We hear of the atrocities committed in Uganda, Darfur and Somalia but very little about Kenya; except perhaps that it is in a better shape than most of its African neighbors. That changed when in May 13, Huffington Post published its article about “Beading,” stunning readers with its graphic details of the sinister cultural tradition practiced by Kenya’s Samburu tribe. Through this practice, girls as young as six are engaged to a male relative and are allowed to have sexual relations. Pregnancy is not allowed as members of the tribe firmly believe a newborn will reduce the girl’s chances of ever getting married, never mind the physical harm and mental trauma she has been afflicted. Despite the new legislations enacted by the government, mainly the Children Act (2006) and the Sexual Offenses Bill (2001) which protect women and girls from rape and incest, beading is socially accepted within the Samburu tribe. One father has argued that the practice combats “promiscuity among young girls” and added in its defense: “This is our culture, it is part of us. And we have been practicing it, and we accept that these girls should be beaded, and sometimes the girls just get pregnant.” Shocking? Clearly, the plight of Kenyan women is directly linked to the patriarchal system dominating the entire nation.
It is important though to understand the social, political and economic contexts which give insights into the layers of vulnerability that exacerbate the negative impacts of beading. Kenya lies along the equator in East-Africa and borders two war-torn states, Somalia and Uganda. According to the United Nations, Kenya is a low income, food-deficient country where fifty-two percent of people live below the poverty line, 40 percent are unemployed, and 1.3 million live with HIV and AIDS. The country has faced both natural disasters and violence. The most recent violence breakout followed the 2007 presidential election where the winning candidate, Mwai Kibaki was accused of electoral fraud. While the violence was ethnically driven, women and girls were raped regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. According to the Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya, over 3000 women were sexually assaulted during the post-election period (December 27, 2007 – February 28, 2008); many of them are still awaiting justice.
The commonness and acceptance of rape characterize a patriarchal society where women are both marginalized and dominated by men; Kenya seems to fit the description. Gender inequality can be seen in all spheres of the public life as women face various social, economic and political barriers that impede their participation and maintain their second-class status within the society. The social barriers include cultural practices such as beading, child marriage and female genital mutilation, which while legally banned are socially sanctioned. These practices are not only traumatizing experiences to its victims but dangerous to the society at large as they perpetrate a culture of violence and impunity. Kenya suffers a profound gender disparity that is nurtured by social patriarchal norms and laws that have yet to be reformed; take for instance the constant attacks on women’s right to land and property: “while they contribute almost 80 % of the workforce, Kenyan women only hold 1% of registered land titles in their names.”
What is the government doing then? In the past ten years, the Kenyan government has produced evidence to its commitment to the battle against violations of women’s rights, mainly through the enactment and reform of laws. However, there is still much to be done. According to the United Nations Population Fund, addressing gender equality and women’s empowerment requires strategic interventions at all levels of programming and policy-making. The UNFPA has suggested the focus on certain critical areas comprising: reproductive health (giving women control over their bodies and lives), economic, educational and political empowerment, and stewardess of natural resources. Kenya has a long way to go, but the progress so far has been possible because of the amazing work of local and international women’s organizations. Still, for an effective and grassroots change to be brought it is essential for both men and women to play an active role in the process; perceptions must be addressed and stereotypes challenged. Only then will Kenya be on a locked path toward development.
Some may disagree with a universalistic condemnation of these cultural practices and argue from a cultural relativist perspective that the change should come from within. The answer is: it is! Women like Kulea, a Kenyan activist have made it a personal mission to protect girls from harmful traditions and educate villages about their long-term negative physical and psychological impact; “I just felt that it is wrong,” she says. “Something wrong is going on in my community. And that is where my passion began. And so I decided to help out the girls.”
***If you would like to take action and learn more about these issues, follow this link: http://www.aidemocracy.org/take-action/
Huffington aticle about Beading: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/13/kenya-rape-beading_n_861257.html
UNFPA about Gender Equality: http://www.unfpa.org/gender/empowerment.htm