Reimagining the Gendered Nation

Christina Kenny

Dr Kenny, welcome to the African Griot! Please tell us about why you wrote your book Reimagining the Gendered Nation.

Thank you for having me! 

I started my career working on human rights based approaches to public policy, with the Australian Human Rights Commission and other agencies of the Australian public service, and the NGO sectors in Australia and South Africa. The more I worked with people and communities most affected (or targeted) by social welfare and social justice policy the more I became frustrated that local histories, experiences and knowledges were routinely ignored – a now well-established critique of state and INGO practice. 

I wanted to show that without a deep, grounded understanding of local histories and cultural dynamics, lasting change that reflected and promoted the priorities of the most vulnerable communities could never be achieved. I wanted to argue for critical and sustained attention be paid to regional and national academic, activist and intellectual movements and to centre them in my engagement with Kenyan gender politics and gender rights analysis. While international human rights programming has (or at least can be!) better at acknowledging cultural complexity and the nuance of operating in different political and cultural contexts, the book also argues for detailed and critical attention to history, and the historiographies that influence modern conceptions of nationhood, rights based claims around women’s rights, but also in relation to other critical identity and distribution questions, for example with regard to land, ethnicity and xenophobia, sexuality and gender identity and expression. 

Have the rights of women in Kenya improved in the last decade? Has this affected their role in society?

I began this project the same year that the 2010 Constitution was promulgated and like many others, I was hopeful that the new constitution would provide a new foundational set of public democratic values for Kenyans that would support local and national conversations and debates about rights protection not only for women but for all Kenyans. Of course, the constitution does include some particular provisions relating specifically to women’s representation as well as the representation of other marginalised groups including youth, and people with disabilities. 

What we’ve seen over the life of this new constitution is that some debates around women’s rights have been given much more attention as a result of civil society arguing for the enlivening of the constitutional safeguards which were designed to protect women’s formal representation and participation in government, but other critical areas of human rights abuse, such as access to abortion and reproductive health care, police brutality and violence – issues that are more contentious – have not received the publicity and advocacy that they need for real change to occur.  

Women have fought hard to increase their representation in government, and this growing visibility of women leaders from communities around the country continues to be important for the expansion of voices and a diversity of leaders in Kenyan public life. 

How do gendered rights in Kenya compare to the rest of Africa? The world?

I think what is most misunderstood about rights advocacy in countries of the Global South is that although many serious rights abuses are exacerbated by poverty, inflation, international monetary policy, and other local factors, the quality of justice in many countries of the Global North is also fraught with similar structural failures, institutional racism, corruption, violence and discrimination. For instance, Kenyan women explaining to me their experiences of reporting intimate partner violence to police have similar experiences to many women reporting this violence in Australia – dismissal of the severity of their injuries, a reluctance to prosecute a man who may be a friend of relation of a police officer, and an understandable reluctance of victims to take perpetrators to court. So, I think the idea of comparing jurisdictions can be informative, but we really need to be equally critical of all justice systems – instead of asking ‘why can’t victims of intimate partner violence find justice in Kenya’ we could ask – ‘why do we expect a system of justice that fails victims across the Global North to work more successfully in countries of the Global South?’ 

Part of your research process was done through interviews, what was that like? Did anything from these interviews especially surprise you?

The process of interviewing Kenyan women is really the heart of this book, and this work would not exist without their generosity in sitting with me and sharing their stories and ideas. 

I was speaking with one lady who was telling me about her marriage, and she was explaining that she met her husband when she was a very young teenager, maybe 13 years old, that they had children very early too, and they are still together more than ten years later. I was anticipating that she would go on to say that she was unhappily married, as many other women had done, but this lady was so excited to tell me that she’s still as in love with her husband as the day they got married, and how happy they are together. It wasn’t (and shouldn’t have been) surprising, but it remains an important reminder that joy, desire and emotional fulfilment are always present and possible. I think human rights frames often unintentionally erase or silence this complexity, while really this joy and fulfilment should be an ultimate aim of the rights project.  

How do you hope that this book will be used in practical terms?

I hope the book is an example of ways to engage with human rights policy and programming with some demonstration of the real constraints local protagonists face in trying to advocate for rights protections. I hope the work also demonstrates the centrality of local histories, particularly the cultural and political effects of colonial regimes, as well as the lasting effects of independence struggles on modern politics and public life. I would love the book to contribute to debates among activist and human rights policy communities around how rights advocacy might strive for deeper, more locally embedded priorities, strategies and language, and be critical of the reliance on colonial languages for rights advocacy and promotion. 

Reimagining the Gendered Nation

Citizenship and Human Rights in Postcolonial Kenya

Christina Kenny

Hardcover, 9781847012999, November 2022
252pp., 3 b/w illus., 
Easter Africa Series
James Currey

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CHRISTINA KENNY is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of New England, Australia. She works on human rights and development with a focus on post-colonial histories, gendered citizenship, and gender and sexuality rights in the Global South, particularly East Africa.