Cook, clean, plan: A case for dialogue for greater gender equality

March 8, 2023

I am on strike.

I have been on strike since last Christmas (2022), and will continue to do so until things change. Whenever that will be. 

For many people in Kenya, Christmas is a time when we often travel upcountry to celebrate the festive season. With urbanization and general fast pace of life these days, the festive season offers a once-in-a-year opportunity to touch base, catch up and reconnect with one’s roots. It is a time to enjoy traditional delicacies, music and all-round indulgence. In Kenya we say: “The year has been rough, so it’s time to ‘apologize’ to the body.”

As we pack our bags, ready to leave for the village, a text goes out to the cousins’ WhatsApp group: “Girls, I hope everyone has gotten rid of their Nairobi nails. Get ready to get down and dirty!”

A few days later, as everyone else is busy enjoying nyama choma, cracking jokes with that long-lost cousin and having a sip of traditional liquor, one group is usually missing out on all the fun. Not for want of a sense of humor but because someone has to do the work that leads up to the enjoyment. As a child, I was oblivious to the work that goes into ensuring the chapati are layered just so, the chicken stews are so saucy, and each grain of rice in the pilau is equally coated in the masala and does not stick to the next. The same group of people must make sure that the house is clean (and decorated, if necessary), and the kids are always bathed, fed on time and in bed before it is too late. They also need to clean all the dishes including pots and servingware. In some homes, cooking for large groups of people can only be done over a wood-fire, meaning that pots are always covered in soot and eyes and noses are always streaming from blowing on kindling and firewood. Now that I am a grown woman, I am expected to join the ranks of mothers, aunties, cousins and sisters who bear the task of ensuring that the family has a merry Christmas. The ‘sisterhood’ is caught up in a continuous week-long cycle of cooking, cleaning and planning for the next meal. Cook, clean, plan. Cook, clean, plan. Cook, clean, plan. You dish up only after everyone else has some food on their plate, you bathe after your chores are done and because of the long cooking-times, you are always thinking about the next meal and what needs to be prepared before the actual cooking starts.

It is a lot of work but someone needs to do it. However, there are two sets of able-bodied adults in the homestead- overworked females and ebullient males. So why is the burden of work only on one group? For centuries, my culture has dictated that women take charge of kitchen-and-home affairs while men’s domain was outside of the home, tending to fields, livestock and/or fish. However times have changed and in many families, men and women have different forms of employment outside of the home.  Yet cultural ‘policy’ still dictates that only one group of people is responsible for the domestic care work. These perspectives pervade other spheres of life such as finances and land ownership. While significant strides have been made, land ownership is still a challenge for women and inequalities in incomes are still pervasive between men and women. 

It is therefore not surprising to see this imbalance play out in the health system. From the distribution of leadership roles to policymaking, gender discrimination is deep-rooted leading to the implementation of gender-blind responses. In 2021, I participated in a review of 450 COVID-19 health policies from 76 countries across the world.  The analysis, which was a collaborative effort by University College London (UCL), the African Population and Health Research Center, and the International Center for Research on Women in India, sought to examine if governments had incorporated a gender lens in their development and execution of COVID-19 response measures. Of those assessed, 91% were termed gender-blind as they did not consider the concept as having a significant impact on people’s health outcomes. Socially constructed gender norms can mean that women’s access to COVID-19 prevention-including vaccination-, testing, and treatment, is hindered.  This could be due to unaffordable fees or inability to travel to health facilities. The United Nations’ Gender Development Index confirms that countries with a high level of gender equality have higher immunization coverage. Meaning that in countries where gender disparities are rife, women and children are more at risk of preventable diseases.

So this then begs the question- do we institute gender-blind policies because we have learned bias? Does it suffice to say that how we are raised and the values and norms we pass on from one generation to the next go on to affect what we often assume to be high-level issues that are often ‘dissociated’ from our day-to-day realities? What if these matters then become a matter of life and death, as is with health?

Maybe it is time for us to have more candid discussions at the fireside, the wash area, and in the living room, about what gender and gender inequality looks like at an individual, household, and (extended) family level so that we can similar problems at a community and national level. We need to awaken to the fact that the gendered asymmetry of roles and responsibilities has a knock-on effect on societal structures.

Perhaps it is time I ended the strike, but not before a serious family meeting that ends with the men and boys assigned a few more tasks such as cleaning the house and the dishes, aside from the one day of slaughtering the Christmas goat. A dream, maybe, but not impossible.