SEATTLE, Washington — In Article 27 of Kenya’s constitution, the government committed to decreasing gender inequality in politics. Long-standing patriarchal views, along with a lack of female representation in politics, have allowed gender disparity in Kenya to persist. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), women and girls in Kenya are more vulnerable to falling into poverty due to domestic violence, strict gender norms and cultural perceptions of female empowerment. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these gender inequality factors. Gender and sexual violence have increased along with severe pregnancy complications as a result of a nationwide curfew. To combat this, the Kenyan National Gender and Equality Commission has set up support systems for women throughout the pandemic.
Gender Disparity in Kenya
Kenya’s constitution states that at least one-third of parliament members must be women, though currently, only one-fifth of those seats are actually held by women. Much of Kenya’s society still holds patriarchal views, and, as a result, women running for office or even participating in elections deal with verbal or physical assault. The U.N. estimates that thousands of women experienced sexual violence from the 2007 to 2008 and the 2017 to 2018 elections due to their political affiliation or ethnic group. During a political campaign, one candidate’s house was lit on fire and her bodyguard killed.
A lack of female representation in politics heavily contributes to Kenya’s nationwide gender inequality. However, women running for office who aim to reduce this disparity are often overlooked, and those that do not hold progressive viewpoints are favored. This prevents issues like high maternal mortality, the gender education gap and sexual violence from being addressed. In Kenya, these problems can be severe as one in 42 women die due to pregnancy complications, 39% of young women have finished their secondary education and 14% of women aged 15 to 49 have experienced sexual violence. Issues such as these are still prevalent today, and the lack of government attention toward these gender inequality issues shows the remaining stigma toward female empowerment in politics.
The Effects of COVID-19 on Kenyan Women
While the maternal mortality rate in Kenya is already relatively high, the country’s curfew, one of the COVID-19 restrictions implemented in early March, is presumed to have increased the rate of pregnancy complications. Many women have to visit traditional birth attendants in their local areas who cannot perform surgery if complications arise. Birth attendants may also not have sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect themselves and their patients from COVID-19. One gynecologist in Kenya reported to Associated Press seeing women with dead infants, torn uteruses or other serious consequences following the curfew.
Gender-based violence has also risen amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Council on Administration of Justice detailed a significant increase in sexual violence due to COVID-19 lockdowns. These incidents are likely to occur with family members, guardians and household members. Abuse and violence are likely to be underreported as the lockdown continues because of a lack of easily accessible home resources.
The National Gender and Equality Commission
The National Gender and Equality Commission was established in 2011 to advocate for marginalized groups in Kenya, such as women, children, people with disabilities and the elderly, among others. The commission works with data collection and government advocacy to generate awareness of gender-based violence and negotiate with national and local governments to include gender equality measures in their budgets.
During the lockdown, the increase in domestic violence has prompted the commission to establish a hotline to report sexual and gender-based violence. Additionally, the commission announced at the start of Kenya’s curfew that pregnant women would face a greater risk of complications due to a lack of access to healthcare facilities at night. Despite Kenya’s lack of female advocates in politics, the National Gender and Equality Commission ensures that women’s rights have more recognition in government affairs, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is disproportionately affecting women.
The spread of COVID-19 has presented unique barriers to fighting gender inequality. The disparity has grown, endangering more vulnerable populations. Resources to deal with gender inequality issues such as increased domestic violence and maternal mortality are limited due to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 on governments and societies. However, agencies like the National Gender and Equality Commission continue to build awareness in Kenya for various support systems directed at women. With sustained efforts, Kenya is sure to make progress in alleviating gender inequality issues.
—Ann Marie Vanderveen