Article 27 (3) of the Constitution in the lens of grassroots women

‘My name is Jackline[1]  and am a member of Gataka self-help group.’

This was the common introductory phrase during a feminist dialogue held on 6th June 2017 and organised by the Society for International Development and Action Now Kenya (ANK) in Ongata Rongai, Kajiado North Constituency, Kajiado County. Women self-identified as members of specific groups, a clear hope of grassroots women movement. Attended by approximately 60 participants drawn from diverse groups (aspirants, local administration, self-help groups, CSOs, religious leaders) this forum sought to understand how grassroots women are breathing life into article 27 (3) of the Constitution. Hence the theme ‘organizing for change- the power of grassroots women movement.’

Article 27 (3) of the Constitution of Kenya provides that ‘women and men have the right to equal treatment, including the right to equal opportunities in political, economic, cultural and social spheres.’ According to the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2016, Kenya ranks 63 out of 144 countries. The report further portrays Kenya as progressively expanding spaces for women to participate in politics and to be economically empowered. This begs the question, are Kenyan women organised or organised well enough to seize upon these opportunities?

Over a period of two hours of deliberations and experience sharing, the meeting reaffirmed that Kenyan grassroots women are indeed organised. Resourced by four panellists from diverse backgrounds including community mobilisers, political aspirants, governance experts and women and male participants, the meeting noted a missing link between these local organising models and their deployment to influence political and policy processes and outcomes for grassroots women. For instance, while more than 90% of the participants belonged to one women’s group or another, less than ten percent of the participants confirmed attending and participating in any county planning forums. This implies that despite the participatory spaces created by the Constitution and the County Government Act 2012, grassroots women are rarely actively engaged in formal political and policy debates. This reality seemed to reaffirm research findings by both the Society for International Development and Transparency International-Kenya in their separate 2016 reports. According to ‘Voices from the counties: lessons from the 2015 citizen report card’, women are 5% less likely to be aware of their county budget allocation or the financial priorities of their county and less interested in current affairs compared to men.

This, however, does not imply that nature of grassroots organising experienced among women of Kajiado North Constituency is insignificant. Mainly organised in ‘Chama,’ women can access loans from their joint kitty, collectively invest and systematically improve their savings. Those registered can also benefit from funds set aside by the government for women economic empowerment such as Uwezo and the Women Enterprise funds. But grassroots women groups offer something beyond financial returns, economic security and empowerment. These groups provide psychosocial support and an informal social security apparatus especially in moments of crisis and misfortune.  These groups can harness their collective power to push back against attempted disinheritance for instance. When well-organized, grassroots women can demand from local authorities and leaders better service delivery for instance in well-equipped local dispensaries, garbage collection and security and public safety.

What stands in the way of grassroots women’s power and what can be done?

Successful women organising is not without challenges. Entrenched patriarchy reinforced by harmful cultural norms and remain key in undermining women’s collective power. A transactionalist political culture that has seen monetization of public participation to the extent that citizens expect financial and material reward to engage in public forums. While the choice to participate or not participate in invited spaces is personal and subject to individual women’s involvement in self-sustaining economic activities, the overall impact is women’s voice in setting development priorities at the ward level, for instance, becomes very feeble. Yet given women’s disproportionate burden of care and domestic economy, women are likely to be most hurt by failures of social services like health, water, security and public safety, whose budgetary allocations are debated in the public participation platforms created by the Constitution.

There dialogue also included the little matter of class division and the often-repeated mantra that ‘women are their own worst enemies’, especially in elective politics that this assertion was far from unanimous demonstrates the complexity of the issue. While one aspirant asserted that ‘in 2013 General Elections while vying for Member of County Assembly, I was overwhelmingly supported by women,’ another attributed her loss in 2017 party nominations to women not voting for her. Do these two conflicting statements imply that the stereotype of women being their worst enemies is a lie used to reinforce division among women? or does it mean that women are not homogenous, and are as diverse as demographic as any other across class, interests, identities? It is unlikely that this matter would be resolved neatly and with finality. What is indisputable, as I had in a different gender forum in Nairobi, is that ‘women do not have to like each to support each other, what matters most is whether your leadership is issue-based.’[2] Subsequently, would it make more sense if women invested best of their energies in generating political consciousness in their organising, designing effective political tools including local women manifestos and investing in political articulation of the now multiple but presently disjointed voices in ways that voters can relate to.

Given these legitimate contradictions, how can women rely more on their own created spaces to meet the same participatory thresholds in their local communities? Can grassroots women, already self-organised, transform their groups into created spaces for political engagement?  Moving from norm to practice there is need for coalition building between national and grassroots groups, information sharing, capacity building programmes and opportunities to dialogue Further national and county government, civil society organizations and faith-based institutions should consolidate their efforts and support grassroots women groups initiatives. More importantly women should be assertive, politically organize and demand their involvement as ‘nothing for us, without us’ as summarized in the 4J’s: Jiamini, Jipange, Jitokeze, Jihusishe #FeministKE.



[1] Not her real name.

[2] ‘Feminism (s): Experiences from across the Globe’ held on 21st March 2017 at Alliance Francaise (Organised by Heinrich Boll Stiftung at Alliance Francaise)