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In this issue I will diverge a bit from my usual summary of what JBAC is doing in Kenya. Instead, I will reflect on the world-wide gender divide and the activities people, communities and countries take to overcome it. 

I will share with you some conversations I had and put in a bit of my own thought. It would be great if you would like to engage in the conversation. So email me.

For the safety of the people who opened up and talked to me about some of the most sensitive issues, I have changed their names and details, apart from their ages.

A bit about Kenya

Kenya, while one of the more progressive East African countries, still holds some strong traditional views. 

Some of the most remote tribes still practise Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), merry their girls off at early age for a substantial dowry, male-only polygamy, and traditional gender roles. 

Being a girl in some areas is as difficult today as it was a hundred years ago in Britain. Although attitudes are changing; due to the outside pressures but also within. 

Fathuma, age 17

“Why would Allah made us suffer?” asked Fathuma. “we are just …” she thought long and hard for a word and when she found one, it did not look like it was quite the right one. “…servants”.

She thought for a bit and then she continued. “My mum had me when she was 13. Thirteen, that’s just a child! But since I turned 15 she keeps reminding me of my duty. To find a husband, preferably 10 or 20 years older than me, and have as many children as humanly possible.” She looked sad and conflicted. Torn between loyalty to her mother and wanting something new for herself. 

“I don’t want to merry. I don’t want to have children. Not yet. I don’t want to be sold off to the highest bidder. I want to go to university. I want to merry for love. But I am a muslim girl and I must do what I am told.” 

“Did my mum never want anything more for herself? Can she not see that I am a human being and not just a property, a chess piece? Why is my brother allowed to dream, to better himself?”

What I saw was a girl torn between tradition and modern view of what a girl’s life should and could be like. 

I have changed her English a bit, to make it read better, but the content remains unchanged.

Eva, age 48

Eva is a lecturer at a Kenyan university. She has a son called Isaac. Eva’s view of girls versus boys in Kenya is from the point of a mother.

“Isaac is so smart. Too smart not to be able to study at the top schools.” she shakes her head sadly. “But I can’t afford to put him there without being able to get a scholarship. I applied. To so many, so many. But every time I do, I get the same reply “Isaac is very smart, but he is a he and we only have spaces for girls””. 

Eva takes a sip of her coffee to steady herself. She is visibly angry. “So I put him to the best schools I can afford, but even there girls are given the priority with pretty much everything’ she tick the answers off on her fingers. ‘Answers to questions. Further support. Limited lab time, computer time. They get put forward for special awards.’ 

‘The world hasn’t found a balance. It just turned the problem on its head. Penalising boys for being boys.’ 

I saw the pain, the frustration and the anger in her face, but I still found it difficult to sympathise with her knowing what girls go through – physical, mental and sexual abuse, loosing childhood when they are children themselves, no or lesser education, being seen as a property. That said, some schools and international charities might take gender over merit a little too readily.  

Frank, age 23

‘I am not married. And I should be. the society expects it of me. My family expects it of me. But I don’t want to take a wife. I don’t want to have a child. I just cannot financially support them, but I know, traditionally, that is my role.’ Frank laughs and looks away into the distance.

I sit patiently pondering his words and thoughts go to the increase number of suicides among young men in Kenya. The cultural and family pressures against the unemployment and financial instability drives many young men to despair. I wait with trepidation to see where Frank’s story is heading.

‘I spoke with my long-term girlfriend to ask whether she would be willing to go to work when we get married. You know to help with paying the rent, sending our children to school and well just to live’ his expression turned serious. ‘She said that is not her role, she said that she expects to be looked after by her husband just like her mother and her mother was. How can I do that? I earn $3 a day if I am lucky.’

While I see many women and many young girls working in the supermarkets and hotels there are still many more that look for husbands so they don’t have to work. Having children is preferable to them than work. And yet Kenya is becoming too expensive for one wage bringer to support his family. 

Lulu, age 21

‘I work in a hotel. I am a waitress. I like working. It gives me money I can use for things I want.’ Lulu plays with her bangles as she speaks to me. 

‘But the work is not regular. It is seasonal and I am one of the only five girls working here. We are usually the first to be let go.’ she stops talking for a long time and I thought she was done talking.

‘Boys don’t like girls to work. My ex-boyfriend go angry with me often. He didn’t like my financial independence. I won’t marry someone who wants to control me, but my friend did. She has to give all her money to her husband who spends it on drink and drugs. Her parents won’t protect her. They say it is a domestic issue, between the husband and wife. I don’t want that to happen to me.’ Now the floodgates were open, she didn’t pause for breath. Or so it seemed.

‘My mum nags me all the time. I am too old to be unmarried. She is ashamed of me. I know live with my auntie.’

Many girls are exposed to foreign influences. Tourists are common in Ukunda and we, female travellers, talk about our jobs, our lives, our travels, our children and our families. Films are accessible and they show women as powerful, free, financially independent. The world, especially the many NGOs tell girls that they can have more, be more. But is the change happening too fast? 

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