• Opinion
  • October 23, 2019
  • 9 minutes
  • 0

Can we stop shaming women in government, please?

Opinion: Breastfeeding isn’t a crime. Someone tell Kenya’s politicians

This opinion article was written by Kui Muraya, PhD, Gender & Health Systems Researcher at the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme, Nairobi, Kenya.


Two months ago, on August 7th 2019 to be precise, I watched in dismay as a Kenyan female legislator was kicked out of Parliament for “bringing her baby to work.

It wasn’t just that she was kicked out, but also the manner in which it was done, amidst jeering and shaming from her (primarily male) colleagues. What was even more disturbing was the apologetic explanations the mother in question felt the need to give following the incident; explaining that it had been an emergency — her child had been unwell and she did not want to miss work — so she brought the baby into Parliament.

This, in my opinion, was a sad day for Kenya. The very legislators who should champion gender equality in the spirit of our country’s constitution, publicly shamed a mother who was breastfeeding her ill 5-month old baby.

This incident got me reflecting on a research paper that my colleagues and I recently published, exploring career progression and leadership experiences of female and male healthcare leaders at the sub-national level in Kenya. In this paper we looked at how (if at all) gender shaped respondents’ experience of leadership and related facilitators and barriers to upward mobility in their careers.

Shifting mindsets around gender norms, roles and responsibilities doesn’t happen overnight

Although gender was not spontaneously identified as a significant influencer, a closer examination of the data revealed that gendered factors played an important role. Most fundamentally, women’s role as child bearers and gendered expectations from society, whereby women are seen as responsible for child nurturing and other domestic responsibilities, can influence their opportunities to advance to leadership positions as well as their selection and appointment as leaders. As one of the respondents, a female senior healthcare manager, said:

 “[When appointing a health manager] …if she is female, you have to consider if she has kids or not. That makes a difference. You will find that you select someone, train them and invest so much in them, then after working for only a few months they become pregnant and go off on maternity leave. Also, once they have a child, the women tend to become irregular with work, there isn’t that commitment…” 

Concerns about maintaining a work–life balance were also primarily raised by female respondents, with many stating that they sometimes struggled to juggle between full-time work and domestic responsibilities.

Where are the women in government?

Kenya has been labelled a “top advocate” for Agenda 2030 by the UN and was a member of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons, who advised the United Nations Secretary General on the global development framework beyond 2015. The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 specifically targets achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls by (amongst other targets):

  • Ending all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere (target 5.1);
  • Recognizing and valuing unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies (target 5.4) and;
  • Ensuring women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life (target 5.5)

Furthermore, in 2010, Kenya, promulgated a new “gender-sensitive” constitution that explicitly references gender representation in leadership spaces, stating that “no more than two-thirds of the members of public elective or appointive bodies shall be of the same gender”.

Despite the country’s commitment to the SDGs and the constitutional mandate for gender representation, structural barriers and harmful gender norms and stereotypes continue to prevent women’s full participation

Although the law does not make explicit reference to women, given the prevailing dearth of women in leadership positions both in the legislature and in the public service, it has in effect been interpreted to mean that there should at least be 1/3 female representation in the various government leadership bodies and agencies.

Yes we can

Despite the country’s commitment to the SDGs and the constitutional mandate for gender representation, structural barriers and harmful gender norms and stereotypes continue to prevent women’s full participation; consequently, denying women’s right and robbing the entire society of women’s productivity, potential and creativity.

As a country, we must make deliberate efforts to overcome this.

Shifting mindsets around gender norms, roles and responsibilities doesn’t happen overnight. It is a lengthy process that requires concerted participatory effort and dialogue. I hope we get there one day as a country.

Nonetheless, there are policies and strategies that we can put in place both at the institutional and country level to promote greater participation by women whilst still managing “domestic obligations”. These include, for example:

  • Adequate maternity and paternity leave beyond the current 3-months and 2-weeks respectively;
  • Breastfeeding-friendly spaces in the workplace that enable a smooth transition back to work post-maternity leave;
  • Requirements for on-site or subsidized child day care;
  • Flexible working hours;
  • Allowing work away from the worksite, e.g. working from home and other such family-friendly policies.

Some might argue that implementing such policies might not be possible for a lower middle-income country such as ours. However, I argue Twaweza yes, we can! Bob Collymore, the (much-loved) late CEO of Safaricom, Kenya’s largest mobile telecommunications network, showed that it is possible to promote gender diversity in the workplace, adopt family-friendly policies and still prosper.

He showed us that when we put “taking care of people” (in this case women) at the centre of all our dealings, we are bound to prosper as institutions and a country as a whole. To quote the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o: The condition of women in a nation is the real measure of its progress.” I pray we pass the test when future generations measure our progress as a country. — Kui Muraya

This is part of an article series exploring the intersection between health and gender leading up to the high-level meeting on universal health care taking place in New York, 23 September 2019. In the previous article in this series, Sarah Degnan Kambou and Ravi Verma from the International Center for Research on Women argued that health leaders are turning a blind eye to women. Read that here and take part in the discussion on Twitter

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not the policies or views of the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme.

(Picture credit: Death to the stock photo)

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