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Shifting power by training women in construction in Kenya

Jane Machira, Gender and Inclusion Advisor for our Africa Division, writes about a pioneering construction project in Kenya that has empowered women and girls, breaking them free from the gender stereotypes and cultural norms that have bound them for generations.

Never before had I witnessed such power of awakening and consciousness that emerged once barriers, that had prevented women and girls participating in life-transforming activities, were removed. 

It was the unveiling of a star!

A star that had been hidden - locked in a male dominated society through gender stereotypes, cultural norms and foundations that have transcended from generations to generations.

Traditions that have defined the role and place of women, including the kinds of knowledge and skills they should acquire, to remain relevant to their culturally defined reproductive functions.

This was the situation at Kiambu Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) where 500 women of different ages and diversities gathered for training in various construction skills in August 2016.

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Women working on a construction site. Photo credit: Jane Machira

It was a sight to behold as women enthusiastically and skilfully constructed walls, made trusses, tiled sections of the floor of the institution, painted walls and literally took up skills that are typically reserved for men.

Including everyone, Timeless Women of Wonder (TWOW) even provided women with hearing disabilities with interpreters to participate in the training - ensuring no-one was ever left behind or excluded.

Women even attended with their babies, such was their determination to participate in the training. 

Despite the presence of some males, there was no way they could match the work done by the women!

Indeed the women's slogan was 'What men can do, women can do better.'


A critical pathway out of poverty

Through collaboration with Kiambu County Government, National Construction Authority, Ministry of Gender and private sector actors, TWOW saw an opportunity to engage with women living in poverty - enterprise development and future industries having been identified as a critical pathway to get them out of poverty.

After consulting women of different ages and backgrounds in most of the sub-counties, TWOW and the county government enrolled 3,000 women and girls to be trained for the construction industry and related enterprises.

The choice was daring and courageous, given that the thriving construction industry in Kenya is male-dominated.

Given its proximity to Nairobi city, Kiambu accounts for a large percentage of construction work. The contribution of women to this industry is commonly in hawking food and subjecting themselves to sexual exploitation by construction workers.

TWOW empower women to instead become construction workers, giving them skills they can easily learn and apply - and this is taking Kenyans by surprise.


Graduation from training

On completion of their training, an award ceremony was held to mark the women's graduation from the programme.

In a packed hall, the joy of their victory was written all over the participants' faces as they received their graduation certificates.

They rose and came to the podium to give testimonies of their past, what the training had done for them and their vision.

The guest of honour, the Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Gender - who owned the initiative and advised the women to present ideas for future funding from government departments - was in attendance as the women danced to victory songs.

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The graduation ceremony was attended by Principal Secretary for the State Department of Gender, Zeinabu Hussein. Photo credit: Jane Machira

This training has given women confidence in the power and potential that they have, and the possibilities available to them in this field.

They largely understand that the barriers to their success are largely in their mind-set as much as societal - but that they can break through these barriers and set themselves on a path out of poverty.


The project's significance

This project has significance on a number of striking levels:

  • It served to challenge power, gender imbalances and stereotypes that have continually perpetuated injustices and inequalities historically, defining roles for women and men, and subjecting women to reproductive roles - assigning the more lucrative economic activities such as construction to men. 

  • It provided a shift of attitude and mind-set for women and girls in regards to the possibilities, opportunities and capacities that they have.

  • The TWOW model is best practice and very relevant in the Kenyan context: resources that have been devolved to the county governments are working innovatively and tactfully to empower women. Other county governments have now approached TWOW to help drive the initiative in their counties.

  • This is an excellent illustration of partnership: while TWOW remains a facilitator of the project, different partners also come on board to play important roles. 


About TWOW

Timeless Women of Wonder Foundation (TWOW) is responsible for developing, designing and implementing initiatives that include African women in social and economic transformation, empowering them to optimize their potential in the process.

The platform brings together women from all over Africa and from all sectors to develop solutions that will harness potential and contribute to the social and economic transformation of communities, the nation and continent.

Thank you to Jane for writing this blog, and sharing the photographs included.

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