- For the former minister, the conference was not about being a part of history, but opening the eyes of Kenyan women.
- She emphasises that it is important young girls get an education to realise their dreams.
In 1995, 450 Kenyan women were sent to represent the country in the fourth World Conference on Women. They were led by Kenya’s first woman minister Nyiva Mwendwa. She had been appointed Culture and Social Services minister just three months before the conference.
Nyiva was determined to make sure every woman was represented at the conference. She says she aimed to take women from “the lowest to the highest class” in society. In retrospect, though, she thinks her appointment may have been for the sole reason of leading the women to Beijing.
Next year, Kenya joins women across the world in celebrating 25 years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China.
The conference took place on September 4-15, 1995, and made recommendations to the UN General Assembly to endorse the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. The conference will take place in September in New York.
In an interview with the Star, Nyiva explained the importance of Beijing, the achievements it has made possible for women and what more can be done to push the agenda of gender equality.
A decade before the Beijing Conference, Nairobi had hosted a world conference to mark the end of the UN Decade for Women, as well as review and assess the achievements made. The 1976-85 period was declared UN Decade for Women by the UNGA during the International Women’s Year in Mexico in 1975.
At the end of the Nairobi conference, there was a general agreement to adopt the ‘Nairobi Forward-looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women’ document. It contained strategies to improve the status of women and integrate them into all aspects of development for the rest of the decade.
However, a decade after the Nairobi conference, Kenya had failed to incorporate women in development and their rights were not fully upheld or recognised.
According to Nyiva, there were very few women in universities, political arena, government, and there were no women in the armed forces. The participation of Kenya in the Beijing conference, therefore, was about bringing equality between the man and woman in Kenya.
Back then women were denied housing allowance because they were housed by their husbands. Single women were also denied the allowance.
For instance, she points out, pay disparity between men and women doing the same work was high. “No one would explain this. It was taken you are a woman so you should be getting less pay for the exact same job as a man,” Mwendwa said.
Women were denied housing allowance because they were housed by their husbands. Single women were also denied the allowance.
“A housing allowance is rightfully yours for a job you are doing, not a situation of whether you are married or not. The qualification of being denied a house allowance back then was because you are a woman,” she said.
The Beijing conference was about correcting these inequalities.
Nyiva wanted to have women from all spheres represented in her delegation. However, when it came to choosing women from rural areas, some male politicians wanted their mistresses picked.
“...if you told them you would take the wife instead, they refused,” she said. Nyiva ignored those requests as it would have been improper to have the women chosen by men.
Nyiva generated controversy after she was accused of taking her hairdresser to the conference.
“At that time, a lot of women in businesses were involved in that kind of business and one of the girls chosen as a delegate happened to also be the one that did my hair,” she said. “I could not take big businesswomen and leave the small businesswomen behind.”
For Nyiva, the conference was not about being a part of history, but opening the eyes of Kenyan women. “When they come and see what was being done by other women, then they would come back and help us in the fight for women empowerment,” she said.
The minister was accused of taking ignorant women to the conference. She says the only qualification needed was being a woman.
“I took everyone from all spheres of life because it would be wrong to ignore ordinary Kenyans,” she said.
When the delegation came back it was met with hostility and accused of agitating for the rights of lesbians. “Africans were not there [at the plenary session] because that was not a problem for us,” she said. “In fact, a lot of our women did not know about lesbianism.”
When the delegation came back it was met with hostility and accused of agitating for the rights of lesbians.
Mwendwa said they did not take part in a plenary session held by a group of women from Western countries to discuss the rights for lesbians worldwide.
“Africans were not there [at the plenary session] because that was not a problem for us,” she said. “In fact, a lot of our women did not know about lesbianism.”
During the conference, the participating governments recognised that despite the status of women advancing in the past decade, the progress had been uneven and inequalities between women and men persisted.
The declaration also recognises that the situation is made worse by increasing poverty. The governments committed to addressing the constraints and obstacles to enhance the advancement of women.
One of the women who took part in the conference was Esther Muiru, who was 26 years old then.
In an interview with the Star, she explained that the conference helped shape her career. Muiru had graduated from university in 1993 and was working as a volunteer at the pre-Beijing conference.
In Beijing, she noticed a gap in the representation of women from the grassroots.
From a young age, I was very aware of poverty and marginalisation, having been brought up poor and I knew I wanted to deal with the issues that would help close the poverty gapGroots-Kenya founder Esther Muiru
Muiru had grown up watching women in her community held back by poverty and abandonment. Their husbands would leave for urban areas to find work and rarely returned.
“From a young age, I was very aware of poverty and marginalisation, having been brought up poor and I knew I wanted to deal with the issues that would help close the poverty gap,” she said.
During the conference, Muiru came across a group of women called Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood (Groots).
“These were real women looking for solutions that would help women from the grassroots. I became interested in what they were doing and their mission,” she said.
When she came back Muiru founded Groots-Kenya, a movement of more than 3,000 rural and urban women living in poverty.
“We have transformed the lives of women in sectors such as agriculture, health, land rights and climate change,” Muiru said.
Twenty-five years after Beijing, Kenya has taken some steps forward but much more needs to be done, Nyiva says.
“I am very proud that now we have a few women in Cabinet and not only that but they are in key dockets,” she said. “However, what women want would be 50-50.”
She advised that it is time Kenya looked for solutions to gender violence, which has become rampant.
“Gender violence has become an epidemic and may need psychological intervention. That may be a route we need to consider,” she said.
The former minister emphasised that it is important young girls get an education to realise their dreams. “Even if President Uhuru is not able to achieve the eradication of FGM by 2022, then at least we have a place to continue from there. FGM should definitely be eradicated,” she said.