Women in Policy Making: Scheaffer Okore
In our third interview focused on leading 'Women in Policy Making' (see part I and part II here), Kari Mugo, a creative writer and activist based in Kenya, reached out to Scheaffer Okore, an Africa-Politico Feminist who serves as Vice Chairperson of the Ukweli Party in Kenya and Advisory Board Member to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Goalkeepers Initiative.
KM: The Ukweli Party sees itself as a mass movement for social change, rather than a political party. What motivated you to engage in party politics?
SO: Being a woman who wants, or even aspires to live a full life is already a political act in a world that continues to reinforce and suppress women by upholding the unequal distribution of power. The patriarchal structures that house political power must change. I believe that politics determines, to the smallest degree, where and how power and resources flow to the public. Processes such as democracy, good governance, policy analysis, active participation with equal representation of youth and women, accountability, and more, are deeply anchored in politics, so it is more a question of when, and not why. My motivation to play a more direct and substantive role in politics came from the sheer exhaustion of doing this kind of organising work alone. I decided to share both the burdens and wins of pursuing new freedom and full humanisation with other people already doing the same.
KM: You currently serve on the Goalkeepers Advisory Board. As the world works towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, where do you see the greatest need, and where do you want to see the greatest change?
SO: The greatest need is in making sure that conversations, actions, processes, and engagements around each of the global goals are as relatable and accessible to as many people as possible. This will reduce existing barriers that hinder how pockets or groups of working communities are able to be part of this conversation. The idea of making an issue global is simply declaring it as everyone's concern, which means there should be frameworks that enable everyone to take part in it. The creation of these frameworks, and who is in charge of creating them, is something I am deeply involved in because everyone—and not just the people with privilege and power—must be at the forefront when talking about global goals. But, we also cannot achieve global goals by simply “asking nicely.” There are people's lives at stake. Talking alone is not enough. So, what do I want to see changed? The endless talk needs to stop so we can start on the necessary action.
KM: Goal 5 of the UN SDGs and a key focus of the AU is gender equality. What is the role of gender equality in policy making in your field and how much progress do you feel has been achieved?
SO: The need to push for a more gender representative society means we push for a feminist lens... that reflects the world as it is, instead of pretending that half the population just doesn’t exist. The African Union is beginning to open up and find the need for including women with the existence of young feminist women like Aya Chebi, [and] the African Union Youth Envoy, but the representation of women in other strategic positions still lags sorely behind. The African Union cannot give what it does not have: it needs to examine itself and its lacking representation of women in its own ranks, even before it can begin talking about seeking empowerment for all African women.
KM: How does your role as a woman affect your work and what challenges have you faced in the male-dominated field of politics?
SO: Living in a body coded as female or feminised is a singularly dangerous endeavour, because navigating the world this way poses tremendous risks. There is similarly danger in transgressing the codes of what femininity is supposed to perform, as regards dress, behaviour, volume, autonomy, and more. As such, women with visibility, voices and opinions that don't ascribe to patriarchal gender norms and roles are always at risk because of the many ways in which they can, and do challenge and shift power. Therefore, my role as a feminist is rarely easy. I've had to push through more hurdles just to be heard, and even when I am heard there's still the constant labelling of what I'm saying as “emotional”, “angry”, or “bitter” as a way to under-value or erase me. In extreme cases, I've received death threats, lost work opportunities, and been violently trolled and bullied online. I live in constant rejection because it's easy to dismiss the voices and work of women who are seen to not abide by societal expectations of what a "good" woman should be. Overcoming these challenges isn't an absolute, but a progression in the journey of becoming. Thankfully, I've built, and continue to build, a strong and deliberate legion of feminist women around me who hold me accountable, shield me from harm, guide me to healing, and help me think through what I want to be.
"Being a woman who wants, or even aspires to live a full life is already a political act in a world that continues to reinforce and suppress women by upholding the unequal distribution of power."
KM: In your opinion, are there countries or sectors that are making good progress on achieving gender equality?
SO: The 2019 SDG Gender Index finds that nearly 40% of the world’s girls and women – 1.4 billion – live in countries failing on gender equality. Another 1.4 billion live in countries that “barely pass.” Even the highest-scoring countries have more to do, particularly on complex issues such as climate change, gender budgeting and public services, access to reproductive health options, equal representation in powerful positions, gender pay gaps, and gender‐based violence. No country, to date, has ever reached the “last mile” on gender equality...
No country achieves an “excellent” overall score... but Denmark, which tops the index, comes close. The other countries in the top ten are Finland, Sweden, Norway, Netherlands, Slovenia, Germany, Canada, Ireland, and Australia. The bottom ten countries in the index are mostly African, with one exception in the Middle East—Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Yemen, Congo, DR Congo and Chad. This shows that there's still much to be done regarding gender equality, and that it requires understanding the intersectionality of issues facing girls and women.
KM: What do you think needs to be done to achieve greater gender equality and what are the hurdles to overcoming this?
SO: Achieving gender equality requires committed and seamless collaboration of political, socio-cultural, and economic sectors and the treatment of women's issues as issues of fundamental rights for all. Further, women have been shown to face additional disadvantages on the basis of factors including age, income, ethnic or religious identity, geographic location, sexual orientation and gender identity, disability, immigration status, and HIV status, among others. If these issues aren't addressed holistically, then the resultant discrimination against women will continue, and even increase. There needs to be a commitment to funding women's work: in Kenya, the ⅔ gender bill [seeking to legislate the constitutional mandate that neither gender receive more than two-thirds of any elective positions] is collecting dust, and the representation of women revolves around the top 1% of women, while the rest are blurred out. All of this should change.
KM: On the evident lack of political will to implement Kenya’s ⅔ gender rule, as you mention, what can be done to hold government accountable in cases like this?
SO: First, the 2/3rd gender bill is a direct constitutional mandate. Kenyans agreed with its spirit by voting yes in the referendum that led us to a new Constitution in 2010. It isn’t a “women's bill.” It objectively and legally grants more space for women now, since women are the least represented gender, but it’s worded to do exactly the same thing for men, should they become the least represented gender. Secondly, underneath the lacking political will required to pass it, is a systemic misogynistic attitude towards women. This is evident from the shifty parliamentary approach to this matter: the questionable set timings, consistent “accidental” lack of quorum, and the continued slander and contempt towards women members and the women of the nation. There is an almost sadistic joy in continually frustrating the coming to birth of this particular legislation. So, what should we do? As womenfolk, we must bring more women along; increasing the ranks of those who understand that there can and should be enough space for all of us.
KM: The issue of GBV in Kenya (and around the world) has been a hot topic this year, yet for many women, it feels like no progress is being made. From a policy perspective, why is it important for governments, to take the safety and security of women seriously?
SO: First, it remains a crisis that an entire half of society lives in constant fear, but this is somehow still seen as a private and individual matter. Secondly, the way in which gender-related violence is handled—when it touches on women—needs changing from its deeply misogynistic attitude. There is a debate frame that people use, discussing when this violence is “understandable” or what women could have possibly done to deserve beatings, assaults, rapes and death, and people regularly turn to these pseudointellectual exchanges as rhetoric, as if it is happening only in theory. Meanwhile women are actually dying, due to inexcusable violence that shouldn't have to exist at all. Thirdly, the laws that ought to protect victims and survivors, and the people who execute these laws need a culturally conscious re-orientation, because reporting violent incidents is still a dangerous, violent and re-traumatising endeavour for women. The pursuit of legal action routinely exposes them to more harm. We need to start looking at and speaking of gender violence against women as a truly criminal act, not a default result of “the way things are.” That way, it will be seen and dealt with as a crime.
KM: What advice would you give to young women considering entering your policy field?
SO: Walk into it as yourself – no masks or any performances: I say this to every woman in every space, and not just the policy space. This is most important because the levels of resistance that women face while trying to change and make things work are great. It’s key to remember that that policy isn't just about setting out ideals, but looking for ways to implement them in a way in which people's lives can meaningfully change for the better. Be curious and ask questions about everything, even the most seemingly obvious things. Finally, and most importantly refuse to see impossibilities, and have a cross-sectoral approach: look for people in other sectors doing similar work, and figure out ways to synergise your efforts and labours.
(Main image: Scheaffer Okore)
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.