Men Sweeping? Women Inheriting? How Rural Kenyans Are Shaking Up Traditional Gender Roles
By Caroline Wambui
ISHIARA, Kenya, Oct 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — It's early morning and Moses Njiru 43, has an array of household chores lined up before heading to his job as a cattle broker.
Dressed in grey trousers and a white undershirt, Njiru starts by sweeping his compound, while whistling a popular tune. Later he washes the dishes, does the laundry, and fetches firewood — all jobs traditionally done by women.
With his wife working as a schoolteacher — and now pregnant with their second child — he thinks it's only fair to share the workload.
Njiru isn't the only one adjusting his views on what is "proper" work for men and women, as his community in Embu County — and others across Kenya — try to share work and opportunities more equally in an effort to cut poverty and improve resistance to climate change threats.
The changes are part of an effort to improve discussions between men and women and begin to loosen gender restrictions that hold back economic and social progress, backers say.
Such restrictions are a key cause of inequalities that trap men, women, and children in poverty, limiting their potential, they say.
A 2014 survey done as part of a push by Kenya's government and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) to cut poverty in the region found that 85% of land owned in the Upper Tana River drainage, in southeast Kenya, was in men's names.
Only 7% of land was registered to women, according to the study, done as part of an Upper Tana Natural Resources Management Project.
The research also found that women worked an average of 15 to 17 hours a day, while men worked six to seven hours.
Men, meanwhile, dominated decision-making on what to plant and where, how much produce was sold, and for what price. Women's decisions mainly focused on what to cook for the family, and what crops to grow for consumption at home, the survey found.
Concerned that such restrictions could be holding back anti-poverty efforts, project officials in 2016 decided to try out GALS — a Gender Action Learning System developed in settings in Latin America, Asia, and parts of Africa.
The system, now being used across Kenya and more broadly, helps men and women learn how to speak more respectfully and honestly to each other, and aims to cut domestic violence, achieve more equal property rights and give women and men a more balanced voice in decision making.
Those changes, backers say, can help boost food production in the poorest households and help ensure more sustainable harvests — a particular concern as climate change brings wilder weather that threatens crops.
In Tharaka Nithi County, Albert Thirika, a retired secondary school principal, now involves his wife in family decision-making after undergoing the training — and is giving his daughters a bigger voice too.
"We have embraced dialogue in the family since learning of GALS. Initially I used to think as an individual, but today I think as a family member and this has sharpened my planning skills," he said.
By working more closely together and sharing their income, the family has managed to buy a dairy cow and expand an existing banana plantation, he said.
His wife, Evelyn Mwembe Thirika, a retired nurse, now manages the family money, she said.
Albert Thirika also has made a once unthinkable change: he has given title to some of his family farmland to his two daughters as well as his two sons, and allowed them to choose the pieces they prefer.
In Meru County, meanwhile, Mary Muthoni, who once worked at menial jobs, used what she learned through GALS to approach her husband about using some of the family's land for her own farming projects.
"GALS methodology educates one on the tactics to use when approaching a spouse," said Muthoni — a crucial skill in a community where men traditionally do not consistently seek or take advice from women.
Though Muthoni said changing her husband's mind wasn't easy, through "respect and persistence" she managed it, she said.
Today, she said, they jointly discuss most decisions about the family, and budget and save their money together.
Njiru, meanwhile, since going through GALS training, has offered to let his wife go back to school to earn a full degree — something she hasn't taken him up on yet.
He also has helped train more than 420 out of 600 members of a farmers' water management and irrigation group he belongs to about the importance of striving for greater gender equality.
The training has reached community members as diverse as school principals, teachers and students, and church members, he said.
According to Gabriel Njue, the chair of the water management association, the group's production of crops such as maize, beans, tomatoes, and other vegetables has quadrupled since members underwent the gender training in late 2016.
Duncan Mbui, a member of the county assembly from Evurore Ward, which includes Ishiara village, said the training had helped the water management group attract 1.2 million Kenyan shillings ($11,600) this month in county government funding to install water pipes for irrigation.
"We were motivated to help the group as we realised that the group was organised and focused to promote the welfare of the members in an effort to economically empower the community," he said.
Faith Muthoni Livingstone, coordinator of the Upper Tana Natural Resources Management Project, said the narrowing of gender disparities meant "households are realising their dreams faster".