Kenyan women have often found themselves in a conflict of interest between work and family. The lack of adequate work and family support puts a strain on their income while some of them heavily rely on relatives or other informal means to take care of their children. For the purpose of understanding the challenges Kenyan women encounter every day, I conducted a simple study of women in the country’s informal sector, some of whom work as security guards, janitors, shop attendants, hawkers, sex workers, and domestic cleaners. My findings revealed most of these women still depend on their families for support despite working long hours.
Many among those that I talked to explained that they are unable to pursue tertiary education or acquire professional or vocational skills needed to secure better jobs primarily because government funding towards education is limited. Whereas, only non-governmental organizations—with their limited funds—seek to empower Kenyan women through academic sponsorship and vocational training, not the government. As a result, many women are left with no hope of securing better jobs.
Meanwhile, the lack of benefits for low-income jobs further complicates the likelihood of a pregnant woman getting certain jobs because of health benefits coverage.
Since this is the case, some of the concerned women resort to leaving their children with parents or relatives in the village while they struggle to make ends meet in the city. Others are simply ordered by their low-income-earning husbands to quit their jobs and stay at home to look after the children. The latter scenario often leaves children in the custody of relatives where they become vulnerable to sexual molestation or other forms of inhumane treatment.
But in case this form of backup fails, mothers will usually resort to their employers for support. In most cases, however, employers are unwilling to accommodate their employees’ family needs by depriving them of necessary time off or paid leave. The majority of women I interacted with told me that their employers were unwilling to neither give breaks to take care of their child, attend school meetings, nor even allowed them to seek personal medical care. In cases where employers eventually approve some day off for their female employees, they would be unpaid. And if they spend extra unapproved days off, such women would be sacked.
Access to basic education would, as proven across the world, help women to improve their living standards by making them more employable.
Deep-Rooted Culture of Harassment and Gender Bias
Women in the informal sector come face to face with at least one form of discrimination or harassment in their search for jobs. Normally, Kenyan women have always found it difficult to get jobs in areas traditionally dominated by men. This is despite the fact that most employers are unwilling to employ married women primarily because of maternity leave. Meanwhile, the lack of benefits for low-income jobs further complicates the likelihood of a pregnant woman getting certain jobs because of health benefits coverage. Innocent Kenyan women also have to deal with ethnic bias in the labor market, too.
Tribal stereotypes make it hard for some women from certain tribes to get specific jobs. For instance, many employers prefer domestic workers from Luo/Luhya tribes and shop attendants from the Kamba tribe. This bias makes it hard for women from other tribes to land these jobs.
For more vulnerable women like hawkers and sex workers, they have to deal with additional harassment by the police. Police officers would demand bribes from them after physically or sexually harassing them in some cases and there is simply no one to complain to.
The situation of low income earning women in Kenya can be remedied with the provision of equal education opportunities for girls and women. Access to basic education would, as proven across the world, help women to improve their living standards by making them more employable.
Vocational training can also assist women to develop new skills that can be used to better their lives since there are not sufficient jobs for them in the labor market anyway. Meanwhile, the government has a vital role to play in harnessing these alternatives. It should develop policies aimed at improving the lives of women and help safeguard them against harassment and discrimination. This would involve a multi-tier effort by local and the national government and perhaps, tough policies against employers and law enforcement officers. But protecting vulnerable women and girls from exploitation, abuse, and harassment in Kenya is a necessary undertaking worth any price.
Morilyn Muthoni is the founder of Ladies of Liberty Alliance, Tanzania, and a student of Library and Information Management at the Open University of Tanzania. She is a graduate of the Atlas Leadership Academy and tweets via @Morilyn2014.