Grace Nyongesa is national chairperson of Kenya’s Universities’ Academic Staff Union (UASU). She is a lecturer at Kisii University School of Law where she teaches Gender and the Law among other subjects. She is also a senior partner at G.C. NYONGESA & CO. ADVOCATES where she works on family law issues and children's rights. She has served as vice chair of the Federation of Women Lawyers, a top women's rights organization in Kenya.
In 2021, out of the seven seats in the Universities’ Academic Staff Union (UASU) executive committee, two were won by women — you and another candidate. Can you tell us about challenges you face when dealing with equity for women in the union?
The gender issue is a national debate in Kenya. To allow women to occupy positions of leadership is difficult. For example, the effort it takes to campaign puts women in a disadvantaged position as it involves travelling across 38 university campuses. If you have a family, you can’t easily take a week off. Also, the patriarchal societies that exist in many regions aren’t receptive to women in leadership positions.
There will always be a few men in our corner, but we need to reach out more so that more men buy into the idea of women being active in the union. Gender issues cannot be addressed without men on board. However, the debate is very thorny for men, and they don’t understand women’s lived realities. They might think that we want things on a silver platter, but that’s not it at all. If you leave it to men, they tend to think everything’s fine and won’t advocate for women in the way that women would for themselves. It is only the women who can speak about their challenges and about what specifically affects them. They must be the ones to put their issues on the negotiating table.
Speaking of negotiating, you’re currently negotiating a collective agreement. What’s happening with that?
Yes, we gave our proposals to the employer. We have not received a proposal back from the employer, so we’ve gone to court to seek an order so that negotiations can commence. Negotiating at the tail end disadvantages our members as we are already in 2023 and the agreement goes until 2025.
What are some long-term strategies for tackling gender imbalances so that trade unions are more equitable for women?
I haven’t been in the union for long, however, I’m striving to build relationships with strong organizations who have incorporated women in union leadership. Men can often feel threatened by women in leadership positions. These examples will allow men to witness how other unions are doing it without necessarily looking at it as a threat. We’re also working on capacity building for our members related to recruiting young women. I would say that there’s enhanced interest for women to serve in the union. We are not yet there, but we’re doing our best to make sure the union is vibrant so that collectively we can begin to mobilize for our rights as university teachers.
Also, my female colleague has been in the union longer than I have and together we are looking at building a mentorship program so that she can pass on the knowledge she has to young women to inspire them to run for positions. It’s a question of reaching out and creating activities and opportunities for the members to participate more actively in the union. Funding is a problem though, and so new programs became a challenge because of a lack of resources.
Trade union movements can be a bit tricky for members. Some people think that if they get active in the trade union, then they may lose their job. They’d rather be members; however, when you expand the leadership, then you get more people actively participating. And in terms of leaders, I’m looking to understand the different skills we can employ as unionists to be effective in our service delivery.
What initiatives are you currently working on?
We need to speak to issues that affect young mothers, such as giving them an opportunity to study and not leave school. Young women may come to the university and marry, and then they often don’t stay, whereas the young man who marries will continue to study. I am currently looking at how we can have a space within the university for young mothers to access childcare and come back to class, as bringing a baby to school isn’t currently available to them. Some may object to this, but making it easier for them to feed their young ones and then return to class means there’s a greater chance they’ll stay in school. How do we take care of these young women now, so they become tomorrow’s leaders?