Friday, March 19, 2010

The hard work

When I was in Kenya, I had the opportunity to attend a women's conference. I was so excited to hear the women’s stories that I beamed with activist pride. If there is one topic I LOVE to discuss it is women’s empowerment. I knew that the conference was being held in another slum so we would have to walk. Two women came by to get me and we began our journey. As we walked others joined until we were a mass of laughing women crowding through thin dirt hallways, some with children on their backs.

After a long morning of walking we finally arrived at a building that was nothing more than sticks with thin sheets of metal for a roof. Two other women spoke and then I was introduced. When I finished the floor was open to questions. To be honest, I remember little about what was spoken because I can’t stop thinking about the questions that were asked. 

One by one, women stood up and asked questions that reflected the vulnerable positions that they found themselves in. These women were wives, mothers, and entrepreneurs. They had the weight of their families, poverty, and the world on their shoulders… but their concerns stemmed around keeping their husbands happy. If “he” wasn’t kept happy then he might beat his wife or even worse leave her. The fear that they would lose everything and be left on the street with their children was overwhelming. Some women offered suggestions for looking and acting more pleasing. I sat horrified that after all that was said, the reality is that marginalizing cultural norms ensnare women in vicious cycles. The barriers are too deep and wide for some women to cross; barriers which include the refusal of property rights, gender violence, and lack of access to education and resources.

I met with another group while I was in Kenya called Mother’s Concern. These women understood that barriers were too difficult to break down alone so they joined together. They meet together to do job training, share resources and their lives. Together they helped a teenager and her baby get off of the street, a woman with AIDS start a business to support her three children, a women escape from a violent husband, and the stories go on. 

Networking is important for women’s empowerment work. The old adage says “there’s safety in numbers.” But there is also power… power in sharing stories, spreading resources, and widening opportunities. Women joining together will only go so far, we also need men to stand in the gap to teach other men. I was so proud of the men in my group while we were in Kenya… the way they interacted, stepped into “traditional” women’s roles, and listened to women’s voices. Reconstructing gender roles and balancing power is the hard work that needs to be done.  

To read about the UN’s work for gender equality, click here.  To learn more about Mother's Concern, click here.

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