By Molly Hamilton

Trying to decide what to write for this second blog post has preoccupied much of my thoughts since returning to Montreal almost a month ago. Just like I mentioned in my last post, it’s hard to put such an experience into words. I’m overwhelmed by all the different aspects I want to speak to. I still find myself struggling with where to start or what to focus on. I also probably should have left some of the points made in the first blog post for this one.

I’ve thought about writing about the impact that years of international “development” projects and “aid” have left on Kenya, or what my time back home has been like, but considering this was a legal internship, I think it’s only right to reflect on the law and the legal dimensions of human rights.

Although I may not have gotten as much hands-on legal experience as I would have liked, I still feel very privileged to have been able to be in such a space that allowed me to hear from different people and learn about the different legal conflicts they were enduring. And just like in Canada, a significant issue that the Kenyan legal system is grappling with is that the law and its processes are slow (pole, pole as they say in Swahili). While the laws on paper are progressing, the impact on the ground is not felt or seen.

This is most obvious when it comes to issues of gender discrimination, especially in regards to land rights. The Kenyan Constitution (2010) as well as the subsequence Land Act (2012), the Law of Succession Act (2012) and the Marriage Act (2014), have made it illegal to prohibit women from accessing their land rights whether through succession or inheritance.

However, the reality on the ground is that women still are being evicted from their land through illegal inheritance or succession practices. While working at the Kenya-Canada Remote Legal Aid Clinic, I was struck by just how many cases we had where women were being evicted from their land either as the result of divorce, the death of their husband or the death of their father.

Rice fields just outside of Kianyaga

The loss of land rights for women can be devastating. One of our clients, an elderly woman was evicted from her late mother’s land in 2021 and ended up homeless. Someone in her town was kind enough to give her a small shack-like home but due to the lack of land, she’s unable to make any money and is struggling to pay her bills. Her two sons require her support as one is paraplegic and the other suffers from severe drug abuse. Without the land to grow food, coffee, macadamia, she is struggling to feed and support herself and her family.

Land in Kenya is one of the most important ways for people to survive as it allows them to feed and house themselves, while also being able to sell the extra produce they might have. For example, in Kianyaga, although a lot of the people do not have formal employment, they are able to earn an income by selling what they are able to grow from their coffee or macadamia plants. The money earned from this can help them pay for school fees, propane, electricity, and other household needs. As such, the loss of land can be detrimental to anyone but especially women who are the main caretakers of the children.

This issue is not just unique to Kenya. We see it all around the world, where progressive laws do not translate on the ground. South Africa is hailed as having one of the most gender-progressive constitutions, yet the rate of sexual violence in the country is appalling. Similarly, Canada is celebrated as a champion of gender equality and a government that uses gender-based analysis in its policy and law making. Yet, women 30% of all women aged 15 or older in Canada report experiencing sexual assault at least once.

The United Nations released a report in 2022 that stated that if we continue the current trajectory, it will take another 300 years to achieve full gender equality. What my time in Kenya has illustrated is that part of the reason why it is taking so long is because changing/enacting laws is not enough. We need mobilization on the ground to educate people in a culturally sensitive manner,[1] in a way that brings people into the discussion and from a young age teaches people the basic concepts of equality, dignity and equity.

Despite these challenges, I was also struck to see that a number of the clinic’s clients were women. I assumed that due to gender discrimination, the majority of our clients would be men. Yet, although I’m not sure of the exact numbers, it seemed to me that most of the clients, at least the most active and engaged ones were women. They would always show up at the office, enquiring on the progress of their cases, asking questions and bringing more information. Despite the disproportionate struggles they face, they continued to push through and demand better for themselves.

While in Kenya, I often heard people reference “African time” to talk about the slow pace that things happen at as well as to reference the fact that most things won’t happen on time. But maybe a more accurate term we should use to describe the slow pace of things is Human Rights time…

[1] A discussion for another day because that is a whole other bucket of worms.