Women's Economic Empowerment as a Conflict Management Tool: Lessons from Kenya!

Dudziro Nhengu
Posted December 30, 2014 from Zimbabwe

Maggie Muthama is a recent MA Law, Development and Globalisation graduate of the SOAS University of London. Last year Maggie was working in the UN Women Kenya Country office's department for Peace, Security and Humanitarian Response. Her personal experiences working with women in post conflict settings have inspired her to abandon the bench and any other white collar profession and start her own business where she uses her passion for baking to help marginalised women in Kenya engage with social economics. Maggie's AM Café was launched in Nairobi earlier this year.

Maggie said: “Women we were working with were not able to meaningfully engage in peace processes as they were primarily concerned with addressing a number of social and economic challenges they face on a day-to-day basis, such as their vulnerability to sexual and gender based violence, and their lack of access to basic resources such as food, water, safe shelter and education for their children."

Her business therefore, AM Café, is aimed at women between the ages of 18 and 29 to help them engage with social economics. Many of the women who participate haven’t finished high school and are single mothers. The AM Café is designed to strengthen their socio-economic skills and help propel them along their chosen career path. Maggie AM Cafe 1

AM Café's first event held earlier this month. The event focused on 'Women: Self Image and how this affects our interactions in social and economic spaces' and was hosted in collaboration with Ajani Handmade, a social enterprise that specializes in handmade beauty products for natural hair and skin care needs.

Maggie added: “The aim of AM Café is to uplift the poorest, most marginalised and most vulnerable women within our communities. Currently socio-economic empowerment initiatives for women lack this transformative element – whereas with this social enterprise we hope to slowly but surely transcend the social and economic boundaries that separate us, and initiate the existence of societies that are more just, equitable and inclusive. Our socio-economic intervention ultimately aims to enable women to thrive, rather than merely survive, both socially and economically as equal members of society”.

There is an emerging consensus that women’s social, political and economic empowerment is key to ending violence against women and the culture of impunity. The UN General Assembly, following the 2010 Commission on the Status of Women, passed the UN General Assembly Resolution 2010 in support of this ideal (True, 2012). In December 2011, Hillary Clinton also highlighted women’s economic empowerment as her central message in her speech during the sixteen days to End Violence against Women in December 2011, noting in particular the costs of violence not only to women, but to everyone, and to states budgets. (Clinton 2011). The United Nations’ World Survey on the Role of Women in Development and the World Health Organization's 2010 analysis of VAW research both point at women’s economic empowerment as a critical part of violence prevention (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2009 in True 2012).

Let us take a second to problematize the term ‘empowerment’. For feminists scholars, and I belong to this marque, empowerment is not a term that we can take for granted, especially if we are to hang major strategies for political and policy change on it. To avoid bogging ourselves down with definitions, let’s just look at the flip-side of empowerment, and thus dis-empowerment. We certainly know what dis-empowerment looks like, because it presents an ugly face before many people in many contexts, especially in Africa. The African Development Forum (2008, 2) has called for attention ‘to underlying social and economic drivers of women’s vulnerabilities and equitable access.’(True, 2012) They further stated that weak economic power, subordinate social status and lack of voice define women’s experience across the continent’ and that ‘within this context there are indications that violations against women are increasing.’ This being said, we could interpret economic empowerment as simply meaning improving women’s socioeconomic and legal status. This includes increasing women’s awareness of their rights and establishing measures to ensure women’s rights related to owning and disposing of property and assets, and to inheritance.

The UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has emphasized enabling women and girls’ access to secondary and tertiary education and to decent employment with good working conditions and remuneration as an integral part of anti-violence strategies. To achieve these, governments must prioritise women’s employment in any foreign investment, trade, and development partnerships and to require that multinational corporations sign on to the UN Global Compact Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs). Mechanisms like WEPs could become the basis for more rigorous monitoring of corporate practices to ensure that they are held accountable for practices that exacerbate violence. (True, 2012)

In peace and security studies, Galtung’s theoretical framework on violence elicits three different forms of violence namely direct violence, structural violence and cultural violence. Of concern to this discussion is structural violence, which refers to systematic ways in which a system of governance prevents individuals from achieving their full potential. This kind of violence is not immediately intentional but the organisation of a state’s social structure and institutions limits opportunities in different ways, especially for the powerless, leading to unavoidable impairment of people’s fundamental needs. Also referred to as violence within peace, structural violence manifests the deliberate internalization of ferocity into a political system by the rulers, and happens in periods of negative peace. If structural differences are dealt with in time the process can translate to positive peace, yet failure to eliminate structural differences impinges on violation of the populations’ basic human rights and often leads to disgruntlement and uprisings, some of which may lead to direct conflict.

The Leviathan theory, (Hobbes: 1681) which to a larger extent aligns with Galtung’s views above, contends that a state has a social contract with its citizens, where citizens give up part of their freedom in return for expected protection from the state. State’s failure to provide expected protection leads to discontent and violence. Likewise, the Liberal Peace theory - a direct outcome of the Cold War, focuses on the state’s responsibility to protect its citizens (R2p),

Johan Galtung (2012) critiques conflict analysis models that proffer external solutions without addressing the internal dynamics of any given state as a way of understanding and addressing the root causes of violence rather than its symptoms. He posits that such theorisations belong to the school of war studies, and that war studies analyse conflict with a framework that lays possibilities for more conflicts, whereas peace studies will build up cumulative processes towards lasting positive peace. (Galtung: 2012) This to him gives peace studies a highly political agenda, one aiming to inform lasting transformations to conflict, and focusing more on a normative re conceptualization of violence, “……. Break[ing] down positive evaluations of violence and negative evaluations of peace ... .to build up the negative evaluations of violence and positive evaluations of peace.” (Galtung: 2012:8)

Feminist Theory, in its pursuits of gender equality analyses structural violence in terms of power differentials in patriarchal societies, arguing that structural differences subject the less powerful, especially women to various forms of violence such as physical, psychological, sexual and emotional. (Honwana: 2005: 2007) In feminist epistemology structural violence accounts for the various sexual atrocities perpetrated on women and children in conflict, sometimes by security agents who are mandated to protect civilians such as the police or peace keepers, and conceptualizes sexual violence as a deliberate weapon of war with impunity, a sign of the security sector failing to respond to its responsibility of protecting all civilians per need. In line with this gendered human rights dimension, Galtung also argues that peace can only be based on equality and equity, and a structure without these is not giving others what they demand for themselves. (Galtung: 2012)

Maggie Muthama's initiative is a wake-up call to all involved in peace and security programming on the continent. There is always a tendency to conceptualize national security by equating it with state security, at the expense of human security. In reality national security is a sum total of state security and human security, and our budgets for programming should always ensure a component for women's economic empowerment as part of the solutions for managing conflict. We must depart from viewing conflict with a purely war lens, and adopt an epistemological standpoint that focuses more on finding reflective, critical and lasting solutions to the violence currently holding back the continent’s growth. It is by no means a coincidence that Maggie Muthama comes from Kenya, and that the African Centre for Transformation and Inclusive Leadership (ACTIL) in Kenya also emphasizes women's economic empowerment as a one of the solutions for positive peace. ACTIL is a baby of UN Women Kenya and Kenyatta University. Maggie Muthama, young woman, I salute you. You command so much respect and from today onwards I will call you an African leader.

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Yvette Warren
Jan 30, 2015
Jan 30, 2015

I salute you, Chibairo, for sharing Maggie Muthama with the world through World Pulse.

Continue being a blessing upon our shared earth.

Yvette