Uhuru Kenyatta. Picture: THE TIMES/MOELETSI MABE
Uhuru Kenyatta. Picture: THE TIMES/MOELETSI MABE

Vancouver — Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta promised at the opening of the world’s biggest gender equality conference to push for more women in power, keep all girls in school, tackle child marriage and end female genital mutilation (FGM).

He told delegates attending Women Deliver in Vancouver on Monday that Kenya would make it compulsory for parents to send all children to primary and secondary school, which would boost girls’ opportunities and empower them to be future leaders.

Keeping girls in school would also prevent them being married off young, he said. More than one in five girls in Kenya are wed before the age of 18, according to global campaign group Girls Not Brides.

“[Another] thing that I really want to do is to see that I end FGM in Kenya by 2022,” Kenyatta added to huge applause.

UN data shows 21% of girls and women in the country have been cut. The East African country is widely seen as a leader in efforts to tackle the internationally condemned practice.

Kenyatta said more women are being appointed to leadership roles in Kenya, but progress is sometimes hampered by cultural or religious opposition. An equality bill, which stipulates that no one gender should have more than two-thirds of seats in parliament, has faced strong resistance in the National Assembly.

“As a country, we cannot grow at the pace we desire to grow if we leave this huge segment of society out of decision making,” he said, vowing to keep pushing for the law.

Ethiopia’s first female president, Sahle-Work Zewde, told the conference that having women in power is important for changing perceptions. The country’s supreme court is also headed by a woman and it is one of several African countries with a gender-balanced cabinet.

“It has definitely changed public opinion on what women can do … [But] for me the work has just started,” she said.

“If you are the first to do something and … a door is opened for you … what you do is to make sure that this door remains open.”

Sahle-Work said it is crucial to get more girls into secondary and tertiary education and tackle high rates of child marriage in the country where 40% of girls are wed before they reach 18.

“It’s a fundamental problem for us. We would like to have ended it yesterday,” she added. “This is something terrible. This has definitely to stop.”

However, she said child marriage is declining through a combination of grassroots work and engagement with community elders, religious leaders and parents associations in schools.

About 8,000 delegates are attending the four-day conference to debate issues from women’s empowerment to reproductive rights.

“In a gender-equal world everybody wins,” said Women Deliver CEO Katja Iversen.

Thomson Reuters Foundation