Theorizing past and present women's organizations in Kenya

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Women's groups are widespread in Kenya today and recognized as important fora for development. Yet scholars are divided on the issue of whether they challenge existing gender relations, or whether they are limited to providing for the survival needs of rural women. 'Development' includes enabling popular empowerment, yet I argue that these voluntary associations do so for women to a limited extent only. Molyneux's (1985) theoretical distinction between 'strategic' and 'practical' gender interests is applied to a comparison of today's women's groups with precolonial and colonial indigenous women's organizations. Past women's collectives are discussed for the Barabaig, Gikuyu and Giriama, followed by a comparison with today's women's organizations. The extent to which Kenyan women's groups became involved in three recent nationally renowned political events involving women are also described. These are: (a) the case of S. M. Otieno's burial; (b) the outspoken opposition of Wangari Maathai, leader of Kenya's Green Belt Movement, to government plans; and (c) the 1992 strike and actions of Gikuyu mothers to the political detention of their sons. Kenyan women in patrilineal societies of the past are shown to have been better equipped through their indigenous women's organizations to protect the interests common to their gender than they are today. This is due to the continuous penetration by Westerners and Kenyans alike, including development workers, or a public/private paradigm from the West onto extant gender relations. Recommendations are made for incorporating features of these past organizations into modern women's groups.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1749-1761
Number of pages13
JournalWorld Development
Issue number9
StatePublished - 1998

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
*The material for this article was first presented in a session entitled ‘Lessons from History: Reanalysis of Development Efforts by the Colonial Government in Kenya’ at the 1995 annual meetings of the Society for Applied Anthropology in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I thank session co-organizers, Miriam Chaiken and Peter Castro. I would also like to thank Peter Castro, David Brokensha, and N. Thomas Hdkansson for their constructive comments. My deepest gratitude goes to the Giriama of Kaloleni Division, Coast Province, Kenya. Data on the Giriama were collected under a grant from the Swedish Research Council for the Social Sciences and Humanities, The Swedish Research Council, and the African Studies Program, Department of Cultural Anthropology, Uppsala University.

Copyright 2018 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Development
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Economics and Econometrics


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