Photo: Ana Leithead Spross
Activist Rachael Mwikali encourages the girls to stand up for themselves. Photo: Ana Leithead Spross

A hundred young Swedish and Kenyan feminists met earlier this year at the Embassy of Sweden in Nairobi for discussions on topics ranging from dreams to gender roles.

The Embassy in Nairobi hosted a girls’ afternoon at the Ambassador’s residence for discussions on gender roles, dreams, expectations and experiences. The participants were 100 young women aged 13–19, 30 of them pupils at the Swedish school in Nairobi and the other 70 from two schools in Mathare, one of the largest slums in Nairobi. Also present was Rachael Mwikali, a well-known activist in Kenya, who brought a great deal of engagement and passion to the meeting.

Nationality and background aside, there was a huge consensus that women encounter different expectations to men. While the Swedish girls could fall back on political will for change and the rule of law for the most flagrant forms of discrimination, the Kenyan girls emphasised the need for support from parents and informal networks.

Several of the Kenyan girls said that they had been assaulted and raped. They also recounted how police had met attempts to report these offences with indifference at best, and in the worst case scenario with disbelief. Comments like “we don’t meddle in domestic arguments”, that the girls deserved it and that it was a conjugal right for men that women had to accept the abuse were common. A show of hands demonstrated that, unsurprisingly, none of the Kenyan girls had any confidence in the police.

Preconceptions of women
The discussions also touched on themes such as whether it was possible for young women to dream freely about the future and not allow themselves to be restricted by preconceptions of how women should behave, what jobs they can do, etc. In contrast to almost all of the Swedish girls, only half of the Kenyans answered in the affirmative.

Despite the considerable contrasts between the Swedish and Kenyan girls’ situations (not least in socioeconomic terms), the meeting was an opportunity to gain an insight into each other’s lives, but also an important reminder that many of the challenges women face have nothing to do with nationality, background or culture.  Hosting the meeting was part of the Embassy’s efforts to implement the feminist foreign policy agenda on the ground.