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The Struggle Continues: Zebib Kavuma on Making Women Matter

Zebib Kavuma

As a woman, you must have boundaries very early on, because it becomes very hard to claim them later- Zebib Kavuma Click To Tweet

Mrs Zebib S. Kavuma is an accomplished development advocate working to improve the status of women in Africa. She has over 20 years’ expertise in diverse development work including gender, reproductive health and rights, peace-building and conflict resolution as well as HIV/AIDS. She was appointed as the Country Director of UN Women in Kenya in July 2011, where she leads and oversees the gender equality and women’s empowerment portfolio for the UN in Kenya. She is currently the Deputy Country Director of UN Women for Eastern and Southern Africa.

Mrs Kavuma holds a Master’s degree in International Affairs from Columbia University in New York, and a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and Industrial Psychology from the University of Western Ontario, Canada.

The 50-year-old mother of 3 shares insights from her journey with Damaris Agweyu.

When did you first realise that we live in a prejudiced world?

When I was 7 years old, the revolution had broken out in Ethiopia and my family fled to Kenya. My parents took me to the German school where I got to interact with all kinds of people from all over the world. I was this black Ethiopian girl in a European education system, and in my school environment, there were very few Africans – in a school of about 100 there were maybe 10 African students. The rest were from European countries, mostly Germany. 

It was in this environment that I started seeing subtle differences between people. I wasn’t conscious to know that certain things were happening because of race relations.  I could, however, see that some people treated me differently. I could see others being treated differently. I just thought, maybe that person is not a nice person, or whatever. Over the years I came to learn that yes, we are different and treat each other differently.

Why a German school in the first place?

In Ethiopia, it was one of the few good schools that promoted Amharic, which is the Ethiopian language. Students also got to learn a foreign language and my parents felt it was a bonus to have some kind of extra language. I had just started school in Ethiopia when the revolution broke out, so when we ended up in Kenya, it made sense for me to continue with the German school here. I did eventually move from the German school to ISK (The International School of Kenya) which had a completely different mix – more Canadians and Americans, fewer Europeans and more Africans than what I was used to, but still not too many. The culture was, again, very different. The way we were studying and interacting was different. I also started seeing the different dynamics between boys and girls.  In my family, we are 2 boys and 2 girls and my parents generally encouraged us to do whatever we wanted to do and because the majority of our lives was spent outside of Ethiopia, we were freer to experiment and explore, so we were not typical in that sense.

When I graduated from high school, again my environment changed and I ended up in Canada. I didn’t know what I wanted to study at the university, but this thing of understanding diversity among people was on my mind.  I felt I had my own struggles where people categorised me and I didn’t necessarily want to be categorised. I would get comments like “Where are you really from, you are not like other Africans or black people, where are you originally from?” It didn’t sit right with me.  I would say I’m from Africa. I didn’t even say I’m from Ethiopia. It was a struggle for some people to accept that I am African, black and could achieve/be in the same spaces as them. As time went by, I was more and more curious about these dynamics.

From a relatively young age, I was always determined to do what I thought was right and I stood my ground a lot, even if it was wrong. By the time I was 18 I didn’t have any confusion regarding who I was, where I came from, what I stood for or what I believed in. I think sometimes that gave the impression that I was different.

I ended up doing Economics and Industrial Psychology to understand human beings and their sense in the workplace. I also needed to explore issues of human relations and differences – is it an economic issue? Is it privilege? Is it opportunity?  I knew I wanted to do something around equity and equality and bringing people together, understanding each other, working together as men and women – although I didn’t know which direction to take.  As I was going into graduate school, I came across international relations and that is how I narrowed it down because I also needed to understand different cultures.

With such a cosmopolitan upbringing, what environment have you been most comfortable in?

The African environment – everything else was foreign to me. But I was always open to exploring. As I was applying for grad school, I wanted to travel to China, India, the former Soviet Union, certain places in Europe and see different people. So I said I would do a summer here and a summer there.  When I went to India, I didn’t know anything about the country; I just knew that I’m going to find a family to live with and travel throughout the country. I was naïve and didn’t know that it takes a lot to backpack through India.

How old were you at this time?


That was brave.

In fairness, I imagined India was probably like Ethiopia with a big population, systems that don’t quite function and inequality galore. I was right and I was wrong.  I started in the North and made my way down to the South. I had some horrendous experiences that made me realise what it meant to be black, what it meant to be a woman – a young woman at that– and what it meant to be alone.

The family I was staying with was fine – but outside, there were so many challenges. The culture was a barrier, the language was a barrier and there, women don’t travel alone, they travel in groups. I had braids and the people from the North thought I was from the South but then they would look at my hair wonder, what are these dreads she has? I would be sitting next to a person on a bus and he would touch me and push me and because I’d never experienced such things before, I didn’t even know how to react. And where do you go on a bus? You’re all seated. I mean I can stand, but really where am I going to go? You’re on a train and someone starts to fondle you…

They have these rickshaws for transportation and there was one time I saw a group of younger men who were all milling around their vehicles. I was going to ask one of them to take me somewhere and innocently approached them to negotiate the rates.  There was an old man, bless his heart, who was watching me and he obviously saw that this mix is not good. He came over and said, “no, she’s with me, let me take her”. Later, he told me about what could have potentially happened to me. “You have to be careful,” he said. I could have been easily raped. But when you are young and feeling independent, you don’t think about that. Following an incident like that, you realise your vulnerability and femininity – you realise things you would not have realised in a protected setting.  It was a life lesson for me. 

There were also the race relations where they have their own caste system and there I was, not even from a particular caste and considered below everyone else – people would be rude, shout at me, spit at me and so on – there are nice people too, but I got the whole spectrum. 

When I got back to America, I understood that these issues are deeper than what we make them out to be, and that is what really inspired me to look at gender relations, social norms, stereotypes etc. I also started questioning my own culture – reflecting on how women and girls in Ethiopia are treated. I said, “this is not right; we walk the same space and breathe the same air and yet we are discriminated against in many many ways”. Back in the university I had been working in the lab, and I could also see that just by being a woman, they dismiss you, they don’t take you seriously, your voice doesn’t really count.

The way we are socialised as boys and girls has implications in our lives, sometimes we carry that with us and end up believing that is how it is, we don’t challenge it, we just accept it.

Zebib Kavuma

There are many things you take for granted but at the end of the day it boils down to you being a woman and this person being a man. A lot of the times it is assumed that women are just there to serve.  I would later see it in the workplace – you go to a meeting and people think you’re just an aide; they can’t even begin to imagine you are in a decision making space. Men are not comfortable entering a room that’s full of women and yet as women, we live that reality every single day of our lives. We don’t even think about it, but we are consistently a minority and we consistently have to prove ourselves.  Even with language, you flippantly say something that undermines another because of their gender – little things we don’t even take into account.

The deeper I dug into these things, the more I unveiled preferential treatment.  The way we are socialised as boys and girls has implications in our life, and sometimes we carry that with us because we end up believing that is how it is so we also don’t challenge it, we just accept it. It then becomes difficult to go against the grain or status quo because you are always a minority. And the people you want support from are the ones who’ll say, no that’s too much, we don’t need that, we don’t want it.

So I also learned that not everybody wants the same thing, not everybody has to feel like they have to have equal opportunity because some people are very comfortable with where they are and you can’t place judgement on that. You can inspire and empower people, but at the end of the day, the choices they make are theirs. But you see there are spaces where it’s just relentless and totally unacceptable. When we talk about violence, that incident in India opened my eyes to how vulnerable I could have been – irrespective of all the education and all the resources I had – at the end of the day I would have actually been helpless. You are vulnerable and somebody can just take advantage of that vulnerability and feel nothing, yet they have destroyed a life. How does somebody just rape someone and get away with it? Something in our psyche can’t be right.

We may excuse certain behaviours but when it comes to violence and oppression, these are deliberate acts, and for people to say, “well it wasn’t me, it was because I was high,” or, “she was dressed inappropriately”, I’m like, “really?” What are we then allowing?

And it’s always the woman’s fault.

It’s always the woman’s fault, no matter what.  Anything goes wrong and it’s the woman’s fault. The girl child needs help, it’s a woman’s issue, the boy child needs help, it’s a woman’s issue, and yet in society we also have men.

We need to redefine what the role of a man is and what the role of a woman is in a modern era because now the extended family no longer holds, people are urbanised.  At the end of the day, we are human beings and there is a minimum that we must all adhere to.

I wanted to be in this space to understand it. Not that there are any easy solutions because these are generational things, but the struggles we go through don’t need to be repeated over and over again. Everything else is changing so fast, so why is this not changing at the same pace? Technology has given us opportunities beyond and above what we could have ever dreamed was possible. How is it then that women and girls in these spaces can still not be seen to be drivers of anything? Why do I have to choose between my career and my family role? Why is it either or? Why can’t we create environments that are conducive to do both?

I’m not so naïve as to think it can be rosy; there are still people who believe that the status quo should remain and they are fine with that. Kudos to them. It’s not for everybody but I feel where I can contribute and make a difference I surely should, even if it’s just giving people the information to decide and make choices, that’s good enough.

When we talk about education it’s not so much the 1 plus 1 equals 2 education; it’s more about understanding how the world functions, where you place yourself in this space and what drives you. This requires a lot of reflection; it requires you to understand yourself. You need to know how much you can carry and are willing to sacrifice and push for. You need to know your boundaries, to say I can’t go beyond this and I’m not going to entertain this. You have to create your reality consciously otherwise what you say and what you do become two different things. You can be influenced by people’s perceptions and there is nothing wrong with that, but at the end of the day, you have to have an answer for yourself.

Would you say you are truly free?

I want to believe that I am. Having said that, I had to create that freedom very deliberately: even before I got married, I was very clear with my husband that this is who I am and I’m not going do things because tradition has said I do them. Yes, I can adjust to a certain extent but it has to be within my own comfort zone, not because somebody said that the role of a woman is this and that.

As a woman, you must have boundaries from early on, because it becomes very hard to claim them later. Whether it’s with your in-laws or whatever, if you don’t set the boundaries so they understand who you are as an individual, it will be hard for you to claim your freedom. I respect that, especially in African cultures, you are married into a community or family. You should have those boundaries to make it clear that I have my own culture as well, where I come from we don’t do this, so you can also respect where I am coming from in the same way I respect where you are coming from. And of course, I have no problem compromising but not because I have been forced to but because I want to do it.

When I first declared that I wanted to live with a man before getting married, there was a lot of resistance but I stood my ground. Because of what my parents grew up with and understood, I had to push their boundaries to accept certain things that were not considered normal. What I saw a lot with my immediate and extended family was a question of what will people say? And there was nothing that irritated me more than that – if you do this, if we go there, if we don’t attend what will people say. I was always like, “wait a minute, are we living for other people or are we living for ourselves?”

Many of us battle with that – what society dictates vs. who I am as an individual.

Absolutely and they are not easy battles.  Because going against the grain means a lot of people won’t accept you and you have to learn to face and live with that consequence.

I choose my battles carefully and have to keep checking what to let go of and what to keep. I have been married to a Ugandan man for 20 years and even today I get comments like, “Couldn’t you find an Ethiopian to marry? Why would you go outside?“I was raised international and know international people – that choice (marriage) was a consequence of this, so I don’t take it personally. You can’t overthink it.

These are daily struggles and very subtle – our culture is not open so people won’t tell you the issues they have about you straight up. Everybody smiles at you, but behind closed doors, it’s a tornado. You have to be comfortable in your skin – whether it’s your looks or the values you hold. The influences from outside are many, and the environment has a tendency to compare – so and so is this and I’m not; it can drive you crazy. I believe freedom can only come when you have choices. For as long as you cannot make a choice about anything in your life, you are not free because then it’s always pegged on someone else’s idea, interpretation or opinion. For us as women, freedom is usually not a given.

And many women don’t have the privilege of choice.

This is the thing. When I go to Kibera, I meet girls who are so bright and amazing and can be anybody, but who’s going to lift that one girl and encourage her daily – the moment whoever it is not there, what does she go back to? No clean water, no electricity, no proper shelter and on top of that sexual harassment. Out of that how is she supposed to be inspired and think and dream? Somebody has to create that vision for her because it’s not possible to dream when on a daily basis you don’t even know if tomorrow will come, and yet every person has a dream. She didn’t choose to be born there and that’s why I feel for those of us who have the opportunity, we can’t just keep it to ourselves, we have to give back somehow. People do it in different ways; we have to be able to see beyond ourselves. It cannot just be about me, because then what am I here for?

When you talk to the younger generation of men, they are not so caught up in these things

Zebib Kavuma
Do you feel like you’ve made headway, or is it still a case of ‘if it’s not one thing it’s another’?

There is progress and we should never underestimate progress. What I do is not like planning to build my house where I say, in 5 years I will be done. No, this is about attitudes, behaviours and norms – things that are embedded in us – you can’t expect them to just change.

We can’t underestimate the progress but it’s also not enough to celebrate the progress, we still must keep going because we need acceleration for change in many ways.

The great thing is the younger generation is driven to change the narrative; they are driven enough to say we are not going to tolerate some of these things.

And the thing with progress is you may not see it when you are living through it – I mean, we are also just enjoying the benefits of our mothers’ struggles…

Yes. And it’s not just about girls, it’s about boys and girls. We empower the girls so that they understand the equation, but you have to work with the boys too because they go together. You want to do it in a manner that makes neither feel neglected or isolated. But maybe because the discourse today is heavy on women’s rights and girls’ empowerment, the boys do feel left out. Maybe the boys don’t even feel it but the older men feel it for their boys or the women feel it for their sons- I don’t know, because when you talk to young men, they are not caught up in these things. I speak to young people from different parts of the world and I must say I have a lot of faith in them to change the narrative.

Do the younger generations have enough role models or mentors?

Maybe the connection between the generations is not as strong as it could be, or the conversations are not as close as they could be. Because yes, young people lookout for people to inspire and guide them, and often, they are not getting it. So sometimes they find themselves in spaces which they don’t even know how they got into, and have nobody to guide them. We also have a duty as an older generation to reach out to them and give them guidance; some people just need that reassurance that they’re okay and should just keep going.

Because of technology, I see a lot of young girls experimenting on their own – that, of course, makes them freer and less dependent, but we still need to guide them. In the discourse between boys and girls today, girls are no longer shy and timid – they speak their minds.

What do you think is the most powerful tool women have that they don’t know they have?

Their voice. You don’t have to act like a man to make it, but then again,  some do it for survival. I don’t think women want to be macho or whatever – women have to survive in these environments. If you are among sharks, you have to be like a shark, because otherwise you will be swallowed!

We have to understand the spaces in which women find themselves to be that way; it takes a lot to be in those environments, and it’s a lonely trip – you are constantly harassed, mocked, challenged; what are you going to do?

The coping mechanisms are different for different women, but I think the ability to speak up whether people are judging you or not is very powerful. Outspoken women get labelled all kinds of things. As a woman, you get labelled; just by walking here you are labelled. People check you out – nobody checks out a man. There are just some things that people do to women that they don’t do to men; that’s how it is. But our voice is so powerful, and we don’t realise the impact of it.  There is nothing worse than silencing someone – because that’s what violence does – it makes you not want to speak or exist, and the moment you can speak you regain your power. Men use their voice, all the time.

We have to learn to put our voices to good use, whether it’s in our homes, communities or workplace because it’s very easy to silence women. And the moment you are silenced, you have no solidarity.

Is that where that phrase ‘Women are their own worst enemies’ came from? The lack of solidarity from all the silencing?

I have no idea. I just get so irritated by that phrase because I don’t even know what it means.

How are you an enemy? The situation and circumstance in which you find yourself might make you do things you otherwise would not do. But you are in that space, and for as long as that space is not conducive, you are going to react because you are a human being!

Women truly have different needs, not because they decided to, but because our biology is just that way

Zebib Kavuma

If an ad for a job goes out and a woman applies and she is 21 and has potential to be pregnant, men who are sitting on that table to decide whether she should get the job are not going to sit and think about things like does she have a space to breastfeed? No, they will be like she is going to cost us because of maternity leave, and I’ll have to bring in another person to do the work etc. – that’s what many men think. They don’t think “Oh she’s a sharp, interesting person; she’s good for the company so let’s invest in her. Let’s make sure that when we take her on, we actually have plans to make her succeed.”

And that’s why I keep saying we have to be deliberate about the things we do. Women truly have different needs, not because they decided to, but because our biology is just that way. If I could delegate breastfeeding, I’d be the first to do it, I mean do you think it’s always charming, it’s not! But who understands that?

Only a woman will understand when you are sick and vomiting in the first trimester and need to go home. A man will be like, first do ABCD and then how much leave will you take? Can you perform on an equal level? Let’s take the guy, he’ll be here till midnight.

That is what I don’t understand about phrases like, ‘she is her worst enemy or she is not pulling so and so up’ – it’s because she has no energy to pull you up, she is dealing with her own issues! People see women in the boardroom and think they are composed. If you go behind the scenes they are not composed because they have 16,000 things they are dealing with at any given time. These challenges women have, men don’t have because men have delegated these roles to their wives. If a couple has children and they both work and the school calls, they call the woman first; women are the first point of entry for so many things.

I refuse to accept that phrase. Women say it too because of what they see. “You see this one she does not even help, you see this one she cannot even do this and that.” It’s just a perception; they don’t know any better. But if you break it down to them they will actually agree. Take a political rally: why is it that when elections come, men can mobilise women, if we are truly our own worst enemies? There’s no man who has a rally of men coming to vote for him, they always tell the woman, “you mobilise those women for me.” If we have the ability to come together for a cause why can’t we come together for anything else?

It’s a misplaced phrase that erodes everything we have done and while I hate to hear women say it, it is especially unfair for a man to say it on behalf of women. Those who have seen women go through hell would never say it.

Who’s had the greatest impact on the decisions you’ve made in life?

People have impacted me in different ways and at different times in my life. My mother has impacted me regarding what not to be. She’s had to make a lot of sacrifices, gone through a lot of pain and hurts and I have learnt a lot from that.

Do you think parenting was harder or easier with our parents?

I think it was different. I don’t want to put judgment on my parents because I think they had different struggles and we have different struggles. Maybe it seems more difficult because we are exposed to many more options, information overflow etc. everybody has an answer for everything and that can all become too much.

There are definitely higher prices we have to pay but I really think it’s different times for different generations. I think they had challenges that we will never know and were never discussed. Women didn’t necessarily have the option of a career. People were socialized to think this was the right way and you sacrifice everything for this. But for us today, we don’t see it like that: we don’t necessarily sacrifice – we say we want it all but we don’t want to sacrifice.

(From L -R ) Kitui County Governor Hon. Charity Ngilu, UN Women Kenya Country Director Ms. Zebib Kavuma and Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Public Service Youth and Gender Affairs Prof. Margaret Kobia during the launch of the 50 Journeys Book

In previous generations, women sacrificed it all – their being, existence, identity – so we can learn that it doesn’t have to be that way. Like you said, we are reaping the benefits of those that came before us, and now the younger ones will benefit even more. But we have to make sure we don’t go to extremes – it’s a challenge and there is anxiety because you really don’t know how the kids will turn out. You give it your best and that’s all you can do.

I equally respect those who can just say, you know what, this is not for me. We should leave those who want to be alone and single to freely make that choice; not everyone wants the same things. And with parenting, you really never know what it is until you are there. The sacrifices you have to make for a child is no joke and nobody can understand it until they’ve done it. Take breastfeeding and delivery: I cannot explain what it is to deliver a baby because there is no other pain that I can equate it to. Yes, we forget the pain quickly to enable us to have another, but it is pain! The sleep deprivation, repeating it again and again; and you can’t get out of it; only those people who’ve gone through it will get it.

This is why I say that some of these choices that men then make are not coming from an informed space because you cannot as a man understand what it means to be pregnant for 9 months. How do you just belittle all that and brush it off, saying, in any case, that is what you are meant to do…

You must have a certain level of respect for women because of what we go through. Whatever it is, it’s ten times more than what men have to go through; that is a privilege for men and they refuse to see it. For somebody to say I respect you as a woman, because I don’t know exactly how you feel, but I can see all that you do, means a lot.

That’s why every man talks about “my mum this and my mum that’’ because they probably see it. But if you can see it in your mum, why not in other women? Why not in your wife? How can she be different from your mum and she has delivered your kids? You are so passionate about one thing on one level and on another level, you could care less- the girl you are raping is somebody else’s child, it could be your girl next- these are things we want to have discussions about with men to understand, if somebody says no, why can’t you just let them be? Move on, do other things… It’s power. You are exercising your power over somebody else, and who has given you that liberty? It’s patriarchy that has given you that.

In some ways what we want is emancipation and we have to stand in solidarity. When it’s wrong, it’s wrong! It doesn’t matter who it is. We need to recognize, the more we come together, the more we can achieve. We have made strides and need to celebrate: as women we have to celebrate ourselves all the time because, if you don’t celebrate yourself nobody will!

When you say, ‘celebrate yourself’, what exactly do you mean by that?

It’s important to do things that matter to you, have meaning to you and make you happy. If that means you have to drive to Naivasha and go chill for a day then do it!

We need to learn to create time for ourselves because, when you reflect, you will see that all the time you are doing everything for everybody else and have neglected yourself in the process – the same things you are doing for this person and that person, what makes you think you don’t need them for yourself?

And not many people will come and tell you; you know what, don’t worry, just leave this, I’ll do that for you- unless it’s your birthday! You have to claim that space for yourself.

How do you take time for just yourself?

Half of Sundays are mine. If I want to watch a movie or just lounge around in my PJs, I do it. Of course, sometimes I find that a month has gone by and I haven’t taken any time for myself, but I have to catch myself and make time for ME. Yes, children are your responsibility; you can’t delegate that, but you are also your responsibility and you can’t delegate that either. Even if you just did nothing – no shopping, no pickups… just enjoy your space and time.

For more wisdom and insights from Zebib Kavuma, get your copy of Different Paths, One Journey HERE.

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