Being told you have 10 minutes to meet Grace Onyango while riding a matatu in Kisumu, Kenya, is like being told you have 10 minutes to meet Hillary Clinton while stuck on a New York City subway on a Sunday – typically much slower than weekdays. And there I was in a van packed with 20 people, with a crate of someone else’s Fanta on my lap, and Grace Onyango was expecting me at her house in 10 minutes.
I started interning at the Millennium Cities Initiative (MCI) last year, while studying Economic and Political Development in the Master of Public Administration Program at Columbia’s School of International Affairs. Since November, I have worked with the Social Sector Research team at MCI to prepare needs assessments in the 11 Millennium Cities, focused on identifying critical needs in areas related to the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by the target date of 2015. This summer MCI has sent me to Kisumu, the third largest city in Kenya, to conduct a needs assessment on Kisumu’s progress toward MDG 3, achieving gender equality and empowering women.
In Kisumu, Grace Onyango is the first name to come up in conversations about gender issues. “Mama Onyango,” as she is referred to here, was elected to the Kisumu Municipal Council at a time when there were no other female politicians in Kenya. According to Onyango, “there wasn’t even a woman sweeper,” in the Council’s office when she was elected in 1964. Despite prevailing traditions and a difficult campaign for Councilor, Onyango went on to become Kisumu’s mayor – the first female Mayor in Kenya – and later, Kenya’s first female Member of Parliament, a position she served for three terms. She was also the first woman to serve in either of these roles in East Africa.
My harried commute was well worth it. I found Onyango to be extremely down-to-earth and welcoming, and I enjoyed spending an evening with her during my first week in Kisumu. Her perspective as a woman active in politics and civil society provides unique insight into the ongoing challenges women face in Kisumu. While Onyango was a trailblazer for the female gender, she says her main goal was to fairly represent all who elected her, both men and women. “I was not elected only by women,” says Onyango, “so I had to further both women’s and men’s interests, and listen to both.”
The phrase “gender issues” is often synonymous with “women’s issues.” However, “gender” applies to both men and women, and interaction between the sexes. Just as Onyango worked to engage her entire constituency – bringing men and women together – truly achieving gender equality will require working with both men and women. Likewise, focusing on development with a gender lens will benefit women, but also empower society as a whole. In a city such as Kisumu, and across Kenya as a whole, where patriarchal traditions largely dictate social and economic interaction between the sexes, partnership with men is essential if the difficulties women face are to be remedied.
The difficulties women can face here are many. Despite Onyango’s political victories, women comprise less than 10% of Kenya’s national parliament and 20% of Kisumu’s City Council. Moreover, Kisumu faces daunting figures regarding public health, local infrastructure and poverty, including the highest urban HIV-prevalence rates in Kenya, staggering unemployment and high incidences of food poverty. Women may be disproportionately affected by these challenges due to a lack of decision-making power at all levels of society that results in diminished economic and social independence.
Still, if Onyango’s story is any indication, Kisumu already possesses its most powerful tool for meeting these challenges: its people. In just two weeks here, I have met dozens of women and men like Onyango, who dedicate their time to serving their communities in the hopes of creating a safer, more livable city. In the coming weeks, I hope to further explore how resources can be mobilized to continue improving gender issues in Kisumu. By capitalizing on Kisumu’s greatest resource, its people, effective gender programming can empower women and the city as a whole.