By Amy Ochieng
The expression “flower girls”, used in reference to women in elective political positions, has been used to diminish their contribution to nation-building. “Women are to be seen and not be heard” is a common phrase that shows women are indeed in the room but the “room” is not conducive for them to effectively exercise their duties, their voices have been silenced and their contributions are watered down.
The number of women enrolled in the universities to undertake courses that were previously male-dominated has increased, however very few can climb up their career ladder due to systemic discrimination perpetuated by gender stereotypes that continue to “cage” women’s identity and capability. Women have gained entry into their dream careers, but once they become mothers they are forced to choose between family and their careers. Work-life balance becomes a far-fetched dream.
The concept of gender mainstreaming emerged during the Beijing Conference in 1995. It was a call to action and commitment by both state actors to incorporate gender perspectives into strategies, administrative functions, policies, programs and institutional culture to ensure attainment of gender equality. Gender mainstreaming was deemed to be a panacea of gender inequality between women and men. Afterwards, states begun to put gender mainstreaming into practice which included affirmative actions that would enable women to access their human rights including the occupation of leadership positions. This would lead to an improvement in the position of women within society.
We have witnessed an increase in the number of women in leadership and seen growth in women’s access to basic human rights. However, systemic discrimination and violence against women in both private and public spheres continue to create a hostile environment for women to air their views, gain recognition for their contributions or effectively perform their duties.
Discrimination and violence are manifestations of patriarchy that continue to exist and be maintained within the system. Gender mainstreaming has ensured women are included in the system and in “rooms” but has failed to transform the system. Both state and non-state actors have been accused of ticking boxes when it comes to ensuring women’s inclusion in political, social and economic spheres. Most of them include women in these spheres to comply with both national and international legal obligations and not to challenge and transform the system.
Sexual harassment, bullying, physical abuse, insults, witch-hunting, gender stereotypes and underfunding of women’s initiatives, ministries, departments and agencies continue to exist within the system hence hindering women’s active participation and contribution. There have been instances where male parliamentarians have been used to spearhead gender bills because if a female political leader championed it, there are high chances of it failing. Also, in a company where the founders are both male and female, during a pitch to investors the male founder is taken more seriously than the woman hence he is the preferred person to pitch to ensure the company gets the investment. We have experienced low response of gender machinery to the increase of gender-based violence in our homes during the COVID-19 pandemic. These examples are clear depictions that inclusion of women needs and representation requires both gender mainstreaming and transformation.
The #ChooseToChallenge hashtag for the 2021 International Women’s Day is timely and is a clear call to action for both state and non-state actors to challenge the system in order to ensure the dismantling of all forms of discrimination and violence that continue to oppress women. Women’s inclusion in all spheres should not be a mere “tick off the box” but should aim to ensure compliance with legal instruments and company policies.
Gender institutional machinery needs adequate funding to enable them to effectively respond to women’s needs. There is a need for compliance and enforcement of laws and policies that seek to end sexual harassment, discrimination and any form of violence in workplaces. Calling out of people who continuously perpetuate gender stereotypes should be normalized. Realization of the two-third gender rule is key in ensuring gender parity in leadership positions. Women’s contribution to nation-building needs to be recognized and celebrated. There is a need to continuously challenge systems and factors that hinder women’s effective participation and silence women’s voices.
Amy Ochieng is Human Rights Education Officer at Amnesty Kenya. She writes in her personal capacity. Email: [email protected]