Feminist Struggles in Neoliberal Kenya

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The crisis of capitalism continues to deepen everywhere and as the financial fallout in the west reverberates in Kenya, it’s time to get serious about radical change. This isn’t just an economic crisis—it’s also a crisis of gender justice and neocolonialism.

As Kenya grapples with a global recession and a regime beholden to imperialist forces, especially the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which are institutions designed with colonial principles and controlled by the global north, the masses of people are experiencing the devastating impact of austerity measures— especially women and gender minorities because economic exploitation and gendered oppression are deeply linked.

These demographics face the triple threat of losing access to vital services, decent jobs and, particularly in the case of marginalised women, being forced to take on the soaring burden of unpaid care work. Conditions like these are what inform our feminist struggles in the age of neoliberal Kenya.

Back in 2021, Kenya came to an agreement with the IMF, for a 36-month, $2.3 billion loan. Under the directive of the IMF, the government announced that it would be scrapping subsidies on staples like maize flour, school fees and fuel among other measures.

These conditions imposed on Kenya by the IMF have a destructive impact on women and gender minorities and also do not align with the populist “bottom up” approach of president Ruto’s regime and does not address the high cost of living for its political constituency of “hustlers.”

IMF and World Bank austerity measures or structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) in Kenya ostensibly attempt to mitigate inflation and address the government’s budget deficit. Their real purpose however, is to limit the role of the state in planning the economy and thus, promoting private sector capitalist operations that will create lucrative profit opportunities for a few individuals .

This limits or outrightly removes state intervention/restrictions in the economy that could determine basic commodity prices— hence our unga wa ugali (maize flour for cooking Ugali) is now retailing at Ksh 120 per Kg! Such prohibitive prices of staples abet food insecurity which adversely affects women who are the primary caregivers of the most vulnerable demographic – children.

Even in such dire times, the masses of poor and working class people continue their resilient struggle against this oppression. I am part of a collective comprising socialists and feminists which organizes towards the liberation of women and gender minorities from patriarchal domination and economic oppression. Feminist Conversations Kenya (FCK) is agitating for radical changes which rethink economic and social policy and center human development.

In the face of neoliberalism, Feminist Conversations Kenya (FCK) understands that SAPs are gender biased in intricate ways. The macro-economic policies pushed by the IMF and World Bank appear to be “neutral” but work out very differently for various social groups based on class and gender.

For instance, the promotion of cash crops for export has dire implications for subsistence women farmers, most of whom are custodians,  but not owners of the land and therefore have to offer free or underpaid labour on cash crop farms owned by western multinational companies- which are other arms of imperialism.

Additionally, the push for private capital and subversion of labour laws  has implications on the protection of jobs and working conditions of workers, especially those at the lowest levels of employment, many of whom are women and gender minorities.

Austerity measures also assume the unlimited availability of women’s unpaid labour and time. This group of people are seen as an “infinite resource” to be tapped to promote the free market economy propagated by the IMF and World Bank.

Socialist feminists in Kenya can use the The Nairobi Manifesto of 1985 as a defining framework for radical change in present times. The manifesto makes comprehensive commitments in critical areas of concern such as pushback against exploitative monetary policies, fundamentalism, advocacy for environmental protection and food security.  Close to four decades later, it remains a powerful source of guidance and inspiration.

As feminists organising in present times, we must struggle for access to agricultural land for marginalized demographics, funding for public childcare, de-privitization of (sexual and reproductive) health care, bolstering of the “informal sector” which is significantly occupied by women and gender minorities, and the recognition of unpaid labour that the IMF and World Bank won’t incorporate in their accounting of what constitutes as work.

We must aid the promotion of sweeping institutional reforms and policies that are not exploitative to women and other disadvantaged people. It is imperative that the struggle against austerity measures/ SAPs adopt a critical gender analysis in order to aid the discovery of similarities between capitalist and gender oppressions and push for revolutionary socio-economic reform.

This will require serious commitment to the struggle, but it is the work that any of us who call themselves feminists must commit to.

*Maureen Kasuku is a socialist feminist based in Nairobi.

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