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Gender-Based Violence and its Patriarchal Roots: Case in Kenya

We hear of the atrocities committed in Uganda, Darfur and Somalia but very little about Kenya; except perhaps that it is in a better shape than most of its African neighbors. That changed when in May 13, Huffington Post published its article about “Beading,” stunning readers with its graphic details of the sinister cultural tradition practiced by Kenya’s Samburu tribe. Through this practice, girls as young as six are engaged to a male relative and are allowed to have sexual relations. Pregnancy is not allowed as members of the tribe firmly believe a newborn will reduce the girl’s chances of ever getting married, never mind the physical harm and mental trauma she has been afflicted. Despite the new legislations enacted by the government, mainly the Children Act (2006) and the Sexual Offenses Bill (2001) which protect women and girls from rape and incest, beading is socially accepted within the Samburu tribe. One father has argued that the practice combats “promiscuity among young girls” and added in its defense: “This is our culture, it is part of us. And we have been practicing it, and we accept that these girls should be beaded, and sometimes the girls just get pregnant.” Shocking? Clearly, the plight of Kenyan women is directly linked to the patriarchal system dominating the entire nation.

It is important though to understand the social, political and economic contexts which give insights into the layers of vulnerability that exacerbate the negative impacts of beading. Kenya lies along the equator in East-Africa and borders two war-torn states, Somalia and Uganda. According to the United Nations, Kenya is a low income, food-deficient country where fifty-two percent of people live below the poverty line, 40 percent are unemployed, and 1.3 million live with HIV and AIDS. The country has faced both natural disasters and violence. The most recent violence breakout followed the 2007 presidential election where the winning candidate, Mwai Kibaki was accused of electoral fraud. While the violence was ethnically driven, women and girls were raped regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. According to the Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya, over 3000 women were sexually assaulted during the post-election period (December 27, 2007 – February 28, 2008); many of them are still awaiting justice.

The commonness and acceptance of rape characterize a patriarchal society where women are both marginalized and dominated by men; Kenya seems to fit the description. Gender inequality can be seen in all spheres of the public life as women face various social, economic and political barriers that impede their participation and maintain their second-class status within the society. The social barriers include cultural practices such as beading, child marriage and female genital mutilation, which while legally banned are socially sanctioned. These practices are not only traumatizing experiences to its victims but dangerous to the society at large as they perpetrate a culture of violence and impunity. Kenya suffers a profound gender disparity that is nurtured by social patriarchal norms and laws that have yet to be reformed; take for instance the constant attacks on women’s right to land and property: “while they contribute almost 80 % of the workforce, Kenyan women only hold 1% of registered land titles in their names.”

What is the government doing then? In the past ten years, the Kenyan government has produced evidence to its commitment to the battle against violations of women’s rights, mainly through the enactment and reform of laws. However, there is still much to be done. According to the United Nations Population Fund, addressing gender equality and women’s empowerment requires strategic interventions at all levels of programming and policy-making. The UNFPA has suggested the focus on certain critical areas comprising: reproductive health (giving women control over their bodies and lives), economic, educational and political empowerment, and stewardess of natural resources. Kenya has a long way to go, but the progress so far has been possible because of the amazing work of local and international women’s organizations. Still, for an effective and grassroots change to be brought it is essential for both men and women to play an active role in the process; perceptions must be addressed and stereotypes challenged. Only then will Kenya be on a locked path toward development.

Some may disagree with a universalistic condemnation of these cultural practices and argue from a cultural relativist perspective that the change should come from within. The answer is: it is! Women like Kulea, a Kenyan activist have made it a personal mission to protect girls from harmful traditions and educate villages about their long-term negative physical and psychological impact; “I just felt that it is wrong,” she says. “Something wrong is going on in my community. And that is where my passion began. And so I decided to help out the girls.”

***If you would like to take action and learn more about these issues, follow this link: http://www.aidemocracy.org/take-action/


Huffington aticle about Beading: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/13/kenya-rape-beading_n_861257.html

UNFPA about Gender Equality:  http://www.unfpa.org/gender/empowerment.htm



About Samia Taoulost

Samia Taoulost is a passionate women’s rights advocate who was born and raised in Morocco. While working full-time as a Manager at the University Of Miami School Of Medicine’s International Medicine Institute, she is completing her graduate studies in International Administration with a focus on Gender, Global Health, and Development. Outside her work and studies, Samia is very active in the community. A former Young People For (YP4) Fellow and current Starting Block Fellow, she was appointed by the Mayor of North Miami Beach to serve as a Board Member on the city’s Commission on the Status of Women. Samia believes that transparency, accountability, an informed citizenry, and diversity of perspectives are critical ingredients necessary for a flourishing democracy. Fluent in English, French, Spanish and Arabic, she enjoys photography, swimming and spending time with friends and family.

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  1. To be honest, I know its important to highlight all these ‘problems’ that we are facing, but why do we always focus on the negative stories about countries in Africa. The stories are all so predictable.

    This redundant “bad-news” rhetoric just gets old at some point. Yes, people are suffering, yes, my family even experienced the atrocious consequences of the ethnic rivalry of 2007 Kenya; YES, 1 million people suffer from HIV/AIDS…


    There is so much that the people in Kenya and other countries are doing to alleviate their own problems. Its counterintuitive to continue drilling down this ‘helplessness’ attitude that tries to gather global sympathy. Let us maybe also offer everyone (in this global AWARENESS packet) information on the people and local organizations that are doing a lot to ameliorate the situation. The global society knows that they are not entirely on some LET”S SAVE AFRICA RESCUE MISSION.

    • Hello Leila, thanks for your comment. You are right about welcoming the government’s efforts and commitment to progress; and I did mention in the article a number of legal reforms that the Kenyan government has issued to protect women. However, as I am sure you will agree, there could be no true and sustainable development without women’s active participation in the process & laws are just the begining as in many countries (example here : Kenya), women’s value and status are deeply ingrained in cultural and social patterns.
      Just like in other countries, signatories to international agreements such as the CEDAW, Kenya has committed to improving the status of women through legal, social, economic and cultural change. As you may have noticed, I am not in favor of an international rescue mission but for an internal movement that in Kenya seems to be in its onset. Kenyan women are crucial advocates today against FGM, beading and other cultural practices that undermine the mental and physical health of women. I understand your concerns but I am confident that silence about these issues will help in no way Kenyan women.
      Also, AID is an informative website that educates about issues not generally discussed by the mainstream media. Talking about these issues is not a way to bash a country but to raise awareness.

  2. True, and I am in now way undermining the time you took to spread the awareness. As a student and a global citizen, I appreciate knowing what is going on in the world. But all I am saying is, when we give a problem, let us attach solutions to it or at least let also portray what has been done to ameliorate it. It is easy to point at “what’s wrong” but rarely do we also present the “what is right” part as well. As in, what has been done so far to tackle the very problem.

    I do agree with you with almost everything you have said above. I however, would have liked to see more of the “change from within” section. Call me an optimist, I just don’t believe that change can be perpetuated by continuous drilling down astringent facts, however integral awareness seemingly is.

    I tend to make this mistake as well. As agitators for salubrious changes, I feel that we need to offer some 60%-40% problem-solution style of writing. So that we don’t get too defeated reading all the things that are not right with our world.

    What say you?