Cross-posted from The Mongoose Chronicles

Last Wednesday, women in Kenya, led by The Women's Development Organisation coalition, imposed a week-long sex boycott aimed at pressuring the country's two power-sharing leaders Prime Minister Raila Odinga and President Mwai Kibaki into resolving their conflicts. Amid fears that current rows could see a renewal of the election violence of 2007, in which 1500 people were killed and 300 000 forced from their homes, the women's groups have solicited the support of sex workers as well as Ida Odinga, wife of Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

Patricia Nyaundi, executive director of the Federation of Women Lawyers (Fida), one of the organisations in the campaign, said they hoped the seven-day sex ban would force the squabbling rivals to make up.

"Great decisions are made during pillow talk, so we are asking the two ladies at that intimate moment to ask their husbands: 'Darling can you do something for Kenya?'"

It is the kind of tactic that certainly draws attention to power-sharing tensions in the country, but how valuable is it as a feminist action, and how effective can it be as a political strategy? Writing in the Guardian, Lola Adesioye declines to comment on the latter, but offers that regarding the former:
..this boycott is significant as it says a great deal about women's progress, the way in which women are reconsidering their role in Kenyan society and how they are reclaiming power where they can.


Africans can be pretty conservative on topics such as sex. For the older generation in particular, discussing sex in public is something you just don't do. In addition, unlike in the west, you tend not to hear African women sitting around talking casually and openly about it. Within that framework, taking such a politically-motivated sexually-orientated stance – actively withholding sex for a week and announcing it to the world – is, actually, a very bold and radical move.


Will this strike achieve its aims? That's debatable. However, even if the government doesn't end its feuding, this modern-day version of Lysistrata has already had a useful effect. It has put the spotlight on women's roles, power and rights and is showing how national politics affects the individual.

For women, at least, a week without sex is worth that.

But even in the context of a society where polygamy is still practiced, where sex is seen as a woman's duty to her husband and family, and where open discussion about sex is considered taboo and un-African, this strike is still a double-edged sword, with perhaps one side sharper and therefore more destructive than the other. Yes, it does represent a big "suck it" to the patriarchy that Kenyan women can declare ownership of their bodies and their sexual agency in this way. But at the same time, it says that this is their only card to play, their only value and their only contribution. And I find that problematic.

Adesioye argues that the strike " has put the spotlight on women's role, power and rights", but has it really? It seems to cast this role, power and rights strictly in terms of their usefulness as providers of sex and nothing else. It does not advance a dialogue on all the cases where even this role, even this sexual agency which is the minimum a woman should be able to exercise, is removed from her in the country's many cases of marital and community rape. It does not associate the lack of political consensus with other realities of women's lives such as insufficient access to water, food, health, education and security. And while it is encouraging to see women declare that their sexual lives are theirs to control or reveal as they decide, if the discourse stops here, then it arguably has done very little to advance women's economic security, their true political engagement, and the overall stability of fair and inclusive governance in that country.

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