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Obama’s Kenyan Women

July 14, 2009
I am woman, hear me roar

I am woman, hear me roar

A carefully hand painted sign on clean, corrugated tin, reading, “Welcome Senator” still hangs above a small dirt alley way in Kibera, Kenya’s massive slum where President Obama visited in 2006. Now Kenya’s son’s first visit to the continent after making history in U.S. elections has come and gone, with a visit to golden child Ghana. Two days were a blink, with barely enough time for Obama to shake a little booty to some Ghanaian beats and chide Kenya’s lethargic and corrupt government.

Kenyans felt the sting, and it coincided with the turning over of the infamous Waki list by Kofi Annan to the International Criminal Court, naming those implicated in organized post-election violence. More than 600,000 Kenyans were displaced, and nearly 1,500 killed. That was almost two years ago, but many are still living in camps with no prospect for resettlement in sight. The word around here is that Kenyans are tired of impunity, tired of excuses, and tired of having fallen from grace. They want action, accountability, and change they can believe in. Obama praised Kenyan civil society and spouted high hopes for good governance in Africa. But there’s something else that’s lacking political will around here, and dragging the country down, if you ask me, and that’s the status of women.

Men very often have the upper hand here, whether it comes to land rights, the right to take additional spouses, the lack of accountability on paying child support, or the lack of condom use. Not to paint broad brush strokes, but I’ve heard it from many, many women here. The 2006 Sexual Offenses Act, passed after super-human efforts by grassroots women’s rights groups and the powerful punch of then-Member of Parliament Njoki Ndungu, set an exceptional standard for protecting women and childrens’ rights.  It covers everything from incest to rape to the exploitation of prostitutes.  But touchy issues like marital rape and genital mutilation and cutting were struck from the bill as it squeaked by a male-dominated Parliament.

And reproductive rights? Don’t push it. Abortion in Kenya is illegal except to save the life of the mother, though this is interpreted differently.  Few have the patience or success to go the legal route and instead find quack providers or take matters into their own hands. Low estimates say 800 women a day in Kenya seek unsafe abortions. Many die from infections and blood loss, essentially due to shame and stigma. The A word is a very dirty word here.

President Obama was right to laud Kenyan civil society, and he should have given a shout out to Kenyan women themselves who are finding creative ways to raise their voices amidst a torrent of testosterone.  Remember the sex strike earlier this year?  Kenyans look up to Obama and they listen to him like they haven’t listened to a foreign leader before. Now is the time to throw his political weight toward ensuring policies that protect and promote women’s rights. He can only lead by example, though, and while he’s done a pretty damn good job so far, he could start by ratifying CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. After all, the no-ratify club ain’t all that fun – just us, Sudan, Iran, Somalia and few tiny others.

One Comment
  1. Rhonda S permalink
    July 30, 2009 9:09 pm

    Fantastic coverage from Nairobi, J. Mack! It’s outrageous that after the international shock of post-election violence, not much has changed. And even more disappointing that the U.S., through Kenya’s favorite export, has missed an opportunity to express support for Kenya’s women and those fighting to improve their position. After the Bush years of abstinence only and the global gag rule, the U.S. has some damage to undue. Thanks for a great series from Nairobi!!

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