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A life devoted to change

Senior Programme Specialist at Canada's International Development Research Centre, Dr Jemimah Njuki, has carried out gender research and managed women's empowerment programmes in Africa and Asia for the last 18 years. In this blog, she outlines the hurdles that remain to achieving gender equality – as well as her optimism for the future.

Dr Jemimah Njuki supports researchers and organisations working on gender equality, and is the editor for the Journal of Gender, Agriculture and Food Security.

Throughout my career, I have been passionate about gender issues and supporting the empowerment of women and girls, and a lot of this stems from the inequality I saw growing up in Kenya. I have seen women and girls unable to live life to their full potential because of prejudices and stereotypes. A lot of the young girls that I grew up with, for example, were pressured to get married early, and parents had to decide whether to take them or their brothers to school. When girls do go to school, the domestic workload at home that has been placed on them affects their school performance; but women and girls’ dreams should not be determined by their gender.

I wanted to make a difference in whatever way I could. I grew up on a farm and saw the hardships in agriculture, the amount of time and labour my mother and my sister spent on the farm, in addition to cooking, cleaning, and looking for water and firewood. When it was time to go to university, I looked to agriculture to see how it could improve the lives of women, such as reducing women’s agricultural and domestic drudgery. I have worked in research supporting the development of technologies to reduce women’s work loads. I have also worked with NGOs, and specifically CARE USA, to understand how to change social norms by better engaging traditional and local leaders, and engaging men, so that they would see the value of women and girls, as well as the importance of gender equality.

Gender equality is not just about empowering women, but also about making lives better for everybody, including men, society, and countries as a whole. If women and girls have the right resources and the opportunities, they can contribute to poverty reduction, health and nutrition – especially within the agriculture sector.

Barriers to break

There has been quite a change in the development sector in recent years in terms of discussing gender and implementing gender initiatives. You cannot have conversations around development – whether health or education-related – without addressing gender and the implications for women and girls. However, progress is much slower regarding political, agricultural or technical decision-making and the status of women.

In the political sphere, countries such as Rwanda are advancing rapidly. However, in countries like Kenya, women are still under-represented at less than 30%. We are still having conversations about how to move forward to have more women in political decision-making processes, where there is still a lot of resistance from men who attribute it to tokenism. But I always say we must look at the historical disadvantages that women have faced, and we need to combine affirmative action with more long-term efforts to remove the barriers that women are facing. Structural change is important but it will not happen overnight, and we need both men and women to fight for this change.

Within the agricultural sector, women are still without access to land, in spite of policy advancements in Kenya. For example, equal rights and access to land for women are embedded in our constitution, but there are still many social norms and cultural practices that are blocking that. According to a 2013-2018 review, only 1.6% of land in Kenya was actually registered to women, so despite progressive policies, a lack of implementation is evident.

A positive future?

I have one young daughter and one teenage daughter who are total feminists; they have grown up with me and when they speak, they are smaller versions of their mother. They are growing up in an era where a lot of young women are fearless and very aware of their potential. But they are also growing up in an era where society has not changed enough. The upbringing that I give to my girls is not commonplace. There are still young girls that are facing incredible barriers to living meaningful lives; lacking basic needs, being married early, experiencing female genital mutilation, unable to go to school and so on.

However, I am optimistic about the energy and the optimism that young people have, and also about this current generation of young men that are growing up in spaces where they are being socialised to respect women, and to see them as human beings with their own rights and aspirations. And we must multiply this, through schools, through mentoring and engaging men and boys on what it means to be a man. Change is here!

Sophie Reeve

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