60 years of Madaraka: Truth or fallacy for Kenyan women?

Diamond Women Group members Salome Chege, Winnie Njoroge and Mary Njuguna during an interview on their farm in Limuru on May 24, 2023. It is momentous that 60 years after Independence, they have only become landowners recently.

What you need to know:

  • Being first-time landowners, it is momentous that 60 years after Kenya attained independence, a group of women in their 60s, have only become landowners, recently.
  • By 2016, the group had Sh8,000,000 in savings, they trained their eyes on purchasing land.
  • Formal legal systems that were used post-independence contributed heavily to limited land ownership by women.

‘Uhuru’- freedom from colonial rule. This is what Kenyans are celebrating 60 years of today. Although ‘not yet uhuru’ would be an apt description for the current mood in the country, freedom has just dawned for some of those who were left on the side-lines while the nation savoured the fruits of independence.

As we follow three women landowners down a lush green tea plantation on a crisp morning in Limuru, Kiambu County, the air is filled with so much hope and excitement.

I imagine this is what Kenyans felt when our flag was hoisted for the first time on June 1, 1963. It is the kind of newfound happiness that one only experiences once in their lifetime: Uhuru (freedom).

Being first-time landowners, it is momentous that 60 years after Kenya attained independence, they have only become landowners, recently.

Dr Agnes Mutua-Meroka, a senior law lecturer at the Faculty of Law, University of Nairobi and Senior Researcher at African Women Research Study Centre explains why this is the case.

Agnes Meroka, a senior law lecturer at the University of Nairobi, during an interview on May 26, 2023.

Photo credit: Wilfred Nyangaresi | Nation Media Group

“Although women were very vocal and instrumental about the land question, which informed the struggle for independence, they were not included in the African government that was formed thereafter. Whereas the independence constitution generally recognised human rights, women’s rights were not taken very seriously,’’ Dr Mutua-Meroka says.

As the women take us on a tour of the four-hectare land, they explain how they became first-time land owners in their 60s and 70s, through their registered chama, Diamond Women Group.

“We are women from Nairobi’s informal settlements like Korogocho, Kangemi, Kibera, Waruku and Mukuru kwa Njenga. We are run small business. We are your charcoal sellers, mama mbogas (groceries’ vendors) and mama fuas (launderers),’’ Mary Njuguna, 63, the chairperson of the group explains

The group that comprises about 500 women, met during the campaign period leading up to the 2002 Kenya General Election. They would interact with each other during meetings organised by Maendeleo ya Wanawake, at the time a wing of Kanu political party that mobilised women to take part in politics in the early 2000s.

“Growing up in the early 70s, my father was everything. He was the decision-maker and my mother would not even go to chama (self-help group) meetings without his consent. It was only until Beth Mugo engaged women through Maendeleo ya Wanawake that I discovered that women could participate in other social activities apart from going to church,’’ Salome Chege, 51, the group’s secretary narrates.

Unfortunately, when the late President Mwai Kibaki got into power in December 2002, the women could no longer interact since the meetings stopped.

Diamond Women Group

“We used to run around with politicians and were rewarded with Sh50 or Sh100 at the end of the day. However, when they got into office, most of them ignored us. Whenever we would ask for their help for bursaries or request an audience with them, we would be dismissed,” Ms Njuguna adds.

It was a hard hitting reality that the women had to accept. It was at that point that Ms Njuguna decided to take matters into her own hands.

“I asked them (women we used to campaign with), ‘why should we wait for politicians we had been running around with to give us Sh200? Why can’t we contribute the same amount of money and invest in our businesses instead of chasing after politicians?’’’ Ms Njuguna says.

In January 2003, Diamond Women Group was created with a membership of women from 17 districts (as they were then). They started monthly contributions of Sh200 and graduated to Sh500 in 2012.

“I remember when the women were visiting me in my home in Kawangware, I didn't even have enough utensils for serving meals. We started by buying each other kitchenware and moved to monthly food supplies and stock for our businesses. We did not allocate money but purchased required items because as a mother, you can easily be tempted to divert the funds to emergencies,’’ Winnie Njoroge, 73, the treasurer of Diamond Women Group says

By 2016, the group had grown so much and with Sh8,000,000 in savings, they trained their eyes on purchasing land.

“We saw that most of us were growing old and we didn't own houses or land. Even though most of us live in the slums, we at times cannot afford to pay rent, especially in this economic climate. We agreed to buy land where we can build houses so that we only have to worry about buying food,’’ Ms Njuguna says.

Land rights

According to the Federation of Women Lawyers (Fida) report on Women and Property Land Rights, despite women forming more than 50 per cent of the population, only one per cent of land titles in Kenya are held by women alone, while only five per cent of land title deeds in Kenya are held by women jointly with men.

Indeed, even for the women in the Diamond Group, they had never fathomed that they would be land owners in their lifetime.

“Even back home, my father was the title holder while my mother was not,’’ Ms Njoroge says, “we are the first women to hold title deeds within our circles and most of us are in our 60s and 70s.’’

Dr Meroka-Mutua adds that formal legal systems that were used post-independence contributed heavily to limited land ownership by women.

“Our African customary laws have been villainised and portrayed as the source of women’s disenfranchisement but actually, there is research that shows that African land tenure systems were applied in a fair manner. The society was structured in a way that it was needs-based and women could access land for particular uses,’’ Dr Mutua-Meroka elaborates.

Since women were locked out of land ownership, it also became hard for them to access credit, as title deeds were used as security by most banks.

Until today, women remain the poorest group in Kenya. According to a Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (Gesi) analysis conducted by the Nairobi British High Commission, women are 65 per cent multi-dimensionally poor compared to men.

So, when Diamond Women Group approached financial institutions with Sh8 million in savings and looking for extra Sh12 million to purchase the Limuru land, they were met with scepticism and gender bias.

“We approached a number of banks to get a loan of Sh12 million but most of them did not believe we could have raised Sh8 million on our own. They would ask us who the actual ‘source’ of our money was even when we presented them with our statements. Other financial institutions thought we were too risky to invest in,’’ Ms Njoroge reminisces.

Echo Network Africa CEO Jennifer Riria during an interview in Nairobi on May 22, 2023.

Photo credit: Kennedy Amungo | Nation Media Group

This is a predicament that Dr Jennifer Riria, a pioneer in the microfinance industry and current Group Chief Executive of Echo Network Africa, knows all too well. Dr Riria says that when she joined Kenya Women Microfinance Bank in1991, the situation was very difficult for women.

“A woman would have to get a form signed by a significant male in the family to be able to access a loan from a financial institution. Women, especially from rural areas, would not be able to get into banking halls and get attention because people believed they were ‘unbankable’,’’ Dr Riria tells Nation.Africa.

“One of the achievements I am proud of is opening the banking halls to women. It was very difficult and it was not without tears. I remember walking into a bank in 1991 asking for Sh2,000,000 to redistribute to women and the manager laughed in my face, ‘Do you want your women with their baskets on their backs to crowd by banks?’ he asked me,’’ Dr Riria adds.

It was only until in 1994 that she got the loan. The money significantly increased access to finance to women in Kenya.

“We were able to prove that you can lend money to woman and she will repay. She is bankable!’’ she exclaims.

Microfinance went on to become the go-to pathway to access credit facilities for many women in the early 90s as they couldn't meet the legal requirements of most financial institutions.

Similarly, the women in Diamond Women Group had a hard time accessing credit despite providing financial statements and having Sh8 million in savings. They were only able to secure funding in 2016 after which they increased their monthly contributions to Sh1,200 in order to service the loan.

Now proud owners of land and running profitable businesses, the women attribute their success to progressive laws such as the Constitution of Kenya 2010 that has significantly improved women’s rights.

“Women who live in the slums should not belittle themselves just because they live in those conditions. Every political leader from ward to national level has engaged us. We are now part of the political process and can’t be ignored. We don’t ask politicians for money but rather, what they will do to advance our rights and living conditions,’’ Ms Njuguna says.

For many women like Ms Njuguna, the 2010 Constitution has been a transformative law for women’s rights.

Sonal Tejpar, partner at Anjarwalla and Khanna Law firm, speaks to Nation.Africa on May 26, 2023. She says Kenya's current law has set a strong foundation for promoting gender equality.

Photo credit: Wilfred Nyangaresi | Nation Media Group

Sonal Tejpar, a Partner at Anjarwalla and Khanna Law Firm also says the current constitution has strengthened previous laws and set a strong foundation for promoting gender equality.

“Some of the key acts that have enhanced women’s rights include the Sexual Offences Act 2006, that criminalises various forms of sexual offences and provides protection for victims, the Employment Act 2007 that gives women access to maternity leave and protects them from gender-based discrimination and the Matrimonial Property Act 2013 that ensures fair distribution of matrimonial property upon death of a spouse, ‘’ she says during an interview with the Nation.Africa.

Since the country has a robust legal framework protecting women’s rights, most legal experts recommend that implementation remains the major challenge. Nonetheless, Ann Ireri, the Executive Director of Federation of Women Lawyers (Fida) opines that there are some areas of law that still need addressing.

Fida-Kenya Executive Director Ann Ireri speaks to Nation.Africa at Windsor Golf Hotel and Country Club in Nairobi on May 25, 2023.

Photo credit: Kennedy Amungo | Nation Media Group

“We have laws that appreciate the contribution of women in matrimonial property but the unpaid labour that women perform at home like cooking, cleaning and taking care of children has not yet been fully appreciated. We must look at this because women didn't have the same access to education and opportunities as men. We still have aspects of unequal pay between men and women, so unpaid labour must be appreciated,’’ Ms Ireri says.

Today, women’s representation in the legislature has significantly increased compared to the early 60s and 70s. With the presence of committed women leaders agitating for women’s rights, the prospect of achieving gender equality in Kenya is not a pipe dream.

One of the most vocal women parliamentarians is Member of Parliament (MP) for Suba North Constituency Millie Odhiambo. She was also one of the 27 parliamentarians who were in the bill of rights committee when the constitution was being drafted in 2009.

“We ensured that we mainstreamed a lot of women’s and children’s rights. There are provisions that I look at within the constitution that I directly contributed to. When I got elected into parliament, we amended and made several laws to conform to the constitution and advance women’s rights,’’ Ms Odhiambo tells Nation.Africa.

Suba North MP Millie Odhiambo Mabona speaks to Nation.Africa at Garden Hilton Hotel, Mombasa Road, on May 23, 2023. She says when she was elected for the first time, they made several laws to advance women’s rights.

Photo credit: Kennedy Amungo | Nation Media Group

The MP cites the Protection against Domestic Violence Act, Victim Protection Act, Counter Trafficking in Persons Act and amendments to the Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure code that protect women within the law.

It is evident there has been progress within the law for women over the years. However, with women such as Ms Njuguna being first-time landowners in their 60s and 70s, one can hardly say that it has indeed been ‘60’ years of Madaraka for women. The journey has only just begun.