Kenyan women must get equal opportunities


Tuesday was International Women\’s Day and appropriately the UK Government on this day launched a new strategic vision for girls and women to uplift the status of women.  How will this affect Kenya?  Well let\’s look at some statistics.

Kenya is performing poorly on gender equality, ranking 111 out of 136 countries on the UN Gender Development index.  For example, in health.

In Kenya, young women aged 15-19 are more than five times as likely to be infected with HIV/AIDS than 15-19 year old males.  The Kenya Demographic Health Survey (2008-9) found that only 44percent of babies were delivered in the presence of a health professional. 

Most Kenyan women (57percent) have their babies at home.  Often, when complications occur, this endangers their lives, and those of their babies.  Only 17percent of mothers in North Eastern and 25percent in Western province delivered their babies in health centres according to the demographic health survey.

It seems unacceptable that in the 21st century for so many women, pregnancy and childbirth should still represent such risks.

In education, more than 40perccent of women across Kenya are illiterate, despite almost as many girls as boys enrolling and finishing primary education nationally.  Fewer girls than boys enrol in and finish secondary and tertiary education.  Kenya\’s university enrolments in 2008 stood at 60percent men and 40percent women.

In politics, only 7percent of Kenya\’s MPs are women, below the Sub-Saharan African average of 16percent, and well below some of its EAC neighbours.  This constrains women\’s ability to influence resource allocation and policies that could improve the general welfare of women.  Though, I was delighted to see in an opinion survey out on Tuesday that a majority of Kenyans now think that Kenya is ready for a woman President.

It is estimated that only 4percent of women in Kenya own land, and fewer have registered land titles.  This seriously impedes their access to formal financial services that they could use to uplift their socio-economic status.

But Kenya\’s new constitution does have the potential for substantial gains for women and a concrete opportunity to redress persisting gender gaps.  And as for other parts of the constitution, we would like to help implement such aspirations.

In fact the UK Secretary of State for International Development Andrew Mitchell was last week named as one of the top 100 people fighting to improve girls\’ and women\’s lives worldwide.  He was described as an architect and guardian of "Europe\’s progressive, woman-centred aid policy", having ensured that "women in the developing world are at the centre of European foreign assistance agendas".

So what concrete work are we pursuing in Kenya?  The new UKaid initiative will help girls finish both primary and secondary school.  DFID is providing girls from very poor families with cash transfers to pay fees and buy other school-related supplies, so as to greatly increase the percentage of girls completing class five.

We will also support action research, through an Adolescent Girls Initiative, looking at what combination of health, education and assets will best lifts the most number of girls out of poverty.

For secondary school, UKaid is providing 400 girls and 200 boys with full scholarships covering all their schooling costs plus pocket money.

The UK government is also supporting activities that encourage adolescent girls to delay first pregnancies, and improve expectant mothers\’ access to trained health professionals at delivery to prevent unnecessary deaths.

And the initiative will help women access more employment through targeted investment funds that support women\’s enterprises, especially in arid and semi-arid lands.

All of this will be complementary to the many other programmes in Kenya that aim to empower women, through health, through education, through economic opportunity.  Economic assets give girls and women options, power, and a chance to generate income. 

Interventions are needed to change the way society treats girls and women, to build a more positive environment where girls and women can hold assets and use them productively.  In turn this should make it more possible for women to take control of their lives, including entering into politics.

As Africa\’s first and only woman President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf once said, "Leadership is never given on a silver platter, one has to earn it".  Levelling the playing field by paying attention to the need for gender equality is a means to make leadership positions for woman in Kenya a more realistic aspiration.

Macaire is the British High Commissioner to Kenya.  This blog was first published on the FCO website

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