Of Daughters, Female Empowerment, and the UN Women’s Decade: An Inquiry into a Hurdle Along the Way

Phoebe Musandu, Georgetown University

Growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, with a mother who was very conscious about the challenges women faced in society, meant growing up with an awareness of the UN Women’s Decade that stretched from 1975-1985. My mother was not politically active, but she and my father did bring up their daughters with a belief that our sex as females was not a problem to them and that we would be brought up with resources, care, and attention that were equal to those given to our brothers. Throughout our childhood, they practiced what they preached in multiple ways, and they reminded us every now and then of their unscripted “parental manifesto.” As I got older and became aware of stories of girls dropping out of school so that their poor families could educate their sons instead, I came to appreciate my parents’ manifesto. Similarly, when I learned of girls not proceeding to secondary school or sometimes, not even completing primary school so that, unlike their brothers, they could be ushered into early marriages, I came to appreciate my parents’ manifesto. As I got older and became aware of the challenges some women faced to sustain themselves after their husbands died or their marriages broke down, I came to appreciate my parents’ manifesto.

Getting an education and becoming financially independent was an important message in my upbringing. My mother, a teacher in tertiary education who retired early in the 1990s to start her own institution, was adamant in this belief. To her, financial independence was an important part of what it meant to empower a woman. As a teenager, she was forced to drop out of school when her family was plunged into poverty by her father’s ill health, which made it impossible for him to keep his blue-collar railway job. She often spoke of that period of her life as a particularly dark and distressing one. Eventually, she was able to get some tertiary training thanks to a well-wisher, and then later studied for her high school exams on her own, completing them successfully. This newly educated young woman was then able to launch her teaching career and, among other things, built her parents a bungalow in her natal home. Education and the opportunities to which it led had been transformative in her life. Not surprisingly, when the UN scheduled a meeting in Nairobi to close the Decade, she took an interest and saw an opportunity to attend at little cost and to participate indirectly.

My mother and her friends were present at the conference center where the governments’ Decades meetings were held daily. They set up an agency that offered bureau services to attendees, and it gave this group of friends access to the venue so they could attend the 1985 Nairobi meeting, generally soak up the hustle and bustle of the atmosphere and hopefully, generate some revenue to supplement their usual income. My mother also took her first-born child and eldest daughter with her to the venue so that she could join in the experiences too. In later years, my siblings and I grew up in a home that had random reminders of the decade: publications, stationery, I.D. cards, textile-based material commemorating the event, etc. To my deep regret, I never did ask her about what the meetings had meant to her or what it had felt like to be able to attend them, although I could tell that they had meant something to her; that she had enjoyed the camaraderie of her friends who, like her, had taken time off their regular jobs to attend; and the overall idea of the Decade merged easily with her own ideas about the empowerment of women. The motif of the UN Women’s Decade—a dove embedded with the universal symbol of women—for some particular reason, became embedded in my mind.

These artifacts of the Nairobi 1985 meeting combined with the steady messages on female empowerment that I had received throughout my life, directed me toward an MA course in Women and Gender Comparative History at Miami University (MU), Ohio. An opportunity to further my education availed itself through MU’s Professor Allan Winkler the year after I graduated from the University of Nairobi. My first thought, then, was to perhaps work on a thesis on the UN Women’s Decade, but research led me in a different direction, and it was not until I had completed my doctoral studies at UCLA in 2013, that I was finally ready to turn my attention to the topic.

One can perhaps imagine the unpleasant surprise I received when I started secondary research on the subject and found articles that did not paint a rosy picture of the UN Women’s Decade and the 1985 Nairobi meeting vis-à-vis Kenyan women. How was this possible, I wondered? Up until that year, I had cultivated such warm and cozy thoughts toward the meeting, and my hope had been that my research would reflect my expectations. The historian in me decided to press on and try to understand what circumstances could have led these scholars, who were drawn from a variety of disciplines in the humanities, to come to such research conclusions. Primary research led me to the Kenya National Archives, where chronological holds that were lifted gradually between 2013 and 2015, caused me to exercise patience amid torturous suspense. When I had accessed the complete selection, I was able to understand the role the country’s administration had played in exploiting the Decade for publicity purposes, while using it, and the Nairobi 1985 meeting in particular, to sabotage the umbrella group of women’s organizations as part of a broader, ongoing effort to extend its authoritarian control over different sectors of life. In addition, a study of other contemporaneous sources such as newspapers, enabled me to build a more comprehensive picture of the process by which the political elite had undermined the objectives of the Decade meetings for Kenyan women, even as they made statements to the contrary. The result is the article “Sailing Against Headwinds: The KANU Regime, Kenyan Women, and the UN Women’s Decade, 1975–1985,” in the Summer 2023 issue of the Journal of Women’s History. This journal played a big role in influencing my decision to focus on women’s history years ago, but that is a story for another day. Right now, it is enough to note that it is a fortuitous turn of events indeed that I am publishing an article on a topic that has loomed large over so much of my life in its pages. I hope, dear reader, that you will find the article edifying.

Phoebe Musandu