As part of Why Are We Still Here?, a series of 12 blogs written by women around the world to mark International Women’s Day, Poet and playwright Sitawa Namwalie writes about the incremental fight against deep-rooted gender equality in Kenya.
In my 20s, I believed “development” was a straight purposeful march. From a place where women live lives of sneering inequality, dodgy justice and frequent violence; to a new place where women become human beings. Over the years I have learnt there is no straight line to progress. Life is messy and each generation makes its own contribution towards the quest.
So those of you young women who believe “feminist” is a dirty word to be avoided; those of you who believe your world is brimming with equality between men and women, just because you can become an engineer, a poet or a judge, or you can walk the streets at any time of day or night; wake up, it’s your turn to get to work!
Somewhere in Kenya in 2014 a four year old girl called Jane (not her real name) was defiled and murdered, and she is not even the latest victim. And you know what we still call murder by rape of a minor in Kenya? “Defilement”. As if Jane was simply made unclean, nothing scrubbing with a strong detergent won’t cure. Jane is dead. And her death was relentlessly slow, cruel and painful.
Jane is dead, and many gender activists have given in to despair precisely because they expected that we would not be here, still. Some of their despair comes from personal hubris, they thought they were enough, they thought they were the game changer. They knew that project they devised would shake the foundations of gender inequality to the core and sweep in a new era of equality for women and men. I used to be the same. But now I understand that gender inequality is deeply rooted in society and that improvements will be incremental. There is no revolution coming.
Now as a poet I keep the fight going with my poetry and in my performances. My Grandmother, Sitawa, my namesake, is the inspiration for so much of my poetry. She lived in a traditional world invaded and invalidated by colonialism yet in her world deaths like Jane’s were extremely rare. In her world society was still cohesive and a man who killed in the way Jane was killed, faced the full wrath of the community and his whole family paid the price for generations. In the traditional world a human life was sacred. This is the irony of our modern world today. A world which has seen the unprecedented progress of the concept of human rights has devalued the human at the heart of these rights, more so if she’s female.
In Kenya today there is little collective outrage for Jane’s death. Indeed many will blame her mother and ask why she did not keep her daughter safe. Few will ask the murderous young man for an accounting. Few expect men to take responsibility for sexual violence in the first place or demand that an unspeakable young man pay a heavy price for the desecration of an innocent.
We are here, still.
Sitawa Namwalie is a poet, playwright, writer and performer from Kenya, whose work has been performed internationally. In 2014 she won Kenya’s Sanaa Theatre Awards Best Spoken Word and Poetry for her show of dramatized poetry called “Silence is a Woman” which was also received the award for Best Production on Women Rights and Gender Based Violence.