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I am a believer in pursuing one's passion and enabling others to realize their potential. Working with women and girls is my passion.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Until all women are free

"The day will come when men will recognize woman as his peer, not only at the fireside, but in councils of the nation. Then, and not until then, will there be the perfect comradeship, the ideal union between the sexes that shall result in the highest development of the race. " Susan B. Anthony

Last week, I was in a very animated discussing with one of my close friends that took a very interesting turn. He was of the opinion that the fight for women’s rights has neglected the boys and in fact boys and men are more in need of these interventions. The issue was on some violence that had happened, and there was no back up statistics to show that indeed more boys and not girls were experiencing violence; that more men are victims of gender based violence. The discussion was interrupted hence we didn’t come to some conclusion but not before I mentioned that I believe women all over the world have so much in common and hence ‘we will never be free until all women are free’. The advocacy on rights of women is not advocacy on violating men; this has never been the case. The truth is that due to power imbalance women are generally more at the receiving end.

Today (Tuesday 7th September 2009) as I travelled to work I couldn’t help but note various cases women’s rights violations that were highlighted in the media. Top on this is the story that has been in the limelight over the last few weeks of Lubna Hussein. Lubna is a Sudanese woman who was arrested at a Khartoum party on July with 12 other women and had faced the possibility of 40 lashes for wearing trousers deemed indecent. Ten of the women were flogged in July, but she defied this and instead opted for the court option. There has been a lot of public outcry on this and finally she was sentenced on September 7th.

The court ordered her to pay a fine of 500 Sudanese pounds ($209) or a one month jail term. She refused to pay the fine, indicating that she did not want to "give the verdict any legitimacy" hence opted for the jail. She was later freed after one day. Mohedinne Titawi, of the Sudanese Union of Journalists, said the union had paid the fine to secure her release. Hussein's case was seen as a test of the decency regulations, which many women activists say are vague and give individual police officers undue latitude to determine what is acceptable clothing for women
[i] [i]. The refusal to pay a fine was in characteristic with her earlier actions where she opted to resign from the United Nation where she was entitled to immunity, but instead chose to face the Sudanese law. She says “I fight for Sudan’s future generation” in her article in The Star daily([ii])

Upon further flipping the pages of another newspaper, I came across another story of a young woman who is facing the wrath of her community in her bid to offer leadership. Amina Muhumed Sirat is the area chief of Meri Sub-Location in Wajir South in Kenya’s North Eastern Province[[iii]].  However the elders (read men) have driven her away as they wouldn’t have a woman as a leader! Amina was appointed to her position on 20th July 2009, as a Chief, a local administrative position, but she cannot even reside in her own home. She had to flee with her husband and son to the District Commissioner’s home. The fact that she has grown up in that area doesn’t help her in her Somali community where the elders have clearly rejected her. For her to have pursued her academics to a Diploma level in this stereotypical environment must have been quite a challenge for a girl, yet after all the efforts she is not able to make the difference she wishes in her community. She is qualified and hardworking, but that counts less, she is a woman, not a leader hence she cannot give orders in the community; that is the role of elderly men. Her gender and age stands in her way.

Kenyan is a signatory to many international protocols and conventions, and the constitution guarantees equal rights to all citizens. Every person is entitled to certain rights – simply by the fact that they are a human being. They are "rights" because they are entitlements that you are supposed to be, to do or to have. When human rights are not appreciated, abuses such as discrimination, intolerance, injustice, oppression and slavery arise. Born out of the atrocities and enormous loss of life during World War II, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created by the United Nations to provide a common understanding of what everyone’s rights are. It forms the basis for a world built on freedom, justice and peace[iv].

Men and boys also face discrimination, in different ways in different areas. However in Africa, most of the violations that women face are due to the patriarchal system which gives men domination over women. Culture is used to justify these actions and most of the times the cultural issues get mixed up with religious issues in some instances.  However, it is worth to note is that most of the violations of women’s rights have similarities in different regions despite the socio-economic and cultural differences. While Lubna and other women face the violations associated with dressing, many women in Kenya have faced these violations with different justifications. Some unlawful groups in Kenya have violated women in the name of ‘reserving the culture’ whereby women are forced to undergo female genital mutilation and banned from wearing trousers. There have been cases of women being stripped naked in public for ‘dressing indecently’. In October 2008, a pastor for a Church in Nairobi declared that trouser wearing was banned in his Church. On the other hand the counterpart in Nigeria of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) Pastor Enoch Adeboye, banned women from wearing trousers to church[[v]]. At around the same time, in (October 2008) South Sudan's president shut down a police investigation that had seen many of young women arrested for "disturbing the peace" by wearing tight trousers. The police officers had been rounding up young women in Juba for apparently disturbing peace by wearing tight trousers. "They were wearing trousers that were too tight, disturbing the peace," said Deputy Police Commissioner of Juba County Raiman Lege[vi].

The ripples went further in Uganda where in September 2008 there was uproar and long debate that permeated into Kenya when the Ethics and Integrity government Minister sought to have miniskirts banned “because women wearing them distract drivers and cause traffic accidents”. Nsaba Buturo told journalists in Kampala that wearing a miniskirt was like walking naked in the streets. "What's wrong with a miniskirt? You can cause an accident because some of our people are weak mentally," he said[[vii]]. The debate was live even in Kenya and more so the local FM radio stations with mostly male callers supporting this call.

In these cases the women and girls were seen as ‘leading men into temptation’ and men as the innocent victims, which in itself degrades men’s power of self control, while blaming women for any crimes committed against them. It has led to justifications of violence against women and especially sexual gender based violence where the women are blamed for the violations against them. Questions like “how were you dressed? Where were you going?” etc have deterred many women and girls from reporting cases of violation while the perpetrators feel justified.

Amina’s case is also not unique but women have faced this in different ways in different regions at various levels. While some communities in Kenya have allowed women to speak in public, this is also limited to some areas that are not seen as being powerful public spaces, hence women who aspire to be in top leadership face a myriad of problems more than the male counterparts. The stereotypes that assume leadership to be a male domain are still persistent hence women who break the odds are often given masculine names / connotations. The former ministry of Justice & constitutional affairs in Kenya, Martha Karua has been acknowledged as one of the great leaders in Kenya and was often referred to as ‘the only man in the government’. Those same words were used on a woman leader in the Kenyan history. Cierume was a woman from Mbeere who was very famous because of her perseverance and bravery. By the time the British came to Mbeere and Embu, Cierume had already established herself and become renowned as a leader of her community and a great warrior and was later made Chief by the colonial rulers. It is said that her name came from the name ‘mundu murume’ which implies ‘man/male’ since her great leadership and bravery could not be associated with femininity with women[[viii]]. 

The challenges that women in leadership faced and still face is associated with the beliefs that leadership is a male domain. In Kikuyu custom for example, there is a process for a man to be made an elder hence be welcomed into the ‘kiama’ by giving out a goat. Up to date it is believed that a man who has not given this is still a boy hence cannot chair or give judgments. This is one of the roles that Chiefs and Asst. Chiefs are expected to perform yet the ‘kiama’ is not for women. This therefore presents a quagmire for women who are appointed to such positions. A friend of mine, Mary who is a District Officer shared with me that her time working in a Division in Rift Valley province of Kenya was rough since they kept referring to her as ‘the girl’ hence she had to work extra hard and rely on the support of the male District Officer in order to fulfill her duties. These and other experiences bring to limelight the similarities in women’ issues across the globe. The spiral effects of abuse of women’s rights in one region to other regions cannot be over emphasized.

Susan B. Anthony quote therefore rings in my head, "The day will come when men will recognize woman as his peer, not only at the fireside, but in councils of the nation. Then, and not until then, will there be the perfect comradeship, the ideal union between the sexes that shall result in the highest development of the race. "

True no woman is free until all women are free, and the world will be a better place!


[i] http://www.reuters.com/article/africaCrisis/idUSL7656737?rpc=60
[ii] The star, Tuesday, September 8, 2009, page 15
[iii] North Eastern province is  a semi arid area which is highly patriarchal with high level of women’s rights violations
[iv] http://www.youthforhumanrights.org/introduction/index.html
[vi] http://www.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idUSTRE4976YT20081008 
[vii] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7621823.stm 
[viii] http://maflib.mtandao-afrika.net/MAF060063/WomenInHistory.htm

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

I dream

I have a great role, and the world will be world be better when I do my part, that’s my belief.
While growing up, I was taught all human beings deserve a good life, but as I grew up I realised how far from truth this is. I remember one time I was requesting that woman who looked very needy be allowed to eat for free in a hotel! In my innocence I felt this was the way life needs to be after all the dressing showed that she couldn’t afford a meal; yet she was hungry! This was my sister’s hotel & I knew my sister would not mind. However, the person in charge told me “Sophie, the world is fair, one day you will understand” and with this life went on ‘as usual’ she went away hungry.
Have I understood? May be not, but I have ‘known’, and that’s why I still have dreams and I dream of a better world; where everyone in the community has equal access, opportunities and capacity to make decisions. This is a dream that I believe can partly be fulfilled in my world, in my community. I strongly believe that there is a way of bringing about lesser inequalities, that the woman I experienced so many years ago, and everyday should be able to get some food. I have a dream of communities where everybody has the space to exploit their potential to the fullest, women and men, girls and boys. I envision a society whereby individual’s worth will not be judged by their gender. My personal vision is that each and every day I make a difference, positive difference in someone’s life.
Yes, like Martin Luther King, I have a dream, a big dream.
There are many disparities in the community that need to be confronted in order to transform people’s lives. Each and every day brings to me more awareness of the disparities between women and men’s lives and the unfairness of this. I experience the unfairness too in different ways in different circumstances. For the vision that I treasure to be achieved there is need to communities and individuals to all participate in their own different ways, either in telling the story for the reality to be known or in offering alternatives, hence need to be empowered & their voices amplified. Women and girls in particular are disadvantaged where they often go unheard and hence I remain focused in the lives of women and girls which have been affected by patriarchy and where silence has been very loud.
I believe that I have a great role in amplifying the voices that are too silent to be heard in the busy world. I will not only be touching lives but also making the world know about life of people in my community. There is a lot of misconception about women and girls lives in Africa and hence the strength they have often go unnoticed. My role will therefore be to offer both positive and not so positive experiences of women which can touch lives of others in the world and as a result get information that can make African women’s lives better and more fulfilling.
Sometimes I feel my voice is too soft, too alone, to insignificant…to make a difference, but yet I dream. I dream of making a difference in the lives of many women and girls, men and boys.
This is my dream.