A Role For Men in Gender Equality in Kenya

The recent Gender Festival in Kenya has underlined the important role that male activism can play in achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment.

“Men have a role to play when it comes to ensuring gender equity. It is not just a women’s affair. Gender equality does not mean women are ruling over men. It only ensures a level playing field for both men and women, removing all forms of discrimination that prevail against women,” Kennedy Otina, the regional programme coordinator of Men for Gender Equality Now (MEGEN) said.

MEGEN is a regional organisation that recognises the need for men to participate in the fight for gender equality.

The festival, an open forum bringing together gender rights advocates, featured plays, lectures, poetry, and theatre skits. Participants created songs and dance in support of gender equity, as well as t-shirts, placards and flyers with the basic message: yes to gender equality, no to gender discrimination.

Previous efforts to reduce gender inequality have largely targeted women, something analysts say has left gaps in the fight for gender equality. “We are talking about changing societal attitudes that have brought about discrimination against women. This change cannot be brought by one group alone, especially when it involves a change in all people and societies,” Otina noted.

One of the questions tackled by the festival was how to transform deeply-ingrained societal attitudes. For example, from early childhood, boys are socialised into gender roles fashioned to keep them in power and control, and as a result grow up believing that dominant behaviour towards girls and women is acceptable.

“We can reverse this by promoting new values that encourage communication, cooperation and equality between boys and girls before they become men and women,” Jonah Gokova, chair of the Padare/Enkundleni Men’s Forum on Gender, based in Zimbabwe, told IPS at the festival.

His colleague Otina noted that culture was dynamic and changes from time to time. “We tell people that long ago there were no clothes, people wore skin. Times have changed; today people wear clothes. One of the things that have also changed is the exposure of women. They go to school, and are leaders. This was not possible before,” he observed.

MEGEN’S work to promote gender equality from a young age also includes an outreach programme which targets young boys and girls in schools across Kenya, informing them of the need to respect each other, and that men and women are equal. The programme also targets teachers and parents to help them instil such virtues among their pupils and children respectively.

The Men’s Travelling Conference is another initiative of the group, taking these messages to men and women across the country. With the use of skits, the conference reaches communities wherever they are including churches and markets.

The response has been positive, with reports of changed attitudes even in some of the most patriarchal settings, according to Otina.

While targeting attitude change may be critical, working with legislators to urge them to pass legislation supporting gender equality is equally important. “We have been working with members of parliament because we realise they have the power to reject or pass laws. In particular, we are targeting male politicians because they are the most in parliament,” Nelson Banda, coordinator of the Men’s Network in Zambia said.

Already, his organisation is in the process of initiating a Male Parliamentary Network to provide support to women legislators when discussing gender equality issues in the House. So far four MPs have shown willingness to join the forum to back the women MPs who comprise just 14.7 percent of parliament.

“This figure is so low and makes it hard for the women legislators to form the necessary quorum to pass gender-friendly legislation alone. We expect that with the Male Parliamentary Network, things will be much easier,” Banda told IPS from Mongu town, about 600 kilometres from Lusaka, the capital.

However, political will is necessary for gender equality laws to be implemented lest they become just writings on paper.

“Uganda has done it and Rwanda too, through quota systems which have seen an increase of women in parliament. This shows that political will can enhance gender equality,” Norah Matovu-Winyi, executive director of the African Women’s Development and Communication Network, said.

Rwanda’s constitution provides for a quota system that reserves special seats for women in the Upper and Lower Houses, something that has seen the country record 56.3 percent of women in parliament, the highest in the world. With a similar system, neighbouring Uganda has increased the number of women legislators to 25 percent. The same system spells out 30 percent of women representation in the public service.

No such progress is yet visible in Zimbabwe, despite the country having signed to a Southern African Gender Protocol requiring 50 percent representation of women in government, Gokova said.

“The coalition government [formed earlier this year] has not made emphasis in getting women involved. It calls itself all-inclusive, but it has excluded a key group – women,” he stated. Out of the 69 ministers and deputy ministers, only 10 are women, translating to 14 percent, which is even below the 30 percent Southern African Development Community quota on gender equality.

Gokova’s organisation and others present at the Jun. 3-5 festival pledged to continue campaigning against this kind of disparity.


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