Margaret who is now a respected community activist who is using the SASA! model to change perceptions and attitudes of her community towards FGM.
Female Genital Mutilation as she puts it, used to be the cornerstone of livelihoods for many households but the situation has changed. When she learned the art of the cut, her only motivation was to eke a living.
“I used to admire an elderly neighbour who used to circumcise girls and would earn a lot of money. Being a third wife and an only breadwinner in the family, I learnt the art and would make Sh1000 from each girl. The prices would go up to Sh2500 during high season and sometimes poor families will offer their goats or cattle,” she says.
“With the sustained community dialogues targeting the council of elders, men and women, the community has opted abandoned the age-old tradition,” she adds.
In her quest to have the elders lift the ban on the curse placed on any man who marries uncircumcised girl, Margaret reach out to the Masaai Morans to have the elders allow them to marry uncut women. The elders agreed to their quest and held a public forum to ‘break the curse.’ The forum held in Laikipia brought together the young and elderly from Masaai, Turkana and Samburu communities. This was a great step towards eradicating FGM.
“During the exchange visit between reformed circumcisers from Isiolo and Kajiado, I learnt the different initiative that my counterparts were using to have the elders to create a by-in with the elders who are the custodian of culture. I came back and embarked on the same. My efforts bore fruits,” explains the mother of four.
“Among pastoralist communities, uncircumcised girls were doomed to be a bad omen and outcasts. The blessings symbolized an end to the cut among the communities,” she says, adding, “ This was a step to ensuring that women and girls would now be free from early marriages and complications experienced during childbirth associated to FGM. “
Aside from her proactive activism in her community, she has enrolled herself into adult education program now in level three. She explains that like many girls in her community, she was married off to an elderly man at the age of 14 and was not able to ascend through to high school.
“If we give girls the opportunity to go to school, we will be able to break the cultural barriers and make healthy decisions for their reproductive health and that of their families and children,” she says.
Thursday afternoon, the weather is chilly and the usually busy Githongo pitch has no sight of any young ones kicking around the ball in the pitch or athletes working out as in the usual. In the surroundings, the densely constructed shelters are slowly shifting the small rural town of Githongo to an urbanized community center.
Looking on to the vast field in the left corner is the Githongo Chiefs Offices. Outside, a group of women and men are seen chit chatting. Their starched and well-pressed brown khaki uniform brings their steadfastness to the fore; their threaded shoulders mark them out as protectors and defenders of the larger community as their call of duty bestows them.
The uniformed women and men are Chiefs from Imenti Central, Meru County who came together to establish the 14 members Utawala Chiefs Group with an aim to better provide coordinated response to GBV matters in their localities. Today, they are having their usual biweekly meetings to discuss the emerging issues in the community.
At the location level in Kenya’s administrative system, Chiefs are charged with mandate to maintain order within their jurisdiction. For the Utawala group, the work in the community goes over and above their call of duty. They derive passion from a violence free society where women and girls live in dignity, are better protected and able to move freely and thrive and thus their continued conversations and coordinated response to the ills that bedevils their community.
For more than two years now, they have been working together, raising their voices and driving conversations through Chiefs’ Barazas to educate their communities on the ills of GBV and the channels of reporting.
“I was privileged to be part of the Chiefs’ training that taught them on how to handle and support survivors when they report violations,” says Faith Kagwiria, a Chief at Kathurune West Location and also a member of the Utawala Chiefs.
As the first respondent when an incident occurs, it is paramount that Chiefs like Faith are well vast with the roles and responsibilities they play in regards to the various matters reported thus, CREAW through the Haki Yetu Jukumu Letu initiative came in handy to build their capacity to enable them to effectively support survivors and respond to the needs of the locals.
The initiative now in its third year of implementation and supported by the Embassy of Netherlands in Kenya equips Chiefs among other duty bearers with the knowledge on GBV related laws, how to document and report matters as well as how to set up community structures that promotes safe spaces in the community.
“Not a day goes, without widows flocking my office puzzled, confused and bewildered when their in-laws take away their matrimonial lands,” narrates Phyllis Mungatia who is the Chairperson of the Utawala Chiefs.
She says the inequalities when it comes to access and control of matrimonial land particularly in the agricultural rich region of Meru disenfranchises women.
It is such that draws the Utawala group to work with a unity of purpose. Their work in the community is slowly gaining momentum with the continued conversations, the community is slowly opening up and speaking out on matters such as incest that were shelved at family level.
“Apart from the weekly chief barazas, we also conduct targeted dialogues with men, women and in schools,” explains Stella Kinoti.
She goes on to say that they have also consistently taught the village elders and area managers on how to tackle GBV noting that it takes both individual and community actions to create a ideal community for all. The Nyumba Kumi clusters have also come in handy to map out cases like female genital mutilation and child neglect.
But as Lucy Magiri puts it, their success has not been without the challenges. Sometimes they are forced to flee their homes or handle cases under cover for fear of their lives. Nonetheless, together, they affirm that their actions are just a starting point to lasting change in the community. They are positive that with their collective efforts, their neighbourhoods will violence free.
In Kilifi County, pregnancy remains a key barrier to girls’ education. In 2018 alone, over 17000 girls fell pregnant – some of the cases are attributed to wayward bodaboda riders who lure young girls with gifts and impregnate them; some girls also fall pregnant after being molested by those they trust most: relatives teachers and clergymen.
When we meet 16 year old *Riziki at her maternal grandparents home, she is cuddling her two year old son- a product of an affair she had with the bodaboda rider. Then, she was in Form two.
“I met him on my way to school and he offered to transport me,” she says. What followed were everyday rides that transitioned into sexual encounters.
“He promised to take care of me but denied being the father of my baby when I informed him I was pregnant,” says Riziki
Like many other girls in Kilifi, Riziki forms part of the statistics of girls whose dream to ascend higher in education and make their future a reality is cut shot by pregnancy emanating from wayward bodaboda riders.
In the wake of this, CREAW through the Haki Yetu Jukumu Letu initiative with the Embassy of Netherlands in Kenya incorporated the Bodaboda riders in the community outreaches where they learn how to ensure that children are safe and well protected from sexual violence and other ills in their communities.
Daniel Tinga is the chairperson of Bodaboda riders in Kaloleni Sub County. He tells us that through the community outreaches he has learnt the dangers that sexual violence pose on the lives of young girls. From the lessons, he teaches his fellow riders to uphold respect and dignity of the women and girls they come into contact with.
“As a bodaboda rider I have the responsibility to ensure my customers whether young or old, arrive to their destination safely,” says Tinga.
In Ganze, Tinga’s counterparts are also organizing around the issue of defilement that has labeled them as perpetrators. In them is a resolve defy the ‘normal’ – they are building agency and using their voices to champion for good.
“ As a father I want, other girls in my community to grow well and complete their education just as my daughters. I want girls to fly high and build our village to greater heights,” says Shadrack Kazungu, a bodaboda rider at Matano Manne, Ganze Sub County.
He explains to us that after attending various community dialogues by CREAW his outlook on violence against women and girls has changed.
“I learnt that cat calling and groping violates the rights of girls. Before I was never attentive to such matters because in my industry, they are ‘normal.’ I am glad there is a shift, the conversations have helped us build consensus amongst us,” he says while noting that, in their Association they are on the look out for individuals who goes against the ethics and conduct they have set as such, they are excommunicated and matters referred to the police.
At Kibaoni, the Bodaboda riders’ voices are even getting more louder in their day to day work. In their numbers, they want Kibaoni Bodaboda Association to be known for good. With their collective voices, they are certain that their community can only getter better.
“We have a good relationship with village elders and Chiefs within Kibaoni who help us in tackling gender violence matters even among our circles,” says Sudi Zalikini.
Teen pregnancies among school girls is a worrying phenomenon in Kenya. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), notes that 378,397 girls aged 10 to 19 got pregnant between June 2016 and July 2017.
Similar data by Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2014, indicates that about one in every five adolescent girls has either given birth, or is pregnant with her first child.
Notably, in November 2018, Kilifi County Children Affairs department released shocking statistics. They recorded 13, 624 pregnancies among girls aged 15 to 19 years in the past one year.
Incidents of deliveries among girls, during Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) and Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE), often surface.
The same year, the Ministry of Education reported at least 50 cases of pregnancies during KCPE. Kitui County presented a classical scenario with a report of 100 pregnancies during KCSE.
Last year, a similar trend was reported in Bomet County during the KCSE with at least 12 pregnancies.
Across Africa, the structural systems are inflexible and inconsiderate of the burdens of adolescent mothers seeking to return to school.
As at 2018, 15 countries had re-entry policies for the girls, but the conditions set for the re-entry are repulsive.
The countries include Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon Gambia, Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi and Mozambique. Others are Namibia, Senegal, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe
In Malawi, girls are suspended for one year the moment their pregnancy is known, according to a2018 Human Rights Watch report on discrimination of adolescent mothers’ discrimination in access to education.
There are conditions set for the young mothers to apply for re-admission. She must send a request to the Ministry of Education and the school she intends to join, as noted in theLeave No Girl Behind in Africa Discrimination in Education against Pregnant Girls and Adolescent Mothersreport.
In Zambia and Gabon, girls have a better chance of continuing with their education. The countries have policies privy to their additional needs. They ensure primary and secondary education is free; the girls have time to breastfeed, and can choose morning or evening classes. They also have nurseries and day-care centres close to schools where their babies are sheltered while they attend classes.
In Kenya, a proposed law on supporting girl-child parents to complete their education after childbirth is still pending in the Senate.
Care and Protection of Child Parents Bill
The Care and Protection of Child Parents Bill (2019) proposes a framework for ensuring girls such as those in Kilifi and Kitui are granted care and protection by the national and county governments to actualise their right to basic education while ensuring the care of their children.
The Bill sponsored by nominated Senator Millicent Omanga, mandates the national government through the National Council for Children’s Services to “address any educational and related barriers faced by pregnant and parenting students.”
The Council would also be required to “guarantee funding and sustainability of the initiative and other child welfare programs aimed at benefiting child parents.”
There is also a proposal that county education boards and county executive committee members for education collaborate in establishing “programs to ensure expectant children and child parents have access to education services.”
And that “academic support programs that ensure students with extended absences for reasons related to pregnancy and parenting, are able to enrol back to school or other education facility to access education services.”
The Bill has been reviewed by Senate Committee on Labour and Social Welfare, with the report being tabled in the House in November last year.
It would require National Assembly backing to become law. Upon approval by the Senate, it would be sent to MPs, before the Speaker of Senate forwards it the President to assent to it.
Addressing pregnancies among the school girls is, however, not just about institutional structures with financial support, argues Dr Emmanuel Manyasa, an education analyst and Executive Director of Usawa Agenda.
“We have to be careful with giving financial support as it may end up being an incentive for pregnancy,” says Dr Manyasa who spoke to the Nation on phone.
He says allowing girl-child parents back to school must be accompanied with a long-term solution.
“Needy girls end up pregnant as a consequence of poverty. The girls must be freed from poverty to avoid repeat pregnancies.”
Ms Isabella Mwangi, of Centre for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW) underscores a multi-pronged approach to ending teen pregnancies.
She says the government, parents, teachers, religious institutions and community elders play a critical role in creating safe spaces for advancement of school girls.
Ms Mwangi says the government and religious institutions must agree on the introduction of sex education in schools, since sexual relations among teens is a reality that cannot be ignored.
She identifies recreational centres near schools as fertile grounds for luring girls, and the government ought to eradicate them.
She says parents must be responsible for teaching their girls and boys about their sexuality.
“Parents must nurture their children to know that they have a purpose in the society. Talking to their children is a responsibility they must not abdicate to anyone,” she notes.
While emphasising on role of community elders as custodians of cultural traditions, Ms Mwangi says they must be involved, as their influence in spearheading anti- retrogressive practices campaigns would lead to drop in teen pregnancies.
When 16 year old *Kadzo met her boyfriend, she was smitten; she did not in anyway think her life will change completely.
She says, “he promised to marry me and I believed him.” But today, her melancholic look tells the tale of a wound that she has long reconciled with. From the experimental sexual relationship, came pregnancy.
All through her childhood, her grandparents were the sole providers. They had so much hope in her completing her schooling but the tables had turned and now they wanted her out of their home. Swiftly, they married her off to the father of her child.
And as she tells of her ordeal, she fidgets and mumbles some words. The shock and disappointment of being a teen mother is written all over her. Apart from her pregnancy, she was forced to cope with her abusive boyfriend who came home each night drunk and would threaten to burn her alive.
“The scariest of all was when he took a kitchen knife and wanted to cut off my neck. I managed to escape,” she recalls of her deadliest experience at the hands the lover turned foe.
Once again she was back to her grand parents home, forced to fend for herself and adjusting to the reality of being a mother of a three months old baby with the future unknown.
*Mbodze on the other hand started dating her boyfriend at the age of 14, she was in class six. Now aged 16 and a mother of two moths old baby, she is juggling between nursing her baby and classroom.
Her story bore similarity to that of Kadzo; they are both teen mothers only that one dropped out of school and the other rose through stigma and household poverty to continue with her education.
“I come to school at 8am and leave at 12 noon to go nurse the baby, “she says.
When we set out with her to her home, it takes 30 minutes to navigate through the village paths surrounded by thickets and maize plantations. She usually walks through the 7km journey to Dzitsoni Primary School.
“My dream is to join Ngara Girls after completing Kenya Certificate of Primary Education. I want to be a lawyer so that I can help other girls in my community,” she says.
Mbodze come from a family of five and her parents have since separated.
Hadly a kilometer away is 17 year old *Rehema, Mbodze’s classmate. She is a mother of a seven days old baby.
“I met my boyfriend at the funeral night vigil in the nearby Swere village. I used to call him through my mom’s phone and we would arrange to meet after school. He is a form three student,” says Rehema.
She says, “ when I became pregnant, I informed my boyfriend and he denied responsibility. From there on, I never wanted to see him or have anything to do with him.”
Rehema is lucky that her parents have been very supportive; when she is in school, her mom takes care of the baby.
“I want to learn so that I can have a good life,” says Rehema.
Why so many teen mums?
The life of Kadzo, Rehema and Mbodze mirrors the life of many teens in Kilifi and by extension across Kenya who are now forced to transition to mother hood at a young age. Their situation is not an isolated one. Over the last three years, Kilifi County has drowned under the weight of high numbers of teen pregnancy.
Statistics from the Kilifi County Ministry of Health shows that in 2017, 12,790 girls fell pregnant. In 2018 the numbers skyrocketed to 17,866 and in the period of January and March, 3102 girls were pregnant.
The Kenya Demographic Health Survey 2014 indicated that one out of five (18%) girls aged 15-19 years were pregnant or were already mothers. By February 2018, the County had approximately 203,094 teenagers.
In 2017, statistics from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) indicated that 378,397 adolescents in Kenya aged between 10 and 19 got pregnant. It is this worrisome statistics that continues to wipe out the future young girls.
For the 11 years that Olive Nyawana has been a teacher at Dzitsoni Primary School, the school has never experienced high numbers of teen getting pregnant but in 2018 and 2019 the numbers came as a shock.
“Previously we’ll have one or none. In fact for the last four years preceding 2019 we had none. This year we have four who are candidates,” explains Olive.
Olive who is a guiding and counseling teacher interacts daily with the Rehema and Mbodze, teen mums from the school. She says that she has been encouraging them to continue with schooling.
“I continuously talk to parents to be supportive of their children till they finish school,” says Olive who is also the Deputy Chairperson of the Beacon Teacher Movement in Kilifi.
As a Beacon Teacher, she has undergone trainings on child protection and GBV laws that are supported by CREAW’s Haki Yetu Jukumu Letu project in Kilifi and Meru Counties.
In her guiding and counseling sessions, Olive has adopted the use of materials that are child friendly and fun to hold conversations with pupils in her school. She teaches them on age appropriate sexuality issues.
As a teacher she has nurtured an environment where pupils are free to approach her with any challenges they experiences at home and while in school.
“Aside from the speak-out boxes that we have installed in school, we also have session with the boys and girls so that they are able to speak out freely,” says Olive who is also the Deputy Chairperson of the Beacon Teacher Movement in Kilifi County.
But why so many teen mums?
The 2016 Plan International report cited the root causes of teenage pregnancies in Kilifi as cultural practices, poor parenting coupled with broken marriages, poverty and inadequate sex and family planning education.
On cultural practices, the research touched deeply on the issue of funeral discos. It also cited long-held beliefs that girls’ work is to give birth in the society upon reaching puberty. The report noted that it is regarded as normal when a teenage girl gets pregnant before marriage. Some girls are exposed to drunkards at their homesteads, where mnazi (palm wine) business is done. This is more so in rural areas, where strict rules of establishing palm wine clubs away from home are not followed.
Ending teen pregnancies
In the wake of this, duty bearers continue to grapple and ponder on the appropriate redress mechanisms. Recently, there have been talks of introduction of Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) in schools to ensure healthy sexuality and reproductive lifestyles for adolescents as in countries like Netherlands, Switzerland and Denmark where such initiative has proven to be effective.
In 2014, a Reproductive Healthcare Bill was introduced in the Senate. The Bill sought to provide children as young as 10 with condoms and birth control pills. The bill also proposed unhindered access to CSE and confidential services to adolescents. Ideally this would have gone along way in building the knowledge of children on pregnancy among other reproductive health issues and as fate would have it, the Bill was shot down on grounds that it would promote moral decay.
Fast forward, here we are with the ballooning statistics on teenage mothers wiping out the potential of our girls. Who would blink first? Parents, government? And is the society ready to change and create room for unrestricted access to reproductive health services including information to the young ones?
The government of Kilifi is however well aware of the bigger problem that child pregnancy posits to the development of its citizens. As such, the County Government of Kilifi constituted a taskforce constituting line state and non-state actors to look into the matter.
“The culture of silence make it difficult for perpetrators to be held accountable and punished for their harmful actions. It shows how sexual violence against children has been normalized making it difficult to shield girls from sex predators especially at family level,” says Saumu Mwadime who has been representing Women on the Move Against (WIMA) GBV at the taskforce.
WIMA is women led accountability group that has been working closely with CREAW in educating communities and spearheading actions geared towards increasing transparency, responsiveness and accountability for public service delivery by the county governments.
As an anti-GBV crusader, Saumu notes, “even with the existing laws and policies to curb the menace, the roaring statistics on child pregnancy are nothing to write home about.” She says.
“I look forward to the Kilifi government enacting a gender based violence policy to ensure that the needs of survivors are well catered for and the vice mitigated,” adds Saumu.
Under the auspices of the Haki Yetu Jukumu Letu project supported by the Embassy of Netherlands in Kenya, CREAW has worked to empower women groups such as WIMA on gender based violence and the existing redress mechanisms postulated by the law. The knowledge to which they have used to sensitize communities to challenge norms and attitudes that promotes sexual violence against children and other forms of gender based violence.
Over the last three years, CREAW has been working within communities to end sexual violence among children among other forms of gender based violence. We have continuously engaged the custodians of culture to eliminate the barriers that put girls at harms way and build equitable societies for women and girls to realize their rights and thrive in their communities.
To address child pregnancies, WIMA members are continuously conversing with parents on good parenting skills. They have also been holding mentoring sessions in schools around Kilifi, speaking to girls on their sexual and reproductive health rights and way they can report sexual violations.
For girls who fell pregnant while in school like Kadzo, Rehema and Mbodze, WIMA members have formed a supportive system to address their needs while in school and at home. For example, they have approached the office of the Women Representative to sponsors girls like Kadzo to continue her education. This year alone, the Office of the Women Representative has sponsored 91 girls in various secondary schools through the affirmative action funds.
Dressed in purple and white; a sign of royalty and peace- they all came to witness the climax of the journey they had travelled so long. 12th September 2019 it a was! A new dawn reckoned and the little known women group, Wima Women Empowerment network (WIMA), was now a fully-fledged community based organisation.
Three years ago, 33 WIMA members came together with a soul purpose to eliminate cases of gender based violence (GBV) that was ailing communities in Kilifi. At the time, GBV matters were only spoken in undertones and most cases would go unreported because of the cultural constrictions.
It is such barriers that also continue to chain women voices- and when the silence was too loud, WIMA’s actions to change societal attitudes and norms became louder. Through their network, they continued to build momentum, galvanising support from the various community (chiefs, Kaya elders, women) and county government structures to free women from the chains of gender inequalities.
And as Helda Tujara tells us, the community dialogues they have held in the community have created spaces for men and women to reflect on power imbalances at family level and how best to parent children- giving them equal educational opportunities for better future.
“Pictorial exhibitions showcasing the effects of domestic violence have helped stimulate conversations, educated communities and translated into change of perceptions and community support in actions geared towards addressing violence against women and girls,” a happy Helda tells us.
Helda and other members of WIMA are proud to have been supported by the Haki Yetu Jukumu Letu project implemented by CREAW in Kilifi and Meru Counties with the support from the Embassy of the Netherlands in Kenya.
Through the project, WIMA members were trained on the laws that appertain to gender based violence, citizen-led social accountability, budget monitoring and accountability. From the knowledge, they have built collective agency, risen to break the silence and demanded for accountability in GBV service delivery.
Helda who has been the chairlady of WIMA since its onset, explains to us that the passion to protect women and girls from the scourge of GBV drove them to work with a unity of purpose.
“We wanted girls to thrive and women to live in peaceful households with their families.
Currently, the skyrocketing teen pregnancy statistics hoovers over our heads. We must start over and parent our children properly,” says Helda noting that it is that moment that actors, parents and community as a whole took action.
As the chairlady, she speaks strongly on inclusivity. “Women and girls are a critical mass in communities. Thus, they also have a voice in the decisions that affects the larger community. We do it not for us but for the benefit of the entire community,” she says.
At the core of their work is empowerment; as they strengthen their knowledge and build confidence on community work, they have also ensured that other line stakeholders and county structures are enjoined in their activities.
“As GBV champions, we are well known in the community and the county also recognizes us. During the budget making processes, we are given chance to participate and present our issues,” says Sophia Suleiman also a longtime member of WIMA. Such endeavours have helped in improving government responsiveness to the needs of women and girls.
For the first time in Kilifi since the onset of the devolved government, a fully fledged gender department was established owing to the efforts of WIMA. And as Sophia tells us, theirs is a vision that calls for a responsive government and a supportive community to address the plight of survivors.
“Among us, are also the referral champions who continuously receive cases from communities
Last year, WIMA was among the stakeholders appointed by the County Government of Kilifi to look into the issue of teen pregnancy- and even though the report of the task force is yet to be made public, they are happy to be part of the team that would deliver change to many young girls in Kilifi.
“We hold conversations with bodaboda riders to change their behaviours since they have been the largest perpetrators of sexual violence against children. With that, we are making them champions and defenders of the rights of women and girls to reduce child pregnancies,” says Saumu Mwadime who represents WIMA at the teen pregnancy task force.
WIMA’s progressive endeavours are not only felt by the women and girls but the entire community. They lobbied and advocated for good infrastructure within their localities to improve safety and security. Last year, their actions saw the establishment of the Chasimba Police station- the first in Chonyi since time immemorial.
Apart from that, they have also been supporting survivors through their legal journeys; providing psychosocial support and legal information. These has gone along way in helping survivors navigate the often tedious justice system, hold perpetrators accountable for their actions and help survivors heal from the harm done to them.
Fast forward, here they are- living in the moment and helping their communities build sensitivity to the rights of women and girls. Continuously, they network with line partners to device local solutions to the emerging issues in the county.
“We have the power and thus change is the only thing that is inevitable. Our work continues,” concludes Laura Wawuda who represents the youthful wing of WIMA.
The changes in government announced on Tuesday by President Uhuru Kenyatta have raised a ray of hope for a gender balanced public service.
In the fresh changes, Mr Kenyatta appointed Betty Maina as Industrialisation Cabinet secretary and 15 new chief administrative secretaries (CAS) — eight are women.
The nomination of Ms Maina raises the number of women in the Cabinet to seven. They are Amina Mohamed (Sports, Culture and Heritage), Margaret Kobia (Public Service and Gender) and Farida Karoney (Lands and Physical Planning).
Others are Raychelle Omamo (Foreign Affairs), Sicily Kariuki (Water) and Monica Juma (Defence).
The CAS include Rachael Shebesh, Maureen Magoma and Winnie Guchu. Others are Wavinya Ndeti, Linah Jebii Kilimo, Ann Martha Mukami, Mercy Mukui, Mumina Bonaya and Nadia Ahmed Abdalla.
However, pundits say seven women in a 21-member Cabinet is still far from achieving gender equality compared to other countries in the region such as Rwanda and Ethiopia.
QUALITY IS IMPORTANT
Mr Chryspin Afifu, a gender and governance policy adviser, however told the Nation that the changes are a win for women in their quest for gender parity in public service.
He said the new appointments raise the ratio of women in the Cabinet to 30 per cent.
“We need to see a lot of policies being put in place among them women and sports, water, women and lands and property rights, employment in Middle East countries where reports of women being mistreated continue to come in,” he said.
Mr Afifu added that the push for gender parity should not only be pegged on numbers, but also on whether the women will do a good job.
Kenya has made progress in appointing women to powerful Cabinet positions. However, the Treasury seems to be still under the men’s stranglehold.
Since 1963, no woman has been appointed to head the ministry even as the country inches closer to achieving the two-thirds gender parity in Cabinet composition.
Prior to 2013, the ministries of Defence, Foreign Affairs and Commerce — considered powerful dockets — were headed by men.
In his first Cabinet appointments, Mr Kenyatta took a laudable step towards the constitutional requirement of two-thirds gender representation by opting for women to head these crucial ministries.
Raychelle Omamo made her maiden entry into the Cabinet as CS for Defence. Foreign Affairs was handed to Amina Mohamed while Phyllis Chepkosgey headed the East African Affairs, Commerce and Tourism.
Women have held the substantive ministries of public service, education and health in succession. And now Water and Industrialisation ministries would be held by women should Parliament approve their appointment.
Still, men have a firm hold on Finance. Nigeria, the largest economy in Africa with a $376.3 billion gross domestic product (GDP), has had three women running the Finance ministry consecutively since 2011.
Ms Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala headed the ministry between 2011 and 2015, handing it over to Kemi Adeosun, who in 2018 passed on the mantle to Zainab Shamsuna Ahmed, the incumbent.
Other 16 countries in Africa with past or present female Finance ministers include Tanzania, Uganda, Liberia, the Gambia, Namibia, Togo and Mozambique. Others are Zambia, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Burundi, Chad, Benin, Lesotho, Guinea and Tunisia.
Mercy Jelimo, an officer at the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness-Kenya, said women are capable of holding powerful positions, adding that time was ripe for the President to entrust them with the responsibilities.
She said that the appointment of seven women to the Cabinet is good progress considering Kenya’s history of marginalising women in leadership.
Rwanda is one of the countries in Africa with the most gender balanced Cabinet as women form half of the 26-member Cabinet.
As we approach the New Life Tabernacle church in Nkubu, a sweet, soothing melodious sound fills the air. We are mesmerised! The heavenly tones are weaved in such a beauty that creates an aura of peace and serendipity.
Saturday evening and the sunset has filled the sky with deep red flame, setting the clouds ablaze. Inside the church, the red and sky blue curtains drapes around the iron sheet thatched walls, illuminating our minds to a rather conversational evening.
Seated at the right corner is Pastor Anthony Maina, deeply consumed in the melody. His fingers run over the piano keys so gracefully and he closes his eyes as he feels each melody he plays. He looks up and smiles to welcome us to the pulpit that has been his way of life for the last 20 years.
Maina’s calling goes beyond the pulpit; and as he tells it all, his vision has been to see an empowered society- his voice from the pulpit not only feeds his flock scripture wise, but also transfers words of nobility that mobilises his flock to address the plight of the community.
“For me, an ideal society is where everyone is aware of what is good and what is bad. I believe that everyone is gifted to make a difference however small their actions are,” he says holding his head a little higher; depicting hope for better.
Three years ago, Maina and 80 other pastors formed the Imenti South Pastors Association (ISPA); bringing together clergymen and women from various denominations with a common goal of uplifting the society and providing support to one another.
“We realised that we needed a collective voice to speak out on issues that affects our community,” he says.
Maina now the chairperson of the ISPA says he was privileged to be part of the community actors who were trained by the Center for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW) on how to map out gender based violence, mitigate it and work with other county structures to ensure that women and girls are better protected and able to thrive in the community.
As a religious leader, Maina is an influential member of the community and as such his opinion on social matters is held with high regard.
His order of day entails daily church summons and pastoral visits in the community. It is here that he converses against social ills such as gender based violence (GBV) and advocates for respectful relationships among men and women.
As such, CREAW’s Haki Yetu Jukumu Letu initiative in partnership with the Netherlands Embassy works to capacity build religious leaders like Maina to continuously engage in conversations on matters GBV at the pulpit and in wholesomeness to shun bad behaviors and encourage community to coexist peacefully.
“Talking about GBV is not easy. Talking about it to a population that is highly patriarchal is even harder and requires skill, patience, charm and persistence,” says the Reverend whose calm, cheerful and friendly demeanour continue to bestow community confidence in him.
During our interactions, his community oriented perspective draws us to the personality and qualities that has enabled thrive as the man of cloth for decades, carving out a niche for himself as a much trusted ear of confession, shoulder to lean on and from whose lips wise counsel can be found by hundreds of his flock in the neighborhoods.
In the community, his deeds and that of fellow clergy in the ISPA speaks loud- a Kilometer away is the Nkubu Police Station where they are currently putting up a holding cell for women.
In one of the Court Users Committee, which he is a member, he got a report about a seven months old baby who died in the police holding cells.
“It is very undignified to lose a young life in such a manner. I engaged my fellow pastors and together we visited the station to ascertain the condition. To our surprise, adults were being made to share cells with children in dilapidated condition,” he narrates, explaining that they made a resolve to raise funds to establish a standard cell with sanitary structures, beddings and child friendly cells for women at the station.
He says the CuC sittings have enlightened him on the operations of the legal systems. More so, he has been able to understand the Alternative Dispute Resolution Mechanisms through the various court training. With the knowledge, he has been helping families resolve land feuds amicably.
“Every year, we map out the immediate social needs in the community, raise funds to actualise it and give it to the community,” say the Reverend.
In 2018, the group visited Meru Women Prison and saw the need for a more women friendly space. Again the ISPA through their table banking monthly contributions, bought mattresses, sanitary towels and other personal effects. This has gone along way in improving living conditions for Women in prisons.
One of the issues that Meru Community grapples with is the disinheritance of women especially when it comes to land ownership. This the Maina, attributes to lack of awareness on the law and inheritance.
“It is unfortunate that when husbands die, their widows are disinherited and left without means to build their livelihoods- we end up with a community where women are oppressed and a generation that is hopeless. Such is a source of disharmony. We must advocate for equal share of land,” explains Maina.
and about the future?
“We are looking forward to establishing a Counselling Center to help women and children deal with psychological trauma. We want to prevent cases of femicide and other forms of GBV. Thus we are engaging like-minded organisations and government structures to support the initiative,” he says.
Meru Youth Arts Program (MYAP), have revolutionised their skits to not only build a buzz but also rally their communities against retrogressive cultural practices that promotes violence against women and girls.
Amid the wheat tucked in greenery fields, Meru stands tall as one of the counties that has enacted a sexual and gender based violence policy geared towards the prevention, response and management of gender based violence but beneath the milestone, the youth who form the larger population of the agricultural rich region still stare at a myriad of challenges, perpetuated by the societal underpinnings.
From unemployment, mental health issues, female genital mutilation to unwanted pregnancies, and now the skyrocketing cases of femicide pitying the youth at the mercy of their own struggles.
But is it a case of a failed system?
Not exactly, as MYAP tells us during the recent interview with CREAW. Despite the grueling challenges, the MYAP are turning the tides, amplifying their voices to push back the ills that bedevil their peers and the community at large. To them, dramatized conversations are just a starting point to change.
“As we speak about reproductive health issues among young people, we are also addressing the gendered inequality that brings squabbles to the community,” explains Santa Kagendo, the Organizing Secretary of MYAP.
“We came together to galvanize our voices through arts. In this, we knew the society would identify with the issues that mostly affect them. Key among them; female genital mutilation that denies young girls bodily autonomy and put their lives at risks,” adds Santa.
For MYAP, the power of creative words cannot be underscored when addressing gender violence; a topic that is a taboo in most household. Activism through art not only gives them the power to empower their peers but also change societal attitudes regarding issues such as female genital mutilation and domestic violence.
“Dramatizing issues in local dialects brings to touch the issue at hand with the community. People are not only able to understand but also internalize what repercussions violent actions could bring to families,” says Santa.
Every week the MYAP group has two days set aside to develop their skits based on the issues that emerges in their localities. Most of them are not only activists but also change agents in their own rights.
On this particular Saturday morning when we meet at their usual youth center tucked within the Family Care Medical Center, they are having a discussion about the wave of femicide that has rocked their peers.
Leading the conversations is Jamila Mohammed as the young men and women take turns to voice out their opinions. After, they head on to Gakoromone Market; some two kilometers away where they mesmerize the onlookers with their multicolored costumes and props. Soon, the crowd builds up.
“It always begins with an icebreaker,” says Clinton Mwenda alias Skinny
“Their skit is set in a household with a family of six. The couple in their fifties at first paints a picture of a happy home but behind the scene, the husband is hooving around with a 20 year old clandestine who is also in a romantic affair with the son.
After awhile, the wife is made aware of the husband’s meanderings and the home turns chaotic with revelations of HIV infections.” – Such paints the reality of household marred by domestic violence. How then do they address it?
“Conversations with market sellers that follows the street theatre, gives them an opportunity to query the violent actions and discuss bad behaviours collectively. They begin to understand that violence is unacceptable and adopt positive actions,” says George Kimathi.
The end game to them, is that women and men foster respectful relationships. “From where we stand, we believe each person can be part of the solution,” explains George.
Apart from the street theatre, MYAP also holds community dialogues in the villages and behavior change conversations in high schools and universities around Meru. They also use mass media to create awareness on GBV issues.
“So far the reaction has been good especially the youth who are now more comfortable to report and discuss issues affecting them,” he says.
Beyond their artistic prowess, their successes are also depicted in the manner in which they build partnerships with key GBV actors and county government structures for effective and quality service delivery to the populations that their group exists to serve.
“For a long term the most facilities in the County lacked youth friendly centers. Most youth were shying away from seeking health in hospitals because the spaces were not favorable for them and so we petitioned the county and now we have two centers that serve the youth,” explains Santa.
“ Physical disability does not mean you’re mentally challenged.”
These are the words of Lucy Nkatha as she reflects of how tough it was for her to gain access education due to her physical disability. Today she is eloquently challenging the barriers that underpin the growth of differently abled persons and more so women and girls.
As most children with disability growing up in the remote areas of Meru, going to school is an out of reach dream. Most schools are physically inaccessible to children with special needs like in the case of Lucy back then. She ended up spending most of her childhood in an orphanage just so she could get education. But even with that, her dream long journey to ascend to tertiary level of education proved futile- life at the orphanage was a hard one.
“My childhood was tough. I don’t feel I was able to realise my full potential,” says Lucy.
She says, she was discriminated by the community she was born and bread. From her experiences, she understood that change could only happen to other children who are differently abled if she used her voice to make it better for them.
“Because of the stigma, families see persons with disability (PWDs) as a burden, thus most children are not able to get equal opportunities as other children,” she explains.
As a result, she founded the Kiengu Women Challenged to Challenge, a Self Help Group to advocate for the rights of Persons With Disability. To date, the group has attracted a membership of 30 other advocates who share in her passion.
Through the group, they continually engage the county government and the local administration to improve schools for children with special needs and to enact disability friendly policies to create a level playing field where PWDs can actualise their rights and lead better livelihoods.
“We realised that we have so many children in y village who were not able to go to school and so we approached the head teacher of a nearby school and together we did a proposal and was awarded Sh300000 which we used to fund the construction a dormitory,” she says while explaining that they continue to fundraise to ensure that they have a fully fledged special school in the next two years.
Lucy is thankful to CREAW for enhancing their skills and building their confidence to speak out and engage better with their community on issues of rights and equality.
Her successes also spread to the manner in which she also advocate for the improvement of public spaces to accommodate the needs of PWDs. The highlight of it all is when she and her group were able to successfully petition the Office of the County Development Fund in Igembe Central to construct a ramp to enable PWDs access the offices.
What did it take?
“When I saw the building I was enraged and I thought we needed accountability for our rights to be recognised. It took months exchange of letters and meetings. Finally the ramp is a reality and we are able to access all the floors in a two story building,” she explains.
She says the other part of the work that remains is to maintain the momentum in conversing with the community more so, parents about the needs and rights of PWDs to stem out the stigma completely.
and for the future?
“We want to spread beyond Igembe Central to other parts of the county. In the next five years we want to be a community based organisation that would make inclusion a reality in our community,” she says.
“It is time for people to focus on our abilities not our disabilities,” she concludes.