Kenya: Woman Uasu Chair Shows Shifting of Gender Terrain

In the national poll held in Nakuru County recently, lecturers picked Nakuru lawyer and Kisii University law lecturer Grace Nyongesa as the first woman chair of University Academic Staff Union (Uasu) to succeed long-serving chair Muga K’Olale, who had resigned the week before.

The lecturers set the pace in showing that women can have a real voice and space in trade union politics and participate equally with men in public dialogue and influence the decisions which determine the future of trade unionism. They also set a perfect example of gender equality and women’s empowerment, which is imperative for inclusive, equitable and sustainable women’s political participation.

Trade unions comprise of men and women but they have so often excluded the latter in leadership positions. Raising the share of women in our unions is not only likely to result in better representation of women’s concerns in policymaking but also lead to higher socioeconomic growth. Women have always been at the forefront of fighting for workers’ rights, including in the developed countries.

In 1888, for instance, women and girls went on strike at the Bryant & May match factory in East London to protest against long hours and appalling working conditions. Their action led to the banning of toxic white phosphorus, which had ruined many lives. The rise of female unionisation in South Africa in early- and mid-20th Century showed their central role in labour. Then, women took up industrial jobs in large numbers for the first time in the country.

Affirmative action

There was discrimination and a lack of acceptable working conditions. Through the leadership of women like Johanna Cornelius, Ray Alexander Simons, Emma Mashinini and Lydia Kompe, women were able to unionise against unfair employers.