What a man can do, I can do better’: Young women challenge Kenyan society

This is part of a series – Future Shock: Millennials in Crisis – looking at how young people around the world are grappling with the transition to adulthood in a challenging global economy. 

NAIROBI, Kenya – Chafing against tradition, a new generation of young Kenyan women are pushing to redefine their role in a still largely patriarchal society, and to put a voice to the thousands of women who face violence and discrimination every day.

“It’s a man’s world,” said Elizabeth Nakaya, 20, who lives with her mother and two younger sisters in a utilitarian housing bloc on the outskirts of Nairobi. Having recently finished high school, Nakaya waits in the family's modest but immaculate apartment for her university acceptance letter to arrive.

Just six months ago, this room was the scene of terror when Elizabeth’s mother was horribly beaten by her boyfriend -- and not for the first time. She was hospitalized, and eventually left him, but it’s a scenario Nakaya is determined not to repeat in her own life.

“The first day someone raises a hand to me, you won’t find me waking up next to him the next day,” she said. “You walk out, full stop.”

Kenya faces a persistent problem of violence against women, and not just at the hands of current or former boyfriends or husbands. Across the country, women continue to face widespread problems including dowry-related violence, female genital mutilation and rape.

In 2006 the Kenyan government released statistics showing that a woman is raped every 30 seconds here, and promptly passed its first sexual offenses law; though critics say it is too rarely enforced. Set to study criminal law, Nakaya is eager to change this.

“If a woman is beat up, I want her to be told, ‘You can go to Elizabeth, she will help you.’ I want to be that person.”

Beryl Opar, 29, meets a friend, Manka Angwafo, for a coffee at Java House in Nairobi's Gigiri neighborhood. Beryl has been searching for a job for a year and a half. Nichole Sobecki / for NBC News

To Nakaya, the reason her mother stayed in an abusive relationship for too long is simple: cash. Her mother works in a hair salon, earning barely enough to pay rent and put food on the table. 

Economic empowerment can be just as potent as legal action in helping women escape domestic violence. Yet in Kenya, women fall far behind men in access to land, credit and decent jobs. It’s a problem that transcends class.

Beryl Opar, 29, has been searching for a job for a year and a half. She’s luckier than most. Coming from privilege, she’s had the support of her family throughout her job search. Still, for an ambitious woman with a powerhouse resume that includes degrees from universities in Canada and the United Kingdom, the wait has been interminable.

“It’s so demoralizing,” she said. “You’re thinking, ‘Is it me? Am I doing something wrong?’”

Over the past half century, the number of people in Kenya is estimated to have risen from just over 6 million to about 44 million, and the country’s economy has not been able to keep pace. Youth unemployment estimates vary wildly, but between 65 percent and 80 percent of young people are without work. The worst-hit group: Young, urban women. 

When Opar left a job at Macmillan Publishers in Manhattan to build a life back home in Kenya, she found a country still struggling to break the patriarchal tradition. Ninety-five percent of all land in Kenya is owned by men, and despite a new position of "women's representative" for each of Kenya's 47 counties, politics remains dominated by men, too.

Opar believes that traditional gender roles have held women back as much as a lack of economic opportunity. “We’re becoming very modern in the way that we dress, the way we speak,” she said. “But traditional culture still plays a role in the way women are treated.”

Women here often face unwelcome sexual advances in the workplace, as well as suggestions that rebuffing such advances could leave them unemployed. Looking for a job to tide her over before university, Nakaya was forced to confront this type of request. She was told she’d be given a job – but only if she gave her potential boss something in return.

Celline Akinyi, 17, works on her grassroots fashion business to help support herself, and empower other women. Nichole Sobecki / for NBC News

“When I asked him what kind of something, then he goes, ‘You are a woman, think.’ Obviously, you know he wants sex.”

But while the country still has far to go toward gender equality, many young women today are taking on roles unimaginable for their mothers and grandmothers.

“Women are starting to see themselves as equal now, more than ever,” said Opar. 

Though not even out of high school, Celline Akinyi, 17, has already built a grassroots fashion business to help support herself and empower other women.

Taking inspiration from her home in Kenya’s largest slum, Kibera, as well as fashion magazines, Akinyi redesigns used clothing sent to Africa as donations. She purchases the clothes at small stands on the outskirts of the slum, and after a few cuts and the whirl of her antique sewing machine, Akinyi transforms them. One old football jersey she purchased for 10 cents is now a trendy piece she’ll sell for more than $2.

Akinyi grew up in Paradise, a community center her mother runs in Kibera that is home to over 40 abandoned children, battered women, and rape survivors. Her best friend gave birth last year after being raped and is now HIV-positive.

“In our ghetto life, it’s not easy,” Akinyi said. “You know, there is a lot of robbery, a lot of rapes. There are children giving birth to children.”

The money she makes from her designs gets pooled with funds from six other young women in a fashion collective. A portion of the profits then goes toward organizing runway shows in their community to promote HIV/AIDS awareness, peace campaigns, and taking a stand against early marriages.

 “I respect our traditions, but we have to learn to treat each other equally,” Akinyi says. “What a man can do, I can do better.”

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