Despite relying on conservancy land and resources for their daily needs, women struggle to access, influence and benefit from conservancies. Women traditionally do not own land upon which conservancy membership can depend; KWCA estimates that in all of Kenya’s 160+ conservancies, women comprise under 10% of conservancy membership.
The structures and mechanisms of conservancy decision-making serve to entrench gender biases, with women making up less than 5% of conservancy managers and 5% of conservancy committees. Men make most decisions around conservancy resources and projects and these are generally in their favour, for example prioritising individual monetary dividends over community-wide benefits, which is usually women’s preference.
Some conservancies recognise this problem and are trying to promote women’s participation in conservancy activities and decision making, for example through co-opting women onto conservancy boards and committees. However, these women report not being taken seriously and being undermined and intimidated by their male peers.
Many men, and indeed some women, believe that men should be the leaders and decision makers in conservancies, and women who do stand for election are judged harshly. According to one male conservancy manager, “The community is generally hard on women who come out to vie for [leadership] positions. They will screen her performance at family level, her private life, her relationship with in-laws, and although this happens to men too it doesn’t go as deep as for women.”
Interventions intended to promote women’s empowerment can also unintentionally result in physical and psychological abuse when they do not consider household power dynamics; in one survey over half of the women reported physical violence, verbal abuse, humiliation and intimidation by their husband due to their involvement in economic activities promoted by conservancies.
The social norms, practices and beliefs that lead to women’s marginalisation within conservancies are both perpetuated by and contribute to GBV. According to 2014 government data, 42% of Kenyans, both men and women, believe that it is acceptable for a husband to beat his wife for various reasons including if she burns the food, goes out without telling him, or refuses to have sexual intercourse. This figure increases in rural areas, where conservancies are located, and where many believe that women are subordinate to men.
Challenging the status quo
Our RISE project is working with men and women from a number of conservancies to directly address such deeply held norms and beliefs, encouraging them to reflect both on a personal level and as a group, and supporting them to identify and promote more gender equitable alternatives. As one male participant stated, “I have learnt that in order to transform others I have to start with myself.”
In addition to these mixed-sex discussions we are also holding some single-sex sessions, with those for male leaders facilitated by men from the same area, who know their culture and speak their language and who have themselves challenged their own beliefs and are now championing gender equality. This has enabled male conservancy leaders to honestly and openly reflect on and discuss their personal beliefs and practices.
Other activities target female representatives from conservancies, for example sharing information and discussing what constitutes GBV, the legal and policy framework, and actions they and their conservancy colleagues can take to address it. In the words of one woman, “From this session, when in a meeting I will speak out as a [conservancy] member with power to voice my issues and not as a woman who culturally does not have the power to speak among men.”