by Colette Weil Parrinello
Women take part in a women’s rights rally.
Kenya, like most African nations, is male-dominated. Men run the
government, own the land, livestock, and businesses, but this is
changing. Kenya made the most improvements in gender equality
laws for improvement of the women’s situation between the years of
2009 and 2011 than any country in the world.
While the role of Kenyan women varies by ethnicity and by rural
and urban areas, women suffer economically, physically, socially,
and politically from gender inequality. The new 2010 constitution
specifically gave women the same legal rights as men to land, court
access, inheritance, nationality, and freedom of movement. Cultural
change is exceedingly slow and many women and judicial officials are
unaware of the new laws.
The family is the centerpiece of Kenyan culture and the traditional
role of women is to serve the family. Kenyan women are said to have
‘double workdays’ — they work twice as hard as men. Agricultural
sector information shows women do 80 percent of the food
production, 50 percent of the cash crop production, 80 percent of
the food storage and transport from farm to home, 90 percent of the
weeding, and 60 percent of the harvesting and marketing of crops.
This is along with all the family, household, and childcare duties.
Unemployment is 40 percent. Large cities like Nairobi are similar
to cities in the West with greater gender equality, more educational
opportunities and a growing middle class. But women have far fewer
job prospects than men and earn less than a man for the same job.
More Kenyan women are entering the workplace.
The birth of a girl has been viewed as a
means to wealth from a dowry when she gets
married. For rural families, the dowry could be
livestock or for urban families, cash, or goods. It
is a long-standing cultural practice for men to
have more than one wife, known as a customary
marriage. The husband is required to have a
house for each wife. Wealthier men find this a
good investment, as the wife will take care of
the house, farm, children, elderly, and the sale of
In 2014 President Uhuru Kenyatta signed
the new marriage law. The law allows a man
to now legally marry as many women as he
wants in a traditional (customary) ceremony and
without consulting his wife. The law legalizes
polygamy. Being in a polygamous marriage
is a strong predictor of low education and
low wealth for women. However, the legal
recognition of customary wives now gives them
rights if the husband dies and recognizes the
rights and legitimacy of the children. Additionally,
the wife is entitled to 50 percent of property
acquired during the marriage. The law also
banned marriages for people under 18. It’s not
uncommon in country areas for girls to marry
at 15 and sometimes younger. The law also
outlawed the dowry system.
Kenya values education. More than 44
percent of university students are women. In
2012, Kenya passed the revised Education Bill
of 2012, which states every child has the right
to free and compulsory education. The bill
also states that a child may not be employed
or work if it prohibits the child from attending
school. For rural families, access to qualified
schools, supplies, and teachers is difficult. Despite
the problems, the national literacy rate is 85.1
percent. But far fewer women than men receive
a complete education. Forty-seven percent of
girls in rural areas do not complete primary
school. Families expect the girls to marry, so
why bother with further education. Girls are also
required to help at home, work the farms, sell
surplus crops at market, collect the water, and
gather firewood for meals.
Kenya is a new democratic republic.
Exclusionary and discriminatory practices have
kept women from participation in government.
The 2010 constitution set Kenya on a new
course for gender equality that included political
representation. Specifically, no gender could
be more than 2/3 of the 350 member National
Assembly and 47 seats were reserved for women.
There are now 65 female members. The Upper
House Senate has 68 seats of which 18 are
reserved for women. The increased number of
women in government has directly impacted
new key legislation for women.
Kenya recognizes the important role women
play in the economy and took specific steps to
accelerate and protect women’s involvement. The
Constitution and the laws enacted are backed by
funds to protect girls and women and help them
achieve higher educational levels, legal equality to
men, improved status, better jobs and health care,
and economic empowerment.
The new road for women has started, but
changing long held traditions and beliefs will be a
An elderly woman
takes part in a
Colette Weil Parrinello is a frequent writer for children’s magazines and is a
co-regional advisor for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
• More and more Kenyan women are role models. Conservationist Wangari
Maathai fought against a housing development planned for the Karura Forest.
In 2003, she was appointed the deputy minister in the Ministry of Environment,
Resources, and Wildlife. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.
• Lorna Kiplagat is a four-time World Champion. She won the Los Angeles
Marathon twice. She set up the first Kenyan high altitude training center for
runners. She is a successful businesswoman and philanthropist, and she started
the Lorna Kiplagat Foundation.
• Hon. Lady Justice Njoki S. Ndun’gu is a Judge of the Supreme Court of
Kenya. She is the architect of the Sexual Offenses Act of 2006, the maternity
and paternity leave amendments to the Employment Act of 2007, and the
amendments on affirmative action for women in political participation to the
Political Parties Act in 2007.
• The government-funded Women’s Enterprise Fund (WEF) has helped 864,920
women fund businesses and trained more than 404,800 women on business
A woman casts her vote for president.
In 1997, Charity Ngilu became the first Kenyan woman to run for president.