When discussing gender equality, the opposing argument usually dwells on the fight for equal pay in white-collar jobs, thereby perpetuating a dismissive narrative that women only yearn for equality out of their all-glass skyscraper offices or in Parliament. This, according to mainstream mischief, is as opposed to the right to work in the mines or on construction sites.
All too often, cultural barriers are dismissed as nonexistent pointing to a lack of tangible set of laws or policies that prevent women from branching into labour-intensive jobs. But those barriers continue to exist, frustrating women from aspiring to take on menial jobs as opportunities to earn a legitimate income. Coming from a society with deeply entrenched barriers to what women can or cannot do, it is impossible for me to miss the limited presence of such barriers in other African societies.
While visiting a coffee farm called Paradise Lost on the outskirts of Nairobi, I could not help but notice half a dozen middle aged women carrying burlap sacks of coffee beans and loading them onto trucks destined for deliveries in different parts of the town. Inside the factory, there were men and women sorting, packing and sealing processed coffee beans while the women strolled in and carried the heavy sacks on their shoulders. This was particularly eye-catching to me because, for a minute there I could witness the blurring of gender roles right in front of my eyes. Women were doing the heavy lifting and it was the norm. Throughout my stay in Kenya, I remained overly conscious and observant of how gender dynamics played out.
On a different occasion, while strolling down the busy streets of Central Business District in the heart of Nairobi, I came across a young woman guiding a man in suit to her shoe-shining seat. He appeared to have had a shoe malfunction and needed urgent repair during lunch break. I watched as he sat and she took off the shoe, and mended it. I must have been the only one around that found it amusing, which prompted me to stop and watch, because everyone around rushed away without stopping to catch a second-long glimpse and that could only mean that it wasn’t something out of the ordinary there.
Although gender roles appear to be more blurred in Nairobi than in most parts of Nigeria, this is not an attempt to project Kenya as a nation that has achieved gender parity. While assessing a country’s level of gender equality through the number of women in politics isn’t a definitive way to determine the degree of equality, it does paint a true picture of an uneven playing ground and barriers to entry.
According to A new report published by NDI and the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA Kenya), only 172 seats are occupied by women in 2017 out of a staggering 1,883 elected seats in Kenya, up from 145 after the 2013 elections. Women make up 9% of the Kenyan parliament in comparison to EU’s 37.4% in 2017 up from 16.6% in 1979.
Cultural barriers draw staring eyes and you can see the reeling disgust plastered on the faces of those that perceive what others are doing as effort to deconstruct social norms, something they consider an attack on tradition. More often than not, this serves as a deterrent for women looking for opportunities to work and even earn less than decent incomes to stave off destitution. To most, it is an uncharted territory to attempt menial jobs, because it just isn’t a woman’s place as written in the unseen societal constitution.
However, the impact that this piece of unwritten scroll has on a society is less economic opportunities for women apart from the socially accepted means for work which are limiting. This does not mean that every woman in these societies conforms to societal expectations of where she ought to work, in fact women that break the cycle often end up pulling down the barriers, inspiring others to follow.
Down this road, what had appeared as an abomination gradually becomes an acceptable practice. This cultural revolution is our gateway to economic freedom, especially in societies where the generic employments are not enough for all. With such opportunity to earn without being shamed, hopefully we are on road to breaking one of the chains that have kept the woman down for too long.