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Women can play key role in resolving societal challenges

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The late Nobel Prize laureate Wangari Maathai once said “human rights are not things that are put on the table for people to enjoy. These are things you fight for and then you protect.”

She was an exceptional and inspirational woman. Her Green Belt Movement protected Kenya’s forests from deforestation. By encouraging communities to tackle the problem head on, her movement created jobs for 900,000 girls and women living in the forests, planting more than 51 million trees.

Maathai’s life teaches us that where there is a challenge, there is space for a woman to emerge with a solution. Consider the impact we would have if more women like Wangari Maathai were driving change across business, media, civil society, and politics.

While women represent half of Kenya’s population, they own less than two per cent of the land and account for 19 percent of our Members of Parliament and 27 per cent of Senators. Further, despite the number of women involved in business, the majority of women-owned business have difficult accessing loans.

The long-standing views about the role of women in society is partly to blame for this inequality. Some people believe girls and women cannot make the choices that serve their best interests and that they need to protection and guidance.

Recently, Kenyans were outraged by the news that over 300 girls sat for their national examinations from maternity hospital beds, either pre or post-delivery.

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For many of these girls, pregnancy and early marriage is presumed to be the easier option for a pathway to prosperity and a life with less struggle. Without access to information and services, girls and women are unable to make informed choices about their bodies which may lead to unwanted pregnancies, subsequent school dropouts, and a cycle of poverty. It is all linked. But so are the solutions.

Taking cues from Maathai’s movement, we can learn significant lessons for our agenda toward gender equality. Wangari Mathai approached deforestation holistically and as a human rights issue. Today, we must take the same approach to gender equality using holistic strategies that bring diverse, and perhaps unexpected, people together to address inequality from all sectors. This approach is likely to be more effective in delivering opportunities that benefits all Kenyans. When policies are effectively implemented, women have more opportunities.

Luckily for Kenya, the foundations are there. The 2010 Constitution is one of the most progressive in Africa, with provisions guaranteeing inheritance rights and making marriage and the custody of children a more equitable process for women. As a country, we’ve taken important legislative steps by passing the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, the Prohibition of FGM Act, and the Matrimonial Property Act. And President Uhuru Kenyatta was the second President globally to sign the He-for-She campaign.

While the political and legislative goodwill exists, for us to make a real progress we need to change the way we approach women’s empowerment. We need to stop seeing women as another development challenge to be fixed and instead see them as part of the solution. That is why Deliver for Good is launching in Kenya today. It is a campaign that seeks to apply a gender lens to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and invites us to remember the ways women are integral to our common goals.

Kobia is Cabinet secretary, Public Service, Youth and Gender Affairs ministry Omondi is executive director FIDA Kenya

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