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Commentary: An aid group explains how they persuaded Kenyan tribal to recognize equal rights for women.
Editor’s note: Tim Hanstad is President and CEO of Landesa, a global development non-profit that works to secure land rights for the world’s poor. @Landesa_Global
SEATTLE — What do smoking, spanking, and drunk driving have in common?
Once upon a time they were behaviors accepted by society.
Now they aren’t.
That shift in behavior and thinking was hard won and offers great lessons for the battle to improve women’s rights around the world and Landesa’a mission to improve women’s land rights in particular.
Consider women’s land rights in Kenya. In 2010, Kenya adopted a new constitution that offered women unprecedented protections and freedoms – including stronger rights to own and inherit land.
But one year after the new constitution had been adopted, most rural Kenyans (and that’s the overwhelming majority of the country’s population) still didn’t know about women’s new rights and what little they had heard about the new constitution concerned them because it went against their culture.
So on the ground, little had changed for women.
And that’s not unusual. As a wealth of research makes clear, laws alone are unlikely to change deeply engrained cultural behaviors and values, if the legal change is not supported by parallel efforts to increase awareness and change behavior. (A great primer on this is a fascinating examination by George Mason University on traffic safety, recycling, smoking, and drug use campaigns.) Legal change is often necessary, but rarely sufficient.
So, in an effort to make the land rights enshrined in Kenya’s new constitution “real” for women in rural Kenya, USAID and Landesa designed and implemented a project aimed at not only making rural people more aware of women’s new rights, but also shifting their thinking towards recognizing those rights. That means, changing the culture of rural Kenya – a place where people are often illiterate, have little access to most media, and take their behavioral cues from traditions passed down from their parents and grandparents.
The American Cancer Society, Dr. Spock and Mothers Against Drunk Driving succeeded in moving the needle on their causes with intensive campaigns that relied on advertising, books, bumper stickers and newspapers – all of which have low penetration rates in much of rural Kenya.
But we did have one exceptionally powerful tool: traditional tribal elders and chiefs.
Across rural Africa, tribal elders and chiefs wield enormous power. They mediate disputes, resolve conflicts, and dictate the terms of everything from cattle rustling cases to inheritance. In the words of one Maasai elder we spoke with, “I am an opinion leader.”
Too often, they’ve been written off as tyrants who are at best indifferent and at worst opposed to progressive cultural change.
We saw them entirely differently. And we engaged them.
And while the Maasai and Kalenjin elders certainly didn’t wholeheartedly embrace the idea of equal rights for women from the start, their attitudes surprised us.
They recognized that they had been struggling for generations to keep peace in their community and that they had been doing this in a vacuum – with little help or information from the outside world.
“The problem has always been the lack of information,” assistant chief of Ol Pusimoru, Jonathan Sadera told us.
Sadera, the chief, and tribal elders were remarkably open to considering other ways of guiding their community towards a peaceful and perhaps even more prosperous future.
And with them we explored the constitution, their fears, and their hopes.
We discussed how men sometimes make bad decisions about how to use family resources (drinking or gambling away kids’ school fees, for example) and how women might mitigate that. We discussed their fears that giving women’s economic power might lead them to desert their husbands and create broken homes. We discussed their concerns that empowered women would use the new constitution as a weapon to force their husbands carry babies on their back and do all the housework. And we discussed whether equality between men and women was even possible or if someone always had to be on top.
These communal discussions went on for months.
In the end, the elders decided that everyone in their community would be better off if they supported women’s equal rights.
The impact on the community, as spotlighted in this short video, was immediate and significant.
The elders are as delighted by this turn of events as the women.
“I am very happy and grateful to Landesa for letting us know about the constitution,” said Maasai Elder Paul Mpuyuk. “I think this is a great thing.”
And the elders believe in this so deeply, that they have become both role models and enforcers for these new attitudes.
Some have very publicly provided their wives with title to family land, they all now require that men get their wives’ approval before selling any family land, and they have taken a harder line on violence against women.
This model has obvious implications for work elsewhere in Africa where constitutions recognize the role of tribal elders and chiefs and promise women equal rights, but the reality has fallen short. The model indicates that tribal elders and chiefs can be powerful tools for progressive change – as effective as the American Cancer Society’s sophisticated advertising campaigns, MADD’s ubiquitous bumper stickers, and Dr. Spock’s authoritative books.