Handicraft industry helps Kenyan women access better living standards and more equal status

At the age of 14, Bella followed her parents’ instruction and married a man she had never met. Unfortunately, her husband divorced her shortly after she gave birth to their fourth child. Being abandoned by her husband at a very young age, she now has to raise all four of her children just by herself.

Even though the social status and situation of women has already improved these days, Kenyan women still have low domestic status within their families and face discrimination in education and the job market due to traditional culture and social customs.

Even though some husbands support their wives going out to work, their wives will have to work harder because baby care and housekeeping are still believed to be women’s work. Those women who earn more may need to pay the house rent or tuition fees for their children and even support their husband’s daily expense. “When he sees me selling, he just wants to spend my money”, said Alice, a Kissi stone handicrafts seller in the Masai market. Moreover, there are many single mothers and they have to raise their children on their own.

To improve their social status and to raise their children, some women conduct handicraft business either individually or in relevant organizations and workshops.

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(the writer of this article is doing an interview )

The Masai tribe conventionally makes souvenirs with colorful Masai stones. They are also known for their wood carvings with their unique style. Such uniqueness and tradition attract many costumers. Because of the tourism boom, Kenyan people in international cities such as Nairobi are also now making and selling different sorts of handicrafts in the styles of other African tribes.

Compared to other export commodities in the Kenyan economy, there is a wide range of handicraft products from Kenyan exporters which enhances their competitiveness in the global market.[i]

A reason for women choosing handicrafts work is probably because most of the handicrafts on sale are not difficult to make, even for beginners. Masai-style painting, for instance, only takes about seven months to learn. And it costs even shorter time for those learning stone crafts. Usually, a well-paid job requires professional skills. For those women who have never accessed higher education, finding such a job seems impossible. Therefore, they turn to make handicraft as an appropriate choice for them.

Work flexibility is another reason for women, especially single mothers like Bella, to engage in handicrafts production. Since they have to keep an eye on their children, flexible working time and venue can be of great importance to them. For example, Bella is allowed to take her eight-month-old baby to the factory where she works. Or she can also choose to work at home if she needs to take care of more children. Most handicraft workshops been visited allow their female staff to take their work back home, which helps them achieve a better balance between their work and family commitments.

Through working in handicrafts workshops, some women and their children can survive on their monthly wage. Some workshops such as Imani and Kazuri recruit hundreds of female workers who are underprivileged, have disabilities, or infected with diseases, which means it is extremely hard for them to find a job that can enable them to afford all their and their children’s life.

“Children force mothers to be strong”, says a female worker in Amani YaJuu, an NGO operating handicrafts business and offering jobs to female refugees in remote villages or neighboring countries. It takes four months for the NGO to train its female workers and they are paid during the period.

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(the workshop of Amani)

Women may achieve a better standard of living and higher social status whilst operating a handicraft business. Some skilled workers start their own business after owning several years working experience in workshops and even give lessons to others. Alice teaches students to make handicrafts in the Masai market every weekdays. She brings her students’ products in the market and sells for them, caring a small commission in the process.

The handicrafts industry is not only a method for bettering women’s living conditions. For those come from the wealthier families, it can also be self-fulfilling. Some women have taken a strong interest in art and design for its own sake since they were young. They are fortunate to be supported by their parents and get good educational opportunities, and may achieve more respect and support from their family as a result of enlarging their business.

“Sometimes you don’t just work for money, you want a purpose, and you need something to do for yourself.” Angela decided to go to vocational school rather than university to learn art and design. She has earned respect and support from her family and from her husband as well.

Angela believes that a reason why women are not supported by their families is because their parents’ lack of education, and this generates a low awareness of the importance of women working. To change this, some women are trying to help other women gain their professional skills.

Some businesswomen operating individual workshops send their relatives to vocational schools to learn handicraft skills. After graduation, their relatives can help them with their business or open a new shop. They also employ more female workers to help when they have big orders. This enables those without educational experience to gain handicraft skills.

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(the workshop of Kazuri)

Larger organizations have a more well-developed system to help promote women’s independence and improve their living standards. They not only provide more jobs for female workers but also equip them with other services in order to enhance the quality of their lives. For instance, Kazuri, the handmade beats and pottery making factory which aims to help disabled women, equips a clinic to provide medical care for female workers and even for their families.

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(Sally’s sister learned skills from Sally)

Hard though it is, women in Kenya are struggling to obtain better living conditions and more equal status in society. Sally moved to Nairobi to open her own workshop. Thanks to her, Sally’s sisters have obtained access to education and found their interest in handicraft. Sally is now dreaming of opening another workshop back in her hometown, so that more women can be involved to go out to work and start a new life journey.

[i] Response strategies adopted by handicraft traders in Kenya to challenges of exporting

Author: Ndungu, Sarah Muthoni

The article was written by Zhuofan Leng.

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