I was home, about 180 miles from Nairobi, Kenya for the holidays. I needed to go shopping so I opted to use a taxi. Taxi services have long been a popular and convenient option for grocery shopping amongst the (historically) many women in Kenya who do not own cars. On our way, the taxi driver pointed at a fellow motorist and said to me; “Ladies decided to buy really big cars!”
“From the time I picked you up, have you noticed that many women drive SUVs? Women decided to overtake us,” he replied.
I laughed knowing well that he was exaggerating and decided not to bore him with feminist theory. But later that day I got to thinking about this revolution that was happening in front of my eyes: more and more women in Kenya are owning cars.
Why hadn’t I noticed this before?
Why Kenyan Women Don’t Drive
Years of oppression have kept Kenyan women economically dependent on their husbands, as they live in a patriarchal society deeply rooted in discriminatory cultural beliefs. This society gives boys more priority over girls when it comes to accessing education facilities. At the same time, inheritance of land and other forms property such as livestock is based on a patrilineal system.
When girls were finally allowed to go to school and get a job, men in their families had complete control over their wages. Constitutional amendments in the 21st century led to the eradication of some customary laws thus allowing women to own property, but stigmas still presided over what women were and weren’t allowed to own. This included women’s ownership of cars. In Kenyan culture, a car was viewed as a big and complex machine that only men could handle. In addition to this, the driving practice was largely understood to be male and if you met a woman driving, then the vehicle must belong to her husband.
Driving As A Mark Of Masculinity
To my father, owning an automobile in the ’90s meant that the son of a community could take care of his family and his kinsmen. It is for this reason that, he bought a second hand Toyota to cater for emergency requests in the village (ex. if a neighbor needed to be rushed to the hospital).
When I was seven, my Dad would pick me up from school every last Friday of the month in his car. This was for a routine visit to my grandparents home where he got the chance to tend to his extended family’s needs over the weekend. I could see how proud he was when he handed over the shopping bag to my grandmother.
Vehicles As A Basic Human Need
Humans place a certain value on cars because of its distinctive qualities. Cars are status symbols and people often gauge your worth just by what you drive. But other than being a luxury item, in the modern world, transportation is the linkage between our daily activities and ability to live our lives. In fact, most countries – especially developed nations like Canada – currently identify transportation as a modern basic human need.
Ideas surrounding what women can or cannot do, or what they can or cannot own, have often held women back from contributing to their societies economically. Recent changes in the way access to jobs, policies, and ownership of property – including that of vehicles – has shifted the way Kenyan women think about cars, and opened up their ability to access independent transportation to improve their own economic livelihood.
In an effort close the gender pay gap, the Kenyan Government set affirmative actions to redress the discrimination in wages between men and women. Women were able to get into management roles in their organizations. They received better earnings through equal pay laws and initiatives. The shift in the balance of power between men and women has resulted in women having better access to low-interest loans. These credit facilities are of utmost importance since they act as supplements to their savings when buying assets – more specifically, cars.
When my mother bought her first car recently, she did so for completely different reasons from my father. Heading towards retirement, she is beginning to invest in various businesses. Thus, public transportation won’t suit current needs. To her, car ownership symbolizes freedom and independence.
More needs to be done to enable Kenyan women to fully exploit their economic freedoms. By continuing to enhancing access to economic assets such as credit and property, Kenyan women can engage actively in economic activities.