Sunday, June 7, 2009

Gender Festival in Kenya

Posted June 7, 2009
by L. Muthoni Wany

Kenya’s first ever Gender Festival took place over three days last week.

Inspired by the now biennial Tanzanian Gender Festival, it brought together several hundred community-based women’s organisations from across the country, together with national women’s organisations and networks. The Festival focused on what people and organisations fighting for women’s rights have been doing and could do better, particularly in light of what happened to us all last year.

As Patricia Nyaundi of the Federation of Women Lawyers-Kenya pointed out at the start: “Kenya is a country that is ailing... that needs healing.”

Betty Murungi, formerly of the Urgent Action Fund-Africa, pointed to the fact that what such organisations did here during the crisis was, in fact, not unique to Kenya — similar work was done by organisations in Asia (Sri Lanka), Europe (the Balkans) and Africa. Such organisations are generally flexible in their approach, and multidisciplinary.

Betty Murungi

They tend to focus on non-violent resistance to conflict, documentation of women’s experiences of conflict and service provision to address the most glaring human rights violations undergone during conflict and the displacement conflict engenders.

They then, when transitional justice mechanisms are taking off, focus on political participation as well as electoral, legal and political reform.

Murungi said the challenge for Kenya’s transitional justice mechanisms is twofold. First, acknowledging that women are not just victims/survivors of conflict, that some of us also “have blood on our hands.”

And second, while the Kenyan women’s movement pursues justice for what happened, we must be alert to the normalised and structuralised violence against women that existed before last year. We must not seek merely to restore the status quo.

MEN’S ROLES TOO WERE EXPLORED. Dr Willy Mutunga of the Ford Foundation spoke to the need for men to change their own notions of masculinity and thus change society.

His suggestion was that sharing in reproductive labour still predominantly assigned to women — cooking, cleaning, parenting — was one way to address the crisis of masculinity.

The fact is that many men, of all classes, are no longer able to engage in productive labour capable of maintaining men’s traditional roles as protectors and providers.

He also spoke to the growing backlash against the Kenyan women’s movement — as evidenced by the emergence of organisations like Maendeleo ya Wanaume, whose recent purported research into the extent of violence committed by women against men failed to note that the figures are simply not comparable with the extent (and acceptance) of violence against women.

Usu Mallya of the Tanzania Gender Networking Programme spoke of how violations of women’s human rights were intrinsically linked to systems of exclusion — patriarchy and neo-liberalism in particular, as well as the general crisis of leadership and governance across the continent. She spoke also of the role of the state in service provision and human rights promotion. What did the Gender Festival achieve? Well, it at least pointed to the potential for overcoming the divisions and fractures that have always existed in the Kenyan women’s movement — ethnic, generational, religious or rural/urban.

The necessity of doing so is evidenced by the hullabaloo created by the emergence of the G10 and its call for a sex boycott.
Their original demands for action on agreements reached by the mediation process may have been lost in the uproar, but they did manage, if inadvertently, to demonstrate the extent to which Kenyan women’s right to choose whether, when and how to have sex, including within a marriage are still violently resisted in many quarters.

If the Gender Festival provided a movement-building forum in which other kinds of hullabaloo can be created, that could only be a good thing. Hongera Kenyan women.

L. Muthoni Wanyeki is executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission

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