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Against many odds: the dilemmas of women's self-help groups in Mbeere, Kenya.

  • Mwaniki, N
Published Article
Africa : journal of the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures
Publication Date
Jan 01, 1986
PMID: 12290718


This article uses data collected through questionnaires and formal interviews to analyze women's self-help groups in Mbeere, Kenya. The discussion begins with a description of the geographic setting, which has low and unpredictable rainfall leading to periodic droughts and famine, and socioeconomic aspects of life in Mbeere, where women's status is defined by men who control important economic aspects of their lives, such as land tenure. In 1982, there were 140 women's groups in Mbeere with memberships ranging from below 10 to over 60 (most 30-50). The groups are formally organized, with a leader, a secretary, and a treasurer. Most of the women in the groups are from the poor peasant socioeconomic class, and residence in the same neighborhood is an important membership criteria. All of the women surveyed were married and had children. The work schedules of the groups depend on the type of project and amount of work to be done. Activities fall into the categories of raising money (general work, cotton farming, basket making); generating income (raising livestock; building stores, lodgings, or social halls; or buying equipment like a truck or grain mill); and general development (water extension, homestead improvements, buying cows or goats for members, or building schools). Of 25 groups sampled, 20 had a cash-crop garden cultivated on borrowed land. Groups gave members financial assistance (all members get equal treatment), labor assistance, and assistance in social matters through the dissemination of information and informal discussions. Groups face internal constraints in terms of the heavy burden women face to uphold their domestic and agricultural responsibilities, food shortages, water scarcity, and inadequate nutrition, poor organization, weak leadership, large allowances demanded by some group leaders, lack of support from husbands, criticisms from outside the groups, and an inability to identify the most viable projects. External constraints include lack of capital, lack of good roads, lack of advisors for feasibility studies of projects, lack of markets, and women's social subordination to men. The success of women's groups will ultimately depend upon the viability of the projects they embrace, and the Mbeere groups need expert income-generation advice. Broad reforms could abolish many of the forms of discrimination faced by women and improve their ability to contribute to the socioeconomic development and food production capacities of their communities.

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