Recent discoveries in Kenya of non-renewable natural resources, such as oil, natural gas and minerals, have been viewed by many as a sure-fire foundation for the nation’s development goals, which are captured in the economic blueprint ‘Vision 2030’. Many see these discoveries – such as titanium and niobium in Kwale, gold in Kakamega, oil and natural gas in Turkana and Lamu, among others – as critical precursors to the country’s road to prosperity as well as the means for lifting thousands of individuals out of poverty.
Recognising women as stakeholders in their own space and right will not only tap upon their economic potential but also reduce poverty and foster positive conditions for sustainable development.
While, admittedly, the exploitation of these extractives could bring prosperity to the nation, it is just as likely that Kenya’s discovery of oil and mineral resources may fuel internal corruption, unethical corporate behaviour, violation of human rights, environmental degradation, and perhaps even violent conflict (all of which are ingredients for that troubling and oft’ deadly euphemism, the “resource curse” also known as the “paradox of plenty”, which has created some of Africa’s worst massacres, war crimes and crimes against humanity).
The Corporate Responsibility to Respect Women’s Rights
Today, it is widely accepted that corporations have a responsibility to respect human rights – or in other words, to do no harm as elucidated in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights proposed by in June 2011 by John Ruggie, the United Nations Special Representative on the issue business and human rights. The corporate responsibility to respect human rights requires companies to conduct human rights due diligence measures on their activities so as to become aware of, prevent, and address adverse human rights experienced by communities.
What remains largely unexplored is whether corporations should become aware of, prevent, and address the potential gendered impacts of their activities. In other words, should there be a stronger focus on women’s rights in extractive projects? If so, why should women or gender issues receive special consideration, because after all, potential impacts of an extractive project on the economic, social, cultural and environmental strata of a local community are likely to impact both women and men? For example, an extractive project can improve infrastructure, create jobs and bring about social development schemes such as hospitals and schools where both women and men stand to benefit. By the same token, extractive projects can lead to pollution and destruction of the local rivers thus threatening or adversely affecting the livelihoods, drinking water and general health of both sexes of the surrounding communities.
The simple answer in my view is this: the belief that the impacts of extractive operations are gender neutral, as implied above, is a fallacy. Those making the arguments above work from a simple assumption that extractive projects impact men and women equally or similarly, and tend to overlook key variations and difference of experiences between the two sexes, the implications of which further isolate women and have subsequent repercussions on their families.
Women quite often are the linchpins of their families and the communities in which they live having key roles in ensuring the health, nutrition and education of those around them. Most communities in Kenya have deeply entrenched patriarchal cultures and patrilineal leanings, which for the most part dictate male and female relationships to each other, to the community and to the land. This means that men and women shall invariably have very different experiences of the impacts brought on by extractive projects.
- In negotiating a community’s free, prior and informed consent to develop an extractive project, which requires access to land, failure to involve women in the consultation process can lead to displacement without due consideration to a woman’s traditional role in meeting the subsistence needs of her family. This can not only increase the work burdens for women to provide for their families but also force many to become economically dependent on men.
- Payment of compensation and royalties is often directed to men “on behalf of” their families. This may deny women access to and control over the financial benefits of an extractive project, thus disempowering them or exacerbating existing inequalities. Additionally, women-headed households may not receive payments if they do not have a male representative.
- The effects of environmental damage and degradation can undermine the capacity of women, who often have sole responsible for subsistence activities and providing food for their families, to provide adequate food and clean water. This can subsequently lead to an increase in their workload such as having to walk greater distances to access water, fuel/wood, forest products and land to plant food crops.
These potential impacts on women demonstrate a necessity to have a stronger gender focus by corporations in the planning and implementation of their extractive projects. This means that the corporate responsibility to respect human rights must take into account gender impacts of any development projects.
The Constitution of Kenya, 2010 – A New Dawn for Gender Relations
The new Constitution presents a new dawn for the majority of Kenyan women by, for the first time, recognising the role of women in the overall development of the country hand in hand with national values and principles such as human dignity, equity, social justice, inclusiveness, equality, human rights, non-discrimination and protection of the marginalised.
Recognition of the equal rights of women and men as expressed in the Constitution is imperative towards achieving full empowerment of women. Article 21(3) states that “[a]ll State organs and all public officers have the duty to address the needs of vulnerable groups within society, including women”.
Recognising women as stakeholders in their own space and right will not only tap upon their economic potential but also reduce poverty and foster positive conditions for sustainable development. Thus investing in women as key stakeholders in the extractive sector shall ensure that they fully participate in the socio-economic development of their families and their communities.
This article represents an important first step in an expanding dialogue, which seeks to engage stakeholders in the extractive industry on the constitutional mandate to improve the status of women as key to ensuring sustainable development. Through a series of follow-on articles, I shall explore gender linkages in employment and/or economic opportunities, revenue and benefit sharing, public participation and access to information, among others.
“In Kenya women are the first victims of environmental degradation, because they are the ones who walk for hours looking for water, who fetch firewood, who provide food for their families.”
– Wangari Maathai, The 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
Dr Melba Wasunna is a co-founder & Vice President of Thamani Trust. She is Special Advisor on Extractives and Human Rights at Katiba Institute, which is currently spearheading a national stakeholder program to promote linkages and collaboration among different actors in the extractive sector – government, business & civil society – with a goal towards sustainable development of Kenya’s natural resources.