We spent most of our time last week doing market activations and talking to government staff in one of the slums in Nairobi. We talked about our objective to empower women groups with the aim increasing financial inclusion. On one of those days, a key official – on seeing the brochure – challenged us by asking “what about the men? Who is looking out for the men?”
He sat us down for close to two hours narrating how women in the area are prospering because they like to learn, are self driven and they support each other in informal groups. He said it’s a trait he had also observed in his home. His daughters had completed university and are well settled whereas the sons were not interested in further studies and are comfortable with casual jobs, earning just enough to afford their meals and the local brew.
He expressed concern that young women have become too empowered and outgoing inadvertently creating marital conflicts. Something he seemed apprehensive about. He (and other men who’d joined) joked saying that they hoped men could disappear by 2040 to see if we women can survive on our own – since we think we are so good. A loaded statement which exposed their perspective on the issue.
That conversation stayed with me even though it was not from a representative sample. It was the opinion of relatively old men in power in that community. Their sons (younger men) definitely have a different opinion – and I doubt it’s in support of women empowerment. It reminded me of previous banter either on radio or social media in Kenya – a men vs ‘independent women’ battle.
In Kenya, social and gender norms prescribe men as the heads of the households. Traditionally, women have been supporters who take care of the kids, cook, clean e.t.c in an unpaid capacity. As much as that has changed, and many women now work, the role of decision making in a household – especially at BoP, is still a man’s role. The conversation made me question what happens when a person in a position of power feels threatened? How can we change men’s perception of women empowerment so that they become allies? Especially because they tend to be gatekeepers?
Our efforts to close the gender gap and increase financial inclusion for women should include norm informing and norm de-biasing. Due to hyper-localization, changing norms is a complex process that would take time. It would involve engaging communities at the grass root level, listening to their perspectives and exposing them to the ideal scenarios we hope for. It would also involve engaging men and also including them in progressive activities. Factoring in what the society values and would like to be upheld is also key. For instance, if influential people in the community think women empowerment leads to marital conflict and they are keen on stable families, we won’t make any progress by focusing on one gender. Factoring in and meeting the various stakeholder interests (within reason) ensures we all move forward together and avoid polarization.