Charity Ngilu

NAIROBI, Kenya (WOMENSENEWS)–Parliamentary candidate Yvonne Khamati was smiling and upbeat as she rallied some 3,000 of her supporters gathered on a playground here to vote today, but the blood-soiled dressings on her forehead and arm spoke of the darker side of this year’s campaign season.

The night before, Khamati was beaten up. Though no one has been arrested or charged, Khamati accused supporters of one of her rivalsof the assault.

“The threat had been made on me since early October. The aspirant had been threatening to undress me in public if I did not step down for him, but I have resisted,” said Khamati, 21, who hopes to represent the Makadara constituency of Nairobi in Parliament. “I fear the threat itself more than the actual act.”

Violence such as the Nov. 24 attack on Khamati has not been unique this election year. In early December, 200 women awaiting an appearance by a candidate for the Langata constituency of Nairobi were assaulted by a gang of youths from the opposition. Eight days after that attack, parliamentary candidate Lydia Kimani from Manyatta, in Eastern Kenya, was attacked on the campaign trail, along with her children. The following day, a convoy carrying parliamentary candidate Beth Mugo was stoned as she campaigned in her constituency of Dagoretti, part of Nairobi.

For women, today’s general election presents the best opportunity to bridge the ever-growing gap between male and female representation in government. Constitutional term limits are forcing longtime President Daniel arap Moi to retire after holding the post for nearly 25 years. The election also ends 39 years of the Kenya African National Union government, known as KANU, which has controlled the presidency since Kenya became independent from Britain in 1963, and which women have accused of being insensitive to their needs. For these reasons, watchdogs say the election offers the best chance for a multi-party system–one that includes women–to emerge.

But the attacks, though not limited to female candidates, are just one of the obstacles threatening to derail women seeking political office. Though violence against women candidates has been blamed on dirty campaigning aimed at forcing them out, the women have refused to quit.

At the urging of women’s lobby groups and political parties, the Electoral Commission of Kenya has warned voters not to engage in elections violence, and Candidate Mugo has urged the commission to give more protection to women running for office. A special police force to curb any violence has also been trained. Officials hope that these measures, together with the condemnation of violence and voter bribery by Kenya’s political parties, and an aggressive media campaign urging citizens to vote, will encourage women to turn out in large numbers.

Approval of Constitutional Changes a Core Issue

On the campaign trail, women leaders have demanded that Kenyan legislators vote on an amended constitution that was abandoned at its final stage after Parliament was dissolved in November. That constitution would require 30 percent of Kenya’s parliament to be women. It also would allow everyone, regardless of gender, to own property–just one of a list of benefits women say is good for them.

“We have been demanding this new constitution for a decade. President Daniel Moi promised that we will have it before the 1992 and 1997 elections, but he failed to do so,” says Charity Ngilu, an aspiring member of Parliament from Kitui Central in Eastern Kenya. “The next government must give us the constitution in its first 100 days.”

In October, Ngilu dropped her presidential bid to support Mwai Kabaki, the sole presidential candidate for the National Alliance Rainbow Coalition-NARC, the leading opposition coalition. (Coalitions and mergers are a new development in Kenyan politics. The country entered into multi-party politics in 1991 through a constitutional amendment, but KANU has used its control over provincial administrations, the state media and the police to maintain its power.) Sources said Ngilu stepped aside only after assurances that women would win seats in Parliament in exchange for supporting men.

In 1997, Ngilu ran against incumbent President Moi in that year’s presidential elections. She placed fifth out of a crowd of 15 candidates, demonstrating that a woman could run a competitive political campaign.

“Women must stop the culture of subservience to male contenders and mount aggressive campaigns,” Ngilu says. Hers is a view held by many other women leaders in Kenya, who have been calling for equitable distribution of services for women, quality health care–especially for those affected by HIV/AIDS–free primary education for children and affirmative action to equalize opportunities for the sexes.

“It is imperative that women be included in the decision-making process of all parties. They have to be involved in–at the time of political transition–either in setting campaign agendas or power-sharing mechanisms,” says Orie Maduli, who hopes to represent Nairobi’s Embakasi constituency in Parliament.

Kenya Has Poor Record of Female Representation in Parliament

Women parliamentarians in Kenya have never exceeded 10 in the country’s history. In the last assembly, only nine out of 220 members were women.

Kenya compares poorly with the parliaments of its neighbors Uganda (75 women out of 304 members) and Tanzania, (61 women out of 274 members of Parliament). In its most recent report in September, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international union of parliamentarians that monitors the participation of women in government, ranked Kenya 109th out of 122 countries for percentage of women parliamentarians. In Africa, only Nigeria, Swaziland, Egypt, Niger and Djibouti have a smaller percentage of women in their parliaments.

Although 130 women had declared their interest in running for Parliament this year, only 44 ultimately did.

Wasye Musyoni, coordinator of the National Agenda for Peace for the National Christian Council of Kenya, said the new coalitions had proved harmful to women’s campaigns.

“National interest, which the parties say they are uniting for, may mean that other issues as that of women are easily forgotten,” Musyoni says. “I did not see any organized lobbying by the women aspirants,” she adds.

Behind the scenes, however, women leaders have been negotiating intensely with the new parties. They say the talks will put women at the center of the political power game, ultimately securing them more seats in Parliament and pushing forward legislation that will benefit women.

“We are lobbying systematically, but that may not be enough. We have to fight for it. We are also encouraged that parties are beginning to take seriously women’s agendas,” said Betty Tett, a two-time parliamentary candidate.

Lack of funds remains a major hindrance to women’s quest for leadership in Kenya.

“They lack the resources to compete with the incumbent, who are usually ahead after earning a parliamentary salary for five years,” says Anne Nyabera, a gender coordinator with the Heinrich Boll Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that works on behalf of women in East Africa.

An effective campaign may cost a parliamentary candidate as much as $60,000–far more than most Kenyan women have or could raise.

“It takes a lot of money and convincing for people to go to the polling station. I can’t say I have the money, but I am trusting in God,” says Caroline Ng’ang’a, a parliamentary aspirant in Lari, a rural constituency.

Fredrick Nzwili is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

For more information:

Amnesty International–“Kenya: Tension rises in advance
of polls as all sides are involved in political violence”:

Women’s Environment and Development Organization–
“Kenya: The Government, the Opposition and the Women”: