Facing Women’s Rights in Kenya

Nairobi, Kenya – As an impressionable girl straight from college, Njeri Mwangi was exhilarated when the Human Resources Department of East and Central African region’s largest selling newspaper had hired her as a reporter. But throughout the five years that she worked for the Nation Media Group, rising to the enviable position of Senior Parliamentary reporter, Njeri was anything but happy.

Ironically, it was after receiving an expected dismissal letter that she felt reborn and rejuvenated. She explains: "In the five years that I worked for the Nation Media Group as a reporter for the Daily Nation newspaper, I surreptitiously carried a sexual relationship with the then Chief Sub-editor, Mr. Wangethe Mwangi now the Group’s Editorial Director, after a lot of intimidation and threats from him. I regret what I fell for and on hindsight believe I should have fought to the very end to hold my dignity but I was aware that so many of my female colleagues were and continue to involve themselves with these lecherous acts believing it would translate to career mobility and worse if one fails to give in, to a dismissal."

Not content with walking away silently Njeri, 27, sought judicial intervention in a court here in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, contending that her editorial boss had fired her for what she termed as "my unilateral decision to bring to a closure a predatory arrangement that only served the base instincts of a conniving brute who impenitently thrives on browbeating women reporters into performing sexual intercourse with him."

For lack of witnesses to attest on her behalf, the court Magistrate ruled that the evidence adduced was largely circumstantial and heresy, leading to Mwangi’s acquittal. With their conscience probably pricked after witnessing the shabby treatment of a former colleague, journalists drawn from the media house late last November opted to go on-line with their grievances. Drawn from across the gender divide, they named the bigwigs, the positions they held, along with the names of the victims.

In one alleged exposure, Human Resources Manager Helen Mbugua was said to suffer from a ravenous roving eye that targeted newly recruited, physically endowed male journalists including senior quill drivers from rival media houses.

With the issue threatening to blow-up, the top management of NMG held numerous summit meetings, leading to the disposal of a coterie of seeded editorial and administration staff, the most prominent being the Human Resources Manager.

According to Ezekiel Mutua, a former staffer of NMG and an ex-Secretary General of the Kenya Union of a Journalists (KUJ), and presently the country’s Director of Information, the local media industry "has been cited as the citadel of sexual favoritism where female journalists sleep their way to the top while those who refuse to play ball live to regret their insurgency."

Following a survey carried out and compiled in 2007, Mutua points out that among the shocking findings was a phenomenon that showed "alarming rates in newsrooms of female journalists benefiting from their sexual liaisons with their bosses and reprisals for those who refused to give in to their bosses’ sexual advances."

If one thought the harassment of particular women at the workplace was a preserve of the local media industry, they would be shocked if they scoured deeper to discover the scourge cuts across all industries and social strata.

Often, women capitulate to protect their husbands from been re-located to dangerous areas or from doing risky work. Take these recent examples involving members of the police force. As is the local tradition, cadres of the police force, other from being poorly remunerated, reside together in wretched quarters though their seniors live in relative comfort. As custom demands the lowly ranked personnel are under the mercies of often condescending superiors who will stop at nothing to assert their power. Sometimes this relationship has fatal consequences. In seven recent cases, top officers presiding over the stations thrived on stealing passionate moments with wives of selected low ranking cadres while those husbands were on the night beat.

On all instances the women had intercourse with their husbands’ superiors mistakenly believing that their husbands would be looked at more favorably as a result. On some occasions cash changed hands. However, one after another the dirty police officers, caught literarily with their pants on the floor, together with the women died in a fury of bullets.

Whether the seven perpetrators of the killings will get a fair sentencing in court is matter of conjecture. In the public court the killers are hailed as heroes who deserve nothing but clemency.

According to George Mwando, Director of Labour Awareness and Resources Program, a local NGO empowering employees into knowing their rights, Kenyan women often find themselves in disadvantaged situations in the work place because labor relations project a tendency of ignoring women’s rights.

Mwando gives a glaring example: "Of the 43 registered trade unions in the country not even one is headed by a woman, making the entire system male dominated. And this is not because women do not want or intend to lead these organizations. Rather, men at some point distract them (women), when they express an intention to run for office. And as long as we do not establish where we went wrong, this gender disparity shall forever remain. Trade unions, for example, hold their elections, for some strange reasons, at night, which technically means that women are barred from participating." (In this highly patriarchal society, women ordinarily are supposed to be in doors when night falls to ostensibly take care of that serious chore of looking after the family. It’s very unlikely that husbands would allow their wives to remain outdoors at night.)

It has rarely been good for women in Kenyan society. Any advances made so far are largely credited to women’s dogged determination to fight for equality. One clear indication that Kenyan society here has flagged women as being inferior beings is captured by Daniel arap Moi, the former Kenyan President, who said: "Women have simple brains. We should avoid giving them serious responsibilities for they may not know what is expected of them."

On another occasion he said: "Politics is like wooing a woman. You begin by promising her heaven, and then you tell her you will purchase her a vehicle, before you realize it she will be residing with you in your house despite the fact that you have purchased her nothing."

Perhaps it is such furtive degradation of women in Kenya that has contributed to the cold treatment women generally receive in the ubiquitous manufacturing plants found across the country. In increasing numbers women are getting fired for among all things, becoming pregnant.

Because of a serious unemployment rate, many workers eschew enlisting with labor unions, as employers are shy of hiring unionized hands. As a result, employers conveniently find themselves in a situation that encourages them to act cavalierly.

Describing the labor endemic as inhuman, Jane Onyango, Executive Director of the Federation of Women Lawyers-Kenya Chapter (FIDA) says the labor laws are encumbered by a lack of regular policing by the authorities: "We receive regular complaints from women who for one reason or the other feel that they have been laid off unjustifiably. But when our organization takes on the case we get disappointed because most of the time the complainant side steps us along the way on realizing that a former employer would be willing to settle the matters outside court, in other words, money would be provided as a form of reparation if the complainant went ahead to drop the charges."

In extreme cases, employers collude with crooked labor officers to deny ever employing a laid-off worker. In such instances, explains Onyango, we are faced with a "Russian roulette because we jeopardize the life of the worker who has approached our organization because in most cases the employer can easily trace the resident of a former worker, and pay to have her abused."

Accepting that the labor market was skewed in favor of male employees, Jacqueline Mugo, Executive Director of the Federation of Kenya Employers (FKE), the core organization representing key employers, says general unemployment has played a major role in this crisis.

"Three years ago the country’s annual economic growth was in the negatives. And the issue was further compounded by the registration process of companies which was unnecessarily bureaucratic for it took months and years to get a company for example to be registered. And the situation was worsened by corruption, cronyism and tribalism in regards to distribution of resources. Up to the present time there is an employment crunch and new jobs are not readily available. In this kind of scenario compromise at the work place will be routine. And women workers as always will receive the lower end of the pole."

Yet all is not lost. Nobel Prize laureate Professor Wangari Maathai, herself a Kenyan, argues that women need not beg for fair treatment but they should demand that they be treated as equals with their male counterparts at the workplace: "Through out my life I’ve fought many battles and if I had opted to embrace the role of victim I don’t think I would have achieved much in life. To my fellow women I tell them all the time that freedom and respect are not theoretical concepts but are real issues that women and marginalized groups can achieve if only they dared to believe in themselves."

For a woman who constantly faced gender discrimination during her short-lived marriage and at the University of Nairobi, Maathai has surely come a long way: she was elected MP and then went ahead to win the Noble Prize in 2004 in recognition of her contribution in uplifting environmental awareness in the world stage. This is an uplifting example, one which shows that with determination and a grounded sense of what needs to be done, women in Kenya can turn the tide around.


Also see "Women speak on the way forward for Kenya"