Women in Kenya

Women in Kenya
Miss kenya 08 Ruth Kinuthia.jpg
Juliana Rotich - World Economic Forum on Africa 2012.jpg
Gender Inequality Index[1]
Value0.548 (2013)
Rank122nd out of 152
Maternal mortality (per 100,000)360 (2010)
Women in parliament19.9% (2013)
Females over 25 with secondary education25.3% (2012)
Women in labour force62.0% (2012)
Global Gender Gap Index[2]
Value0.7 (2018)
Rank76th out of 149

The history of the evolution of the traits of women in Kenya can be divided into Women within Swahili culture, Women in British Kenya, and Kenyan Women post-Independence.[3] The condition and status of the female population in Kenya has faced many changes over the past century.

The British colonized Kenya from 1888–1963.[4] British imperialism had a large impact on Kenyan culture and still does today. Before British colonization, women played important roles in the community from raising children and maintaining the family to working on farms and in marketplaces. The influence of a patriarchy became even stronger with colonization which stripped women of many responsibilities and opportunities they once had.[5] However, some women such as Mekatilili wa Menza fought alongside men during the struggle for independence and are acknowledged in the country's rich history for their role.

Even after Kenya gained independence in 1963, women were still oppressed and not given many opportunities like education except for a small number of young women.[6] Women still faced many problems such as child marriages and arranged marriages, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), the AIDS epidemic as well as lack of education.[5] Although Kenya still has a long way to go in hearing the plight of women, there continues to be an improvement in financial, social and economic inclusion within the country at different stages ranging from dialogue, policy implementation, representation and so forth.

In Kenya, women do not get many decision making roles in the government, despite a gender rule in the 2010 constitution, which further sets women back. Although Kenya is behind in this case, there are a few influential women who took seats in the Kenyan government.[7]

Women in Pre-Colonial Kenya[edit]

The main functions of women in most precolonial societies of women were related to farming, child care, maintenance of the household, market vendors, and caring for their husbands, if married.[3] There were a few matriarchal societies, but the power structures often favored men. In a few societies such as the Akamba and the Nandi, women could marry women, often to protect them after their husbands died, or they discovered they could not bear children. In such settings, a woman would marry another woman and have children with a man of her choice.

Women in Colonial Kenya (1890–1963)[edit]

Kenyan women who lived during the period when Kenya was a colony of Britain existed from 1890 to 1963. These women lived in family units that, due to the influence of British colonial institutions, became patriarchal in structure and when cash-crop cultivation were controlled by men.[3] The British designed the capital city primarily for white settlers, with labour being provided primarily by Kenyan men. Women occupied a distant role in this power and labour structure, but still managed to make their voices heard.

In 1922, for example, a protest to demand the release of political activist Harry Thuku turned bloody after one of his most vocal supports, Muthoni Nyanjiru, told the protestors to do something other than stand outside the police station. Nyanjiru was shot in the ensuing massacre, and is today remembered as one of the first female Kenyan activists.

Missionary opposition to female circumcision[edit]

Between 1929–1932, British Protestant missionaries campaigned against the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), and were met with resistance primarily by the Kikuyu people.[8] Lynn M. Thomas, an American historian, writes that during the female circumcision controversy, the issue of FGM became a focal point of the independence movement against British colonial rule, and a test of loyalty—either to the Christian churches of the missionaries, or to the Kikuyu Central Association, the association of the Kikuyu people.[8]

Women in Post-Independence Kenya (1963–)[edit]

During the Post-Colonial period, women in Kenya continued to live in a society that has a patriarchal order. When Kenya gained independence in 1963, a few young women were able to attain education because of parents who became involved in religious mission activities since the Colonial era. Many of those who were not able to obtain education in schools, even those who were only 12 years old, were "married off". After 1995, due to the Beijing Platform for Action, many Kenyan women have benefited from the introduction of feminist point of views such as "female consciousness", "confidence as women", "gender equality" and justice for women. Many Kenyan women soon became active participants in Kenyan politics.[3]


The extent of education women received pre-colonization was how to do the jobs women had been doing for years such as wife, caregiver, child birth and housekeeping. Playing this role gave many Kenyan women a sense of identity which most women cherished. During and after colonization, however, educating the youth became more of a commonly accepted idea. Although there was access to education, it was difficult for Kenyan kids, especially girls, to receive a formal education simply because parents did not find it necessary to send their daughters to school. The education that young girls were receiving was similar to that of what they would learn from their mothers pre-colonization. That included skills such as child care and sewing and if the girls were lucky, they would be taught how to read and write. In the late 1900s it became more common for a girl to receive a primary education, but men, on the other hand, were going off to earn degrees and get jobs whereas women were staying at home taking care of the home.[6]

By the 1990s, almost 50% of the students attending primary schools in Kenya were girls. This large jump occurred over time due to Kenya's independence and the development of easier accessible public primary schools throughout Kenya. The Kenyan government has put a larger focus on educating the youth because they believe that it will lead to an overall more prosperous country. According to the Republic of Kenya Embassy's website, they concluded, "...it has been established that by providing primary education to women, a society is able to hasten its development."[9]

The situation for Kenyan girls in secondary school is slightly different than how it was for primary school. At the time of Independence, about 32% of enrollment in Kenyan secondary schools was young women and 68% young men. Over time, those numbers have gone up, but in the most recent studies, it is still 40% to 60% favoring young men attending secondary schools in Kenya. This gap can be explained by the gap between schools available for boys and girls. In 1968 in Kenya, there were 148 government funded primary schools for boys, 61 government funded secondary schools for girls, and 28 co-ed secondary schools funded by the government. Because young men in Kenya have more than twice the number of schools available for them to attend than their female counterparts, many more boys end up going to school because it is easier for them to access secondary schooling. More secondary schools have been built in Kenya since 1968, but that large gap still remains.[6]

Property rights[edit]

Kenyan women's rights to own and inherit property are challenged, threatened and suppressed by customs, laws, and individuals, such as government officials. Many leaders, both of the nation and individual households, believe women to be incompetent to manage land. This is juxtaposed by the fact that, in Africa, women constitute 70–90 percent of the agricultural labor force, meaning that they manage most of the lands already, but are made unable to own any. In addition, African women receive about 7% of agricultural extension services and 10% of credit for small-farmers.[10]

When women are widowed, they are often evicted from the lands and houses on which they reside, as they belonged to the husband, and women are not given any rights to the land. If a husband dies from an AIDS-related illness, wives are more often evicted with more vigor, as she is blamed for his death. Once evicted, some women end up begging for water and food, living in dangerous slums, and sleeping on cardboard with their children, who are also forced to leave school.[10]

Widows are entitled to none of their husband's estate or assets when they die, and so women are often left virtually powerless under the rules of their in-laws. Often the in-laws feel entitled to do whatever they will with their late sons wives, as they consider the dowry paid for the marriage to be an act of purchasing the woman.[10]

Divorced women often leave marriages with no property or items at all. It is common for them to return to live with their parents.[10]

Widows and separated women with HIV often have a hard time receiving medical care, as they have no health insurance and no means of income, especially when their lands and all their possessions are taken from them.[10]


In the 2010 constitution, gender discrimination in law, customs, and traditional authorities were officially banned. In 2011, a court case determined married women have the rights to inherit their parents' land. However, these practices are often not enforced. When women reach out to police and other officials for aid regarding abuse or infractions against their rights to property, they are commonly told to pay a bribe.[10]


A 2009 publication by the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development found that improving women's land rights would grow agricultural output and better nutritional intake and child schooling.[10]

The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) found a large disparity between the rates of domestic violence against women who held property and those who did not. The study found that 49% of women with no property had experienced violence from a partner or family member, as compared to 7% of those with land and a house.[10]

Sexual autonomy and HIV exposure[edit]

Many clans in Kenya, along with other locations in Eastern Africa, believe that the spirit of a widow's late husband stays with her body. To rid the body of the purported haunting, widow's in-laws will pay men from outside the clan to rape the widow without a condom. Some of these men, called "cleansers" are paid as little as USD$6. As HIV/AIDS continues to be a crisis, with an exceptional growth in African nations, widows fear they will contract HIV during these forced encounters. Some of the men who force the acts worry too; as one "cleanser" who has performed the act on 75 different women told the Human Rights Watch: "I don't use condoms with the women. It must be body to body. I must put sperm in her... If no sperm comes out, she is not inherited... I don't do anything to stop pregnancy... I've heard about how you get AIDS. I'm getting scared... There are inheritors who are infected with HIV. They don't use condoms."

Throughout Kenya, there is also a common practice of "wife inheritance" where, after the death of their husbands, widows are raped by an outsider to be considered "cleans, and then are taken as the wife of one of her late-husband's family members. This is often done in polygamous families, so the wife will have unprotected intercourse with a stranger and a man with multiple other wives who also do not use protection.

In one of the provinces where both ritual "cleansing" and wife inheritance are common, the population's rate of HIV prevalence is at about 14%.

Women who are subjected to domestic violence often have a difficult or impossible time negotiating condom use, and then have higher risks of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV.

Women in Activism and Politics[edit]

The first woman in Kenya elected to hold a political position was Grace Onyango. She holds many firsts such as the first female councillor, the first female mayor in post-independence Kenya, and the first woman elected to Parliament. She achieved all these firsts between 1964 and 1969, and served in Parliament until 1984. She was also the first female parliamentarian to occupy the temporary speaker's chair, before being officially elected Deputy Speaker between 1979 and 1984. Other women who served in Parliament in the first three decades after independence include Dr. Phoebe Asiyo, Chelagat Mutai, and Dr. Julia Ojiambo. Other notable female politicians include Prof. Wangari Maathai, Charity Ngilu, Naisula Lesuuda, Esther Passaris, Millie Odhiambo, Prof. Margaret Kamar, Sophia Abdi Noor, and many others.[11]

Following the new constitution in 2010, politics in Kenya took a different turn. There was a shift from the unitary system and structure of government to a decentralized one where authority and responsibility of public functions were redistributed to local governments. The country was divided into 47 counties, and each has its own local government, headed by a Governor. All 47 seats were won by men during the first election under the new constitution in 2013.

It was just in the 2017 elections that three women were voted into the Governors seat for the first time. The elected governors were Joyce Laboso for Bomet County, Anne Waiguru for Kirinyaga County and Charity Ngilu for Kitui County.

Wangari Maathai[edit]

One of the most notable Kenyans was Prof. Wangari Maathai, an activist and politician. Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her "contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace."[12] She was also elected a member of the Kenyan parliament and worked in Kenyan politics for over two decades which was extremely threatening to her male counterparts who she surpassed throughout her time working in the Kenyan Government.[7] As Assistant Minister for the Environment in Mwai Kibaki's first-term, she embarked on several campaigns to protect the environment and reduce government wastage. She, for example, changed how government reports were presented, urging for a smaller font, less space, and use of both sides of the printing paper.

Maathai was not directly a feminist activist, but an environmental activist who inspired other women in Kenya and around the world to go into politics and activism.[13] Maathai was also considered to be a "bottom-up" worker as opposed to the "top-down" ruling that Kenya was so accustomed to having for decades past. This was another way she was able to inspire women and other minority groups who were silenced by the government in the past.[14]

Women in Arts and Sports[edit]

In 1937, Margaret Trowell founded an art school within Makerere University in Kampala. Her first student was a Kenyan woman, Rosemary Karuga, and her students included others such as Theresa Musoke, the first woman to obtain a degree at Makerere. Since then, Kenyan women have thrived in different forms of art; for example, Magdalene Odundo's pottery is world-famous. other famous artists include Beatrice Wanjiku, Barbara Minishi, Wangechi Mutu, and Ingrid Mwangi.

Muthoni Ndonga, better known as Muthoni the Drummer Queen, has not only pioneered a budding festival culture in East Africa but also built a solid reputation as one of Kenya's leading artists.[15]

In 2018, Kenyan film director, producer and author Wanuri Kahiu released Rafiki, a story about two girls who fall in love with each other and struggle to navigate this love with their families in a homophobic society. The firm premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, and was also shown at the 2018 London Film Festival. It was, however, banned in Kenya until the ban was temporarily lifted by a court order.

In sports, especially athletics, Kenyan women are dominant across the globe. Some of the most notable athletes include Lorna Kiplagat, who was born in Kabiemit in Rift Valley. She switched nationality to Dutch in 2003. Others include Janeth Kipkosgei, Catherine Ndereba, Pamela Jelimo, Vivian Cheruiyot, Nancy Langat, Eunice Jepkorir, Linet Masai, Ruth Bosibori and many others.

Polygamy in Kenya[edit]

In March 2014, Kenya's Parliament passed a bill allowing men to marry multiple wives.[16] Polygamy is common among traditional communities in Kenya, as well as among the country's Muslim community.[16]

In parliament, the proposed 2014 polygamy bill had initially given a wife the right to veto the husband's choice, but male members of parliament overcame party divisions to push through a text that dropped this clause.[16] The passing of the bill caused angry female members of parliament to storm out of the late night vote on the polygamy legislation in protest.[16]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ "Table 4: Gender Inequality Index". United Nations Development Programme. Retrieved 7 November 2014.
  2. ^ "The Global Gender Gap Report 2018" (PDF). World Economic Forum. pp. 10–11.
  3. ^ a b c d Gatwiri Kariuki, Claris. "WOMEN PARTICIPATION IN THE KENYAN SOCIETY" (PDF). Issue 296 December 22– 28, 2010. The African Executive. Retrieved 5 November 2013.
  4. ^ Bates, Francesca (19 January 2015). "British Rule in Kenya". Washington State University. Retrieved 9 March 2017.
  5. ^ a b Gatwiri Kariuki, Claris (22 December 2010). "WOMEN PARTICIPATION IN THE KENYAN SOCIETY" (PDF). The African Executive.
  6. ^ a b c Karani, Florida (1987). "The Situation and Roles of Women in Kenya". The Journal of Negro Education. 53 (3): 422–434. doi:10.2307/2295235. JSTOR 2295235.
  7. ^ a b Kamau, Nyokabi (2010). "Women and Political Leadership in Kenya" (PDF). East and Horn of Africa – via Henrich Böll Stiftung.
  8. ^ a b Thomas, Lynn M. "'Ngaitana (I will circumcise myself)': Lessons from Colonial Campaigns to Ban Excision in Meru, Kenya", in Shell-Duncan, Bettina and Hernlund, Ylva (eds). Female "Circumcision" in Africa. Lynne Rienner, 2000, p. 129ff.
  9. ^ "Education in Kenya".
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h "Voices from the global fight for women's rights". The unfinished revolution: Voices from the global fight for women's rights. Bristol University Press. 2012. JSTOR j.ctt1t891s3.
  11. ^ Reporter, Standard. "Most outstanding Kenyan female politicians". The Standard. Retrieved 5 December 2018.
  12. ^ "The Nobel Peace Prize in 2004". The Nobel Prize. 8 October 2004.
  13. ^ Presbey, Gail M. (29 November 2013). "Women's empowerment: the insights of Wangari Maathai". Journal of Global Ethics. 9 (3): 277–292. doi:10.1080/17449626.2013.856640.
  14. ^ Dennehy, Kevin (12 September 2013). "A Greener Africa: Learning from The Legacy of Wangari Maathai". Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
  15. ^ Werman Marco (7 January 2016). "Muthoni the Drummer Queen Rules Kenya's Music Scene". PRI.
  16. ^ a b c d "Kenya's parliament passes bill allowing polygamy", The Guardian, 22 March 2014.

External links[edit]