Kenyan women and their men: Who is winning the ‘battle of the sexes?’

Wednesday October 12 2011

Kenya, we learnt this week, is ranked the top country in the world for making reforms that are good for women (they called them “gender reforms”).

According to a report by the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation, over the last two years, Kenya did better than any country in, especially, getting rid of the things that made it difficult for women to do business.

A lot of the high marks came from the goodies women got through the new Constitution.

Now, of course, you have to ask yourself, what did the men who used to hog all the political and economic power get in return?

Well, another report told us Kenyan men rewarded themselves with one of the highest number of days for paternity leave in the world – 14.

This news came a few hours after I had read a chapter in Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s wonderful book, Super Freakonomics, which touched on women’s rights.


It is a follow-up on their controversial and widely-read first book, Freakonomics.

The point Levitt and Dubner make is that the kind of progressive laws on women passed in the Kenya Constitution often have little effect.

That while, one might see improvements, they are often caused by something else that policy makers are not aware of.

One example they give is from India where, as we all know, there is a very strong “son” preference.

Millions of female foetuses are aborted, and millions of baby girls are killed off after birth.

In some parts of the country, the chances of a baby girl being killed increases several times if she is born with a deformity.

Midwives are paid $2.5 (Sh300) to smother newborn baby girls as soon as their mothers figure out that they have cleft lips.

In this environment, the broader rights situation of women is terrible.

Over 100,000 Indian women die in fires every year, Levitt and Dubner report, most of them in “bride burnings”.

A health survey found that 51 per cent of Indian men think wife-beating is justified.

No surprise there, as you will probably find the same or higher percentage in Kenya, Tanzania, or Uganda.

The interesting thing is that 54 per cent of Indian women agreed with them – particularly when (wait for it), a wife burns dinner or leaves the house without permission.

The thing about all this is that these abuses are banned by law, and the Indian national and state governments do put a lot of effort in putting a stop to them.

And civil society groups have also sunk in a lot of effort and money to fight the prejudices.

From about 10 years ago, however, those who keep an eye on these kinds of things started to notice a big change in both attitude and practice in parts of the country.

Studies found that “son preference” was declining. More and more women were refusing to accept wife-beating, and they started to keep their daughters in school longer.

A lot more women began opting to have fewer children, and no longer believed they needed a man’s permission to leave the house.

You could be forgiven for rushing to conclude that government policy and the work of NGOs deserved the credit for the changes.

However, two visiting American researchers looked at the data and found out there was little evidence for that.

Rather, something which the government had nothing to do with, and that was never intended to improve the lot of women, had caused most the changes – commercial television, especially cable TV.

Watching women elsewhere dress as they chose, date the man/men of their choice, challenge male authority, make and enjoy their money, wield power in TV dramas, documentaries and news, had got a lot more Indian women to break free of their chains.

In Kenya’s case, I think, seeing all those successful female Kenyan athletes winning international marathons and returning home with millions; and watching women like Martha Karua virtually alone standing up to a houseful of men screaming at her; will probably inspire women to fight for a fair slice of the cake.

But most of all, I think FM stations in Kenya (and elsewhere in East Africa) have been the greatest liberators of women.

From the rebellious and fearless female presenters, to the multitude of women who call in to vent against injustices, there is a rebellion out there.

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