“Everyone deserves a chance in life”

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Jackline Chemtai is passionately committed to opportunities for women and girls. The International Labour Organization’s Social Finance Facility recently selected her for a fellowship program. That means we are temporarily losing Jackline as one of our Diversity & Inclusion Champions, as well as an Actuarial Climate Risk Analyst. We caught up with her just before she moved…

Syngenta Foundation (SFSA): Your main motivation for becoming a D&I Champion was your background. What can you tell us about your early life?
Jackline Chemtai:
I grew up in a remote part of West Pokot*, into one of the most marginalized communities in Kenya. I come from a family of eight sisters and two brothers. I sometimes joke that my family is a community of its own!

What challenges did you and your sisters face growing up?
In West Pokot, gender inequality is still a major challenge. A girl child’s potential success is marred by Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and early marriage. Women are confined to household chores and usually not involved in decision-making. Growing up, I saw a lot of girls’ dreams vanish into thin air. Strangely, once you’ve undergone FGM, you supposedly graduate to womanhood. That is a ticket for men to fight over you! How ridiculous.

How did your background affect your view of these challenges?
I count myself lucky. Our father was serious about education for girls and protected us from societal norms. My sisters and I worked hard and competed equally with the boys. We outshone them academically, and now here we are! Every time I visit home and see my friends from childhood struggling with life, it breaks my heart. Their future was chosen for them, and they had no one to protect and cheer them on.

What do you bring to your role as a Diversity & Inclusion Champion?
The challenges I faced have made me the vocal woman I am today. I want to use that voice to advocate for the rights of girls, women, and minority communities. Everyone deserves a proper chance in life! Growing up, I was supported. That is what I would like to offer to other girls and women from marginalized communities like mine.

Your vision is a transformed society with no gender bias. In our 2020 discussion here, you cited three areas in which Kenya most needs to improve: land ownership, politics, and the marginalization of certain ethnic groups. What signs of improvement do you see already?
Kenya is working on ensuring equal allocation of resources to the counties. The 2021 Division of Revenue Act allocated the county governments an equitable share of KES 370 billion in 2021/2022. That is an increase of KES 53.5 billion over the previous year.  

The country is also making progress on gender representation in Parliament. There are now special seats for women. A year ago, Kenya appointed its first female Chief Justice. That shows we’re headed in the right direction. However, there is still a lot to be done to ensure that women, youth, and people with disabilities really have a seat at the table’.

So, what should be at the top of the list for the election winner?
Oh, yeah, it is an election year in Kenya! Before I say what should head the list, my hope is that women will run for the top seats and that other women will support them. But as for priorities: Kenya is a developing country and much needs to be done to build economic growth. Being a girl from a marginalized pastoral community, I would love to see the winner at least work towards ensuring that as few people as possible go hungry. I would like there to be zero hunger, but that is currently close to impossible.

At SFSA, you believe we most need to improve gender inclusion. In our earlier interview, you looked forward to a better balance. What movement have you seen there as a D&I Champion?
Let me start with the exciting news that we recently had – the appointment of the first-ever female SFSA regional director! I was so elated when I heard the news. No change is ever too late, especially when it is for the best.

What should we improve next?
There is still more to be done on female representation, both in leadership and teams. The ratio of women to men is still about 1:2. This is an improvement, but we shouldn’t turn a blind eye until a balance is achieved.

The Kenyan team recently started working with Sightsavers to improve opportunities for people with disabilities. That’s an important aspect of D&I, but the ‘big numbers’ are related to gender. How can organizations like our best tackle issues like disability without getting distracted from the major goal of gender equality?
Let’s remember what the Harvard Business Review reported in 2020. Although 90 percent of companies claim to prioritize diversity, only four percent consider disability in those initiatives. What’s more, only a small subset truly serves customers with disabilities. Just let that sink in! As we focus on achieving gender equality, let's not forget people with disabilities. Women with disability suffer double discrimination. But disability doesn’t mean inability. Organizations need to consider all aspects of diversity, not only gender.

An often-neglected aspect of both “D” and “I” is language*. What can multilingual Kenya teach other countries and organizations here?
We should all be one people and one Kenya. We’re one of many polyglot countries worldwide. Along with languages come cultural differences. When you appreciate these differences, you see the bigger picture: that despite our differences, we are, indeed, one people and there’s always something to learn from each language and community.

And how do you think Kenya itself could improve?
As a country, we need to stop using our tribal lines to foment hate. We should instead appreciate and embrace our differences because that’s what makes us unique. National unity need not be at the expense of cultural diversity.

The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Social Finance Facility is sponsoring the fellowship program which you will shortly be joining. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
The program is part of the ILO Research and Innovation initiative. It provides a unique opportunity for professionals to gain hands-on experience in impact insurance and learn to adapt their expertise to the low-income market. As a Fellow, I’ll be based in Rwanda and hosted by Radiant where I will be supporting the design, development, and implementation of their national agricultural insurance scheme in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources.

What are your hopes for D&I improvements through the ILO?
We all recognize ILO’s mandate to set labor standards, develop policies, and devise programs promoting decent work for all women and men. They are also doing a lot of work in closing the gap on women's financial inclusion – a topic that is dear to me.

How would you most like to get involved?
I would love to learn how the ILO is tackling women's financial inclusion, and possibly get involved myself. I would also like to grasp further aspects of its agenda to tackle gender inequality. ILO releases a lot of articles every month. Given the opportunity, I would be honored to contribute to these – not only on matters of inclusive insurance but also on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

*West Pokot was one of the first counties in which our Foundation helped radio stations to provide agricultural advice to smallholders in their local languages.