NAIROBI, Kenya (WOMENSENEWS)–Everlyne Chasia, 28, a mother of three, has been a housewife since she got married seven years ago.
But now she is training to become a mechanic and break into the male-dominated field.
Clad in blue overalls, flowered rubber boots and a blue cap, the beaming Chasia says she is here at the NCCK Buru Buru Garage in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, by choice and nothing can stop her from making a change in her life.
She says she decided to study auto mechanics to augment the income of her husband, Lugard Lamadede, 32, who is also a mechanic but has little training.
"The daily meager wages that he makes cannot support us all, especially with basic family needs and children’s school fees," she says.
Chasia is one of 30 women who enrolled last month in an auto mechanics training class for women launched by Project Africa, a local nongovernmental organization that hopes the pioneering program will equip women ages 18 to 40 with skills to help them earn a living.
Kenyan women are narrowing gender gaps in other traditionally male fields, too.
Charles Sikulu, public relations officer for the University of Nairobi, Kenya’s largest public university, says more women have been enrolling at the diploma, bachelor’s and master’s levels in its traditionally male-dominated colleges in recent years.
He says that 223 women enrolled in the College of Architecture and Engineering for the 2010-2011 school year, compared with 201 women the previous school year. The College of Biological and Physical Sciences enrolled 312 women this year, compared with 267 last year. Male enrollment is still about triple that of the women in these programs, but Sikulu says the university plans to continue to reduce this gender disparity through its admissions process.
Political Participation Rising
Women’s political participation is also rising. In the most recent 2007 election, 269 women ran for parliamentary seats, according to various reports. That’s a strong gain from 44 in 2002.
Women are now 10 percent of parliament, according to a study by the Kenya chapter of the International Federation of Women Lawyers. This still pales in comparison to Kenya’s neighbors, as women make up more than half of Rwanda’s parliament. Recently, though, a female member of parliament, Martha Karua, launched her presidential bid for the 2012 general elections.
Women are entering street-level forms of male employment as well, such as becoming shoe shiners and bus touts in charge of collecting passengers’ fares.
"Pesa, pesa!" shouts one female bus tout, Agnes Wanjiku, when asking for the customers’ fares. She says she has to feign toughness on the job because some male commuters try to take advantage of her.
"There are some who look at me in the emotional sense rather than professional," she says.
Chasia, in the auto mechanics training program, says her husband suggested she find another way to help pay the bills.
"He said I should look for a more ‘womanly’ job to do," she says. "Hairdressing or being a vegetable vendor were some of his top suggestions."
She says it was especially difficult for her husband’s relatives to accept her career choice.
"But I believed in myself, and I was prepared to forge on, come what it may," she says.
Education Not Always a Barrier
Lindy Wafula is director and founder of Project Africa. She says she started the program to equip women with practical skills–regardless of their education level¬–so they could close the gender gap by venturing into a field that men traditionally dominated.
"I did not go beyond primary school level academically due to lack of fees," says one trainee, Everlyne Wairimu, 27, who sneaks to the training course because her husband disapproves.
Edna Muli, 26, is the only female mechanic employed at the garage. Dressed in greasy dark blue overalls and her gloved hands filled with spanners, or wrenches, she says one of the greatest challenges that she faces is when clients–particularly female customers–doubt her ability to fix their cars.
"Most clients, especially women, prefer male mechanics against me because they think I do not have the ability and capacity to work on their cars," she says as she bends down to fix a vehicle. "It is indeed true that women are their own enemies from what I have experienced so far."
Muli, who has one child, says she has worked at this garage for two years. She says her decision to take up a career in mechanics was partly to challenge this notion that women are "weaklings."
"At first, my husband, who is a cab driver, could not approve of it," she says. "He wanted me to sit at home and ‘be a woman.’"
Jonathan Karanja, Muli’s coworker and mentor, says she has challenged this notion indeed. He praises her professionalism and discipline at work.
"She is committed to her work and has so far yielded good results," he says. "The only setback is that some clients find it as a joke to imagine a woman fixing their vehicles. But it is something that Muli is determined to undo."
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Joanne Wanjala reports for Global Press Institute’s Kenya News Desk. Wanjala, who is from Nairobi, aims to use her writing to speak for the voiceless and marginalized in her community.