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Empowering local communities in Kenya

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The following was published in the Yorkshire Post

I recently became the latest Member of Parliament to undertake a joint Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK (CPA UK) and VSO political volunteering placement based on their long-standing programme where people volunteer to use their skills overseas. I spent a week during the Easter recess in Kenya working on a political project: supporting the Kenyan Women’s Parliamentary Association (KEWOPA). Over the weekend I had an opportunity to visit projects supported by the Kenyan VSO organisation - VSO Jitolee.

The local organisation, VSO Jitolee, has been working in-country since 1959. It recognises that the unequal balance of power between men and women at all levels of society is a significant cause of poverty, and tackling this is a vital part of their ongoing development work.  They focus on empowering communities to take action on unequal gender power relationships.

I left Nairobi and headed about three hours south to the Loitokitok District near the border with Tanzania where the stunning slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro dominate the landscape. Here VSO Jitolee has strong partnerships with various local organisations. During my two day stay I saw the work of three different projects which are making a huge difference to the lives of local people.

‘Illaramatak Le Impusel’, which translates as the Amboseli Pastoralist Community Development Initiative, aims to facilitate the political, social and economic empowerment of the local communities and has the dynamic Charles Masangira as its director.  He formerly chaired the organisation, but as its work developed a full time worker was needed and he took on the role. The project has offices in Loitokitok which include a credit union, one where it’s also possible to buy honey made by a local co-operative.

I visited one of their projects, an environmental group who plant trees to stop the deforestation of the slopes of Kilimanjaro. They work together to not only plant and grow trees but also grow food to help feed their families. Unsure of the time of our arrival, traffic is notoriously heavy and difficult to predict in Kenya, the group members had been in their communal garden for a couple of hours by the time I arrived. Working in teams they were filling rolls of paper with compacted soil ready for small saplings to be planted in them. A keen gardener myself I soon got my hands dirty helping out.

As an MP I’ve planted a few ceremonial trees, but here I was helping a project transform not just the landscape but helping to preserve a way of life. The project also try and ensure that future generations understand and value the trees. Enough saplings are planted so that each child in the local school can be given their own tree and encouraged to water and tend it.

The other two groups I met are members of an informal local umbrella organisation ‘Sauti ya wanawake ya Loitokitok’ translated as the Voices of the women of Loitokitok. It brings together local women to develop their confidence, encouraging their ideas on how to tackle the issues that affect them and their daughters. These issues include economic vulnerability and dependence, early marriage, domestic violence and women’s exclusion from land ownership.

The first group spoke of the training they had undertaken to develop a better understanding of their civic rights. They told me about the specific changes they had experienced. For some it was the courage to start their own micro business, for another feeling that she could challenge the assumptions of male relatives that she had to care for her deceased husband’s child from another relationship. The women had celebrated their new found confidence with an International Women’s Day event and invited both men and women from the region to join them. The slogan for the day was "Equality for women is progress for all" - emphasising the benefit to the whole community of women taking an active role in society.

The final visit involved travelling first on unmade roads and then along country tracks for around an hour to meet the Enduet Women’s group from Rombo. On the way we stopped to see the school they have built to help increase the numbers of children in education.  

This project has succeeded in promoting many cultural aspects of their life while also empowering women to challenge the negative culture that kept them silent. This negative culture had ensured they were economically inactive and helped perpetuate the tradition of female genital mutilation (FGM). They have started a number of economic initiatives, including bee keeping, fish farming, and Maasai bead work for sale, goat rearing, poultry keeping, a green house, rabbit keeping and charcoal production.

The women told me that they can now stand up and speak for themselves, whereas before even to speak publicly in front of a man would have been impossible. They are determined to educate everyone about FGM and hold courses for young girls and their parents to persuade them this practise must stop. They are developing a rescue centre for girls from forced early marriages.  

Encouraging girls to stay on at school and get educated is also an important part of their activities. Anastasia, the chair of the group, told me that they can persuade mothers and girls of the merit of this approach but too many fathers then say that if the girls can no longer be married quickly then the mother will have to continue to fund her at school. Anastasia wanted me to hear this message and take it back to decision makers who can help with these issues.

It’s impossible not to be impressed by the transformation of these local communities. Vital to their success is that the projects are locally managed and run, with international expertise and support sought through VSO Jitolee on the basis of the needs identified by the local groups. What I saw was truly testament to the slogan on the back of the VSO Jitolee T shirts - "Equality for women is progress for all".


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