The Power of Voice

Wanjiku[1] has little formal schooling.  She goes about her daily life with a baby on her back and several more at her dusty feet. She tends the crops, cooks the meals, collects the water, and tries to ensure that her children get more of an education than she did.  

Depending on the wishes of her husband, Wanjiku may or may not go to the market, be involved in a women’s group, or handle cash. She may or may not participate in household decision making and rarely owns the land that is the main source of her family’s livelihood.

Women and girls in her remote village are seen but not heard — an all-too-common custom in traditionally patriarchal communities.

But not anymore in one community in Kenya.  

A Justice trainee practices her public speaking skills,
guided by Justice Project staff.  Photo: Landesa/Deborah Espinosa 
You see, Wanjiku now knows that Kenya’s Constitution, which Kenyans adopted by national referendum in August 2010, guarantees her — and every person — the right to freely express him- or herself, a right that includes the freedom to seek, receive, or impart information or ideas and the freedom of artistic creativity (art. 33).  (The right to self-expression is also within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)  And along with learning about her rights, Wanjiku was trained in the art of public speaking — a simple curriculum grounded in the right to voice her opinion.  The training included techniques and tips on how to speak in public as well as opportunities to practice speaking on a subject of importance to her.  

Wanjiku learned and practiced during a USAID-supported project called, Enhancing Customary Justice Systems in the Mau Forest, Kenya (aka the Kenya Justice Project), designed and implemented by the international NGO Landesa. The Kenya Justice Project piloted a model for improving women’s access to "informal justice" related to land, meaning the all-male, village institutions that resolve disputes but have a reputation for holding entrenched biases against women. Much to our surprise, two months after the pilot’s end, the community elected — for the first time in its history — 14 women as elders, serving alongside male elders resolving disputes. One year later, 22 women were serving as elders alongside men.  
A Justice trainee shares her knowledge of women's
rights in Kenya's Constitution. Wanjiku resides
in all of us. Photo: Landesa/Deborah Espinosa

The women had decided on their own to run for election. No doubt, there are many factors that contributed to this outcome.  

This was the first time I’d included public speaking in the design of a women’s rights project, and so at the end of the first training session, I asked the women to share their thoughts about whether training on the right to self-expression and public speaking was worth including again in a project design.  Every woman in the room eagerly raised her hand, offering to share her opinion. Up until that point in the project, we’d never had full participation in a single session.

As the women shared with us how they felt, I was struck by the fact that along with the women’s timidity and discomfort, a glimmer of pride shined through. They explained how growing up as girls they were not supposed to speak directly to an adult. And so they believed that their opinions were unimportant, and certainly never worth sharing. The room shook with potential.   

Although the short-term impact evaluation did not try to measure a causal relationship between project outcomes and the public speaking activity, specifically, I am convinced that this activity was a critical component to the success of the pilot. Knowledge of their constitutional rights to express themselves, combined with practicing public speaking in a safe and supportive environment, gave the women Justice trainees the courage to dare step out of their comfort zones. And dare to reach for one of the most powerful positions within their community — an elder resolving disputes.      

The community has made many other advances supporting women's rights and empowerment, including greater awareness among men and women of their constitutional rights to land; procedural improvements in elders' resolution of disputes; a requirement of spousal consent for land transactions; and, most recently, an increase in economic development, led by women in the community. 

Wanjiku’s courage to find her own voice is the inspiration for this column on the relationship between the arts (in its many, many forms) and women’s rights and empowerment. This column is certainly a step out of my own comfort zone.  Along the way, please share your voice — we have a lot to learn from each other!

[1] In Kenya, "Wanjiku" is an iconic representation of the "ordinary, Kenyan citizen," the common person. "Her power rests in her ordinariness."