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‘Get out there and get it’ – Women and Leadership in Kenya

19 August 2014

Giulia Di Mattia, Programme Officer at Minority Rights Group International, interviewed Jennipher Atieno, the new Minister for Education, Youth, Culture and Social Services for Kisumu County in Kenya, who has dedicated her life to empowering marginalised women.

Jennipher Atieno has worked for the protection of the rights of marginalised women in Kenya for over 20 years. She explains how minority women face double discrimination, both from cultural practices towards women within their own communities and as a member of a minority community. In her own words, ‘Women are discriminated against, in particular when it comes to property ownership. The men don’t consider the opinion of the women.’

She has recently been appointed as Minister for Education, Youth, Culture and Social Services for Kisumu County, Kenya. At MRG, we worked together with Jennipher under a recent MRG project (KGGP 2010-2013), when she was in her previous role as Executive Director of Women in the Fishing Industry Programme (WIFIP).

Jennipher Atieno at the launch of our report 'Challenges at the intersection of gender and ethnic identity' in December 2012 in Nairobi, Kenya
Jennipher Atieno at the launch of our 2012 report ‘Challenges at the intersection of gender and ethnic identity’ in Nairobi, Kenya / OPDP

WIFIP works on education, health and economic empowerment of marginalised women. The KGGP project in particular raised awareness of human and minority rights and built the confidence of minority and indigenous peoples to advocate for their own rights in order to ensure their concerns were discussed at decision-making level. The KGGP included three minority and indigenous communities: the Endorois, the Ogiek and the Abasuba communities.

Abusaba dancers perform at an installation of the new chief of the Suba Elders Development and Cultural Council, where women sit on the executive secretariat / OPDP

The Abasuba community is a minority and indigenous fishing community living near Lake Victoria in Kisumu and Homa Bay counties. WIFIP worked with the Abasuba people, carrying out trainings on women’s rights for the communities and organising leadership workshops for women, building the confidence and skills of women candidates in the run up to the 2013 elections. Under the project, WIFIP also contributed to publishing our report Challenges at the intersection of gender and ethnic identity in Kenya. Jennipher told MRG that her work with marginalised women has led her to her current position:

‘I just want to confirm that the work I have done over the years with women, youth and minority groups indeed influenced my way into the County Government, and particularly my appointment to the Ministry for Education/Youth/Culture and Social Services. This also includes the areas of Gender, Children, People with Disability and Sports. It therefore goes without saying that even KGGP had direct influence on my decision to join politics and my desire to be a greater voice representing the groups mentioned above.’

In her new position, her priorities are on improving the quality of early childhood and strengthening vocational and technical training, with a special focus on gender mainstreaming in areas of employment, and promoting leadership of women and people with disabilities in decision making positions.

Kisumu county is prioritising work with civil society to strengthen its presence within the community at grassroots level by creating an office responsible for working with non-governmental organisations. With the new county level system being established in Kenya, Jennipher says that minorities and indigenous peoples now have more access to the government to advocate for their rights, ‘They can walk into an office, these are people they know at a personal level.’

Jennipher Atieno with Suba women elders, taken by Laura Young during her field research for the report 'Challenges at the intersection of gender and ethnic identity in Kenya'
Jennipher Atieno with Suba women elders / Laura Young/MRG

Through her work with minorities, Jennipher has observed positive change: women have higher positions, more girls go to school and appreciate education, minority women are more aware of their rights and consequently more vocal. When she organised public activities, she witnessed an increase in women’s attendance and participation.

Jennipher’s advice to women considering a leadership career is to first and foremost receive an education and then, ‘Get out there and get it.’ She encourages women that have dropped out of school to go back and further improve their education level. She urges women to believe in their skills and know that they are just as capable as the men they work for.

This article reflects the opinion of its author only and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.