I’ve been thinking about International Women’s Day and what it stands for. This year in particular, the gender disparities have never been so glaring. More so because of what the world has experienced due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2020, I facilitated a forum called Brown Bag. This was a lunchtime virtual meeting on Zoom where women met to discuss what we were going through as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The forum started in March, just a week after Kenya recorded its first COVID-19 case. We met weekdays in March and April, bi-weekly in May, and once a week in June.

Brown Bag wrapped up at the end of June 2020 when it became apparent that members had grown strong enough to handle the ongoing shifts. Also, Kenya weathered the COVID-19 storm very well and life was getting back to a semblance of normal by this time.

At the same time, I helped my clients and mastermind move from physical to virtual work. What was easy for me (because I’ve worked online since 2011), was an uphill task for some, but we all made it through.

The rest of 2020 opened up my eyes to the glaring gender disparities in Kenya and beyond. Listening to women talk about their experiences during the pandemic and in the new world we’re now in has been enlightening.

It has also made me reflect back on my life as a social science researcher.

Which is why I ask…

As we fight for equality, are we ready for change?

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day (IWD2021) is #ChooseToChallenge. In the words of IWD:

A challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change.
So let’s all choose to challenge.

How will you help forge a gender-equal world?
Celebrate women’s achievement. Raise awareness against bias. Take action for equality.

(Source: IWD website).

For many years I worked with international development agencies in the health sector. I got an opportunity to visit some resource-poor settings in Kenya and meet communities that were barely surviving.

One of the reasons why I quit employment was because of the overwhelming sadness and despair I’d feel when I visited some villages.

Here I was, a researcher from a prestigious institution, arriving in a big 4×4 vehicle and a cloud of dust. And I wanted to take someone’s time to ask them questions at the expense of them going to find food or water.

At times, we’d find women who had not eaten for days. There were also children with sores all over their bodies because there was no accessible medical care.

You see and can’t (or won’t) help

Unfortunately, we were not allowed to help or bring anything to the people we were visiting. Nor were we allowed to give lifts in the vehicles because we were not insured for any eventualities that involved non-staff should there be an accident.

All this goes against our culture.

Sometimes we were lucky to have a medic with us and they’d give basic medical care where possible. But I always felt that we were unfairly building our careers and making a living on the backs of these highly marginalized people.

Prior to that, in the late 90s, I worked in a reproductive health project. A few realizations came to mind as I took part in an anti-female genital mutilation (FGM) program and a family planning one.

While I wasn’t deeply involved in the community work, I observed enough to realize that:

  1. There are cases when women are the main supporters of some of the practices we want to eliminate or change. We can be our own worst enemies too in the business arena…or our biggest positive change agents.
  2. The change we seek in African communities comes faster when men are involved. Choosing to challenge the status quo doesn’t mean overturning everything in society. It means educating everyone about the need for change and helping facilitate positive change. There can’t be blanket solutions because the solutions have to work for each community.
  3. There are many unsung heroes and heroines working diligently to improve their communities. Unfortunately, they never get credit for it. They’re not celebrated or recognized. But politicians get recognized and celebrated even when they haven’t lifted a finger! We need to start showcasing these community-level heroes and heroines so that we motivate more people to get involved.

There’s a lot more I could say…but I think this is enough to start with.

Are you and I ready to face this reality?

Today’s reflection has taken me back to a time when I grappled with my conscience. I really wanted to make a change, but I felt helpless. At the same time, I was fighting the desire to spend more time with my family. There was a clash between what I wanted and my reality.

My solution was to quit my job and go into business. I walked away from the life that was making me feel uneasy. And I never looked back until now, almost 14 years later.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day today, I’m thinking beyond the larger level. I’m thinking about the women I left behind and the communities that are still poor, highly illiterate, and highly marginalized.

I’m facing the reality that I have a role to play in helping create positive change at the ground level. This goes beyond just giving to charity. It requires getting involved deeply in areas that I have avoided for years. It requires being uncomfortable as I step into the reality others live with daily.

This is scary and I don’t know how it’s going to happen or what the next step is. What I do know is that the moment one makes such a commitment, the Universe opens up and reveals this next step. That’s also why I have written this blog post. There’s a level of accountability that comes with making something public.

Going beyond International Women’s Day

Women and children in such communities bear the brunt of poverty, illiteracy, and marginalization. They don’t have a voice. Nor are they able to think beyond finding food and water. It’s also a daily battle to ensure that many children survive to adulthood.

At some point, you and I have to commit to ensuring that no woman or child is left behind. We also have to take an active role and:

  • Choose the right political and civil service leaders. We need more people who have a track record of keeping their promises after the election.
  • Become the leaders we wish for when elected into leadership.
  • Make space for women to rise to leadership in all spheres of life.
  • Come down from our leadership levels and help build stronger communities while supporting upcoming women leaders.
  • Nurture other women and communities in whatever way we can – individually and collectively.
  • Give the communities we want to help a voice. Let them lead the change instead of dictating to them what needs to be done.

Finally, I strongly believe that the change we seek should not be at the expense of relationships and family. Whatever we do, we have to keep our families safe.

We also have to ensure that we don’t damage the women, families, and communities we work with. Gender equality does not mean creating gender disparity on the other side.

In all, we cannot fight for gender equality without finding ways of ensuring marginalized communities have access to basics like food, water, education, and basic medical care.

We cannot afford to stay comfortable in our homes, jobs, and businesses when our sisters and their families are languishing in poverty, illiteracy, poor maternal health, and high infant mortality rates.

That, for me, is the change I want to be a part of as we #ChooseToChallenge. Happy International Women’s Day!

Over to you…

What is the change you want to see and be a part of or commit to? Let’s hear from you in the Comments.

(Image credit: Unsplash)

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