More Kenyan women are defying cultural barriers to run for political office

With less than two weeks to the highly anticipated general elections, Kenya has seen a surge in the number of women who are competing for various political seats.

They have thrown beautiful hats into the various rings ready to battle it out and not just sit pretty in the literal sense of the word and wait to be given the positions on a silver platter.

Numerically speaking, a total of nine women are competing for Governorship, 115 as members of the National Assembly, 25 as senators’ and 261 as members of the County Assemblies. This is a significant increase from the period between 2007 and 2013 when there was only a 9.8 per cent to 19 per cent increase.

The ability of Kenyan women to lead should not be questioned and did not start the other day as history has recorded the likes of Chief -Wangu wa Makeri- (1901-1909), who decided to go against societal norms and went for the top position of that time.

Her reign was said to be peaceful and full of developments. Women also played a big role in the liberation of the country from colonial rule between the 1940s and 1950s, which is clear evidence that they are not as weak as people believe them to be in normal circumstances.

In 1969 Kenya got her first female Member of Parliament Hon, Grace Onyango who beat ten other candidates to the seat. Grace also held positions like the first woman Assistant Commissioner of the Girl Guide Association and Chair of Child Welfare Society, Kisumu District.

She was also the councilor of Kisumu Central Ward where she campaigned for seats left by deceased and retired men to be offered to their wives. Her by-laws as mayor of Kisumu were also people-friendly. She was able to achieve all these while taking discrimination head on as the men often told her that it was “no place for women.”

Amb. Prof. Maria Nzomo of the Institute of Diplomacy & International Studies at the University of Nairobi says that in the first four decades of post-colonial rule, progress towards women’s access to formal political leadership positions has been slow due to a combination of structural obstacles.

These obstacles include: i) deeply embedded patriarchal socio-cultural values; ii) undemocratic institutions and policy frameworks and iii) low levels of civic and gender awareness. Due to the constricted formal political space, most women’s political engagement operated outside the State, with minimal connection or support from the largely patriarchal State.

Let us look at some of the cultural barriers in the way of women leadership,

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Photo Courtesy of Institute of war and Reporting

annot be the Head

In most cultures, the men have the last say in everything are the head of the families and the house. This means that women had to be subordinate to them in the houses, which is ok as per the teachings on marriage. However, this should not stop anyone from clamoring for a leadership position.

So many women have had successful marital life, juggled the demands of motherhood and went on to become the best MPs in Kenya. Such MPs include Charity Ngilu, Millie Mabona, Grace Onyango, Grace Ogot, Wavinya Ndeti and more recently the likes of Sabina Chege and so on.

It is actually possible to be both. Their husbands do not have a problem to let their women shine and it has not threatened their position in the homes.

Women are like Children

In a heated debate over the current affairs of our country, a man told me that a woman cannot tell him anything about politics. This, despite us having gone through the same education system, living in the same country and having access to the same media platforms.

When women leaders vie for positions they come across such utterances that are meant to belittle them and make them feel like children who should just wait to be lectured.

In the past, a man would meet another man and ask him so who have you left at home and the second man would answer just the children even if his wife was at home. Coming from such a background, men would not accept to be led by any woman.

Too Young

A young woman by the name of Suzanne Lengewa caused a social media buzz when she joined Jubilee bigwig and aspirant for Nairobi senators position Johnson Sakaja and seasoned city lawyer Edwin among others for a debate held last week at the Daystar University.

The beauty with brains 23-year-old gave an outstanding performance where she eloquently offered her insights on the targeted position as well as the current affairs.

She is among the youngest candidates in the country and most people pointed out as a reason for not taking her seriously. The said she is barely out of her teens and would give her ten more years to take her seriously which was quite unfortunate. On the other hand, there are those who are quite convinced that she will do the job perfectly.

“I am vying to be the senator of Nairobi because I do not want to watch from the sidelines anymore. We are really underestimated as young people, so I want to inspire young people that we need to stop limiting ourselves on what we can achieve,” she said of her candidature.

Married in a new place

If you thought getting votes in your area is difficult, then you have not thought of getting votes where you are married. This is regardless of whether it is in the next village or if you are married into another tribe.

Your first crime in this regard will be that you are a woman and the second you are an outsider and hence you do not know their norms and way of life. However, despite such obstacles, Homa Bay County Women Representative Gladys Wanga was able to get a seat where she was married and not her place of birth.

There is also the issue of being married in one area and you are still representing people of your place of birth. It is quite difficult as you are seen to belong to another place or tribe but Hon. Cecily Mbarire is the MP for Runjeyes and her husband comes from Teso. The same can be said for Dr. Joyce Laboso who is the Sotik MP but is married to a Luo.

Marital Status

To be fair, men face discrimination in this regard as well because if you do not have a wife and seemingly stable family it is hard for people to take you seriously.

However, women suffer the same problem on a higher level and are branded names such as prostitutes. Women like Martha Karua who is the iron lady of Kenyan politics and the late Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai were able to clinch the Gichugu and Tetu parliamentary seats (respectively) comfortably even though they do not have husbands. Nominated Senator Joy Gwendo was also unmarried when she was nominated.

Elders have the Ultimate Say

In her narration to UN women organization, Abdia Gole, 33, was ridiculed when she announced her intention to run for the Gorbo Ward, Marsabit County, in Northern Kenya.

To add salt to injury, the elders disapproved of the move as well and in such communities elders have the last say in such matters. They would rather she stayed at home and took care of her family but the young woman is having none of it.

“I am going door to door, campaigning to urge women and youth to vote for me. Our time is now or never,” says Gole.

Adan Wako, head of Community Initiative Facilitation and Assistance (CIFA Kenya), UN Women’s partner working to expand women’s leadership, feels that it’s important to start with changing the hearts and minds of the Council of Elders.

“This will help break the barriers that women in these communities have experienced over the years, relegating them to second class citizens in their own country. It is time to celebrate women leaders who are paving the way for an inclusive society where future generations will embrace women’s leadership.

Kenya’s 2010 Constitution guaranteed equal rights and opportunities for women in the political, social and economic spheres through affirmative action. However, a gender audit supported by UN Women in 2016 found that in practice, women still faced persistent institutional barriers to political participation and not many women were being nominated or elected within the political parties.

Based on the findings, the Political Parties Bill was passed, stipulating that no more than two-thirds of elected or appointed candidates on a party list would be of the same gender.

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