•Women and girls contended with unequal political representation, harmful traditional practices such as early marriage, and insufficient legal protections.
•In June’s Generation Equality Forum in Paris, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced a dozen concrete, actionable steps to end all forms of gender-based violence by 2026.
Just five years ago in Kenya, progress on gender equality was stalling. Despite a progressive Constitution and many public pledges, enforcement of laws that promote gender equality was inconsistent at best, and programs were often underfunded.
Women and girls contended with unequal political representation, harmful traditional practices such as early marriage, and insufficient legal protections.
Civil society organisations (CSOs) and feminist leaders pressed the government to do more, but they often lacked the resources to coordinate and reach larger audiences. Trust among advocates, and between the CSOs and government, had yet to be fully realised.
Flash forward to this June’s Generation Equality Forum in Paris, where the Kenyan government made a historic commitment to women and girls—a commitment pushed forward by a united and vocal coalition of Kenyan advocates.
President Uhuru Kenyatta announced a dozen concrete, actionable steps to end all forms of gender-based violence by 2026, backed by up to $23 million for prevention and response, research and data collection, and the establishment of a survivors’ fund.
One could say, “What a difference five years makes.” But it wasn’t just the passage of time. People and organizations across the country worked strategically and tirelessly to make these achievements a reality. They worked this way because, as one of this effort's leading influencers Janet Mbugua puts it, progress demands a “deliberate, intentional and bold approach to pushing for equality.”
And they did it amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which exacerbated gender-based violence globally and made the case for action even more dire. Their success offers a roadmap for further progress, not just in Kenya but all around the world.
So, what did it take to secure this transformative commitment to change?
- An inclusive coalition. Kenya is home to some extraordinary CSOs that work on every issue that affects women and girls—from female genital mutilation to access to healthcare to equal education. Each adds a different voice and perspective to the gender equality discussion, and each brings unique competencies to the table, whether it is research, legal advocacy, or data analysis. They were all necessary to push forward a broad vision on ending gender-based violence.
- A platform that incentivises. The Generation Equality Forum—with a process that kicked off in mid-2019—offered a unique moment for CSOs to collectively push the government to step up and shine. Leaders from diverse CSOs began to meet monthly, creating a space where they could identify areas of joint advocacy and make plans to collectively advocate to the government of Kenya. The forum helped them bridge their differences and focus on their shared commitment to gender equality—so that they could go further together. And once the government agreed to co-lead the Gender-Based Violence Action Coalition as part of the forum, it gave advocates a hook to make more concrete, tangible asks.
- Champions in government. Advocates mapped out influencers within government who had the most potential to make change. They found a natural champion in Kenya’s first lady, Margaret Kenyatta, an educator with a track record of advocating for women.Professor Margaret Kobia, Cabinet Secretary for public service, youth, and gender affairs, lent critical leadership. Within the highest levels of government, they found Ruth Kagia, the president’s deputy chief of staff, regarded as a brilliant policymaker and skilled operator. And they worked closely with Faith Kasiva, head of the State Department for Gender, to advance gender equality. And of course, these were not the only governmental champions. These women, their teams, and so many others were critical in making the case and ultimately shaping and strengthening President Kenyatta’s commitments at the Generation Equality Forum.
- Passionate influencers on all platforms. Leading up to the forum, advocates deepened their robust strategy of partnering with influencers, athletes, and media personalities to keep up a steady drumbeat of coverage of gender equality issues, from menstrual hygiene to gender-based violence. Social media influencers placed op-eds, launched Twitter campaigns, and shared content on their own platforms. These campaigns helped to raise awareness, complementing the work that’s long formed the foundation of progress in Kenya: tireless, sustained grassroots organizing.
- Simple, authentic messaging from the heart. The most effective messengers made the issues feel real to their audiences. They bring to life, in the words of Janet Mbugua, how inequality disrupts the lives of women and girls. By making the conversation on period poverty less about policy specifics and more about how, for example, a girl who can’t access menstrual supplies might have to drop out of school, influencers can connect with audiences on a deeper level. Advocates also made sure to include men in the discussion. Mbugua has found that the less equality is perceived as a “woman’s issue,” the less polarising it can be.
- Relentless focus and commitment to accountability. President Kenyatta’s commitment at the forum was historic, but no one in this effort is declaring victory and moving on. The ongoing COVID-19 response has strained budgets, resulting in a nearly 20 percent decrease in spending on social services in 2020–2021 and threatening the future of critical programs that support women and girls.
With the Kenyan people electing a new president in 2022, the coalition fears that there is no guarantee that the incoming government will share President Kenyatta’s commitment to gender equality. So advocates continue to deepen their engagements with one another to build the infrastructure that will protect these gains.
As included in President Kenyatta’s commitment, they are formalising the leadership that made this moment possible, bringing together county and national leaders into committees that will guide the implementation of these pledges through 2026.
It’s the kind of work that proves that Kenya’s gender advocacy community is here to stay. They’re applying, and even accelerating, the lessons they’ve learned over the past few years: that achieving lasting change requires a collaborative, sustained movement on every angle—through government, through the grassroots, and through culture itself.
Because in the end, change will happen only when every Kenyan recognises that these issues affect everyone, not just women and girls. Cabinet Secretary Kobia captured the spirit and promise of this work: “I am confident that with effective implementation of gender policy, enforcement of laws, continued political goodwill, and change of attitude among majority of Kenyans, we shall secure gender equality and the empowerment of Women." That’s what Kenya is striving toward. And thankfully, there’s a vast and dynamic community of advocates leading the way.
Samburu Wa-Shiko is the regional representative for East Africa, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.