Jacqueline Adhiambo Oduol

NAIROBI, Kenya (WOMENSENEWS)–It is Saturday morning in the Busia District of Western Kenya and Josephine Wandago, backed by a row of provincial administrators, is speaking out.

Wandago, program officer with the Nairobi-based League of Kenya Women Voters, faces over 1,500 villagers, young and old, to argue against the cultural prejudices that hamper female politicians.

“Leadership is not a function of gender,” Wandago says. “It is based on one’s track record in contributing to the welfare of the people and community development.”

In December Kenyans will elect a new president, 210 members of parliament and over 3,000 civic leaders.

This time, more women than ever are showing an interest in running, in part because of nationwide campaigns orchestrated by a wide spectrum of organizations aimed at increasing women’s political presence and power.

By early May, 500 women–almost all non-incumbents–were eyeing parliament seats, according to the Kenya Women’s Political Caucus and other human rights groups in Nairobi.

But Kenyan elections have been riddled by political violence since the end of single party rule in 1992, which makes campaigning–daunting for other reasons as well–particularly tough for women.

Wandago says that provincial administrators, who have a history of siding with incumbents, hold the key to peaceful and lawful elections.

“They could decide to prevent violence during campaigns and make it easier for a prospective candidate from the security they provide,” she says, “or decide to turn a blind eye and allow violent goons to have a field day and disorganize a candidate’s campaigns.”

In nine general elections since independence in 1963 few women have gotten past the party nomination stage to actual seats in government.

Women hold only 9 percent of the 222 seats in parliament and many here say that can in part be explained by the violent attacks among rival politicians.

Hooligans and Disruptions

Violence is a generalized problem for Kenya, which in July witnessed a wave of murders in Nairobi that drew international headlines.

Wandago says some of the country’s electoral violence is aimed at intimidating women. She says incumbents have been known to hire hooligans or direct regional security units to disrupt education and awareness sessions aimed at women.

In previous elections female politicians and female crowds have been assaulted by male gangs.

When a woman declares an interest in political leadership, says Jacqueline Adhiambo Oduol, a candidate for the Alego-Usonga parliamentary seat in Western Kenya, she must often endure violence and name-calling, often in the presence of her husband, son or brother and intended to embarrass these relatives.

“The first thing is to make her look ridiculous and trivial. She is just a woman who would be better invisible,” says Oduol, a lecturer at the United States International University-Africa in Nairobi.

“She is girded with shame and guilt. People wonder who will be taking care of her husband and children while she is attending to her political roles. They try to make her appear insensitive to her family’s needs; never mind her qualities and capacities,” she says.

Changing the Rules

Leading gender activists, female university dons and former female members of parliament and civic leaders are now trying to change those negative conditions.

In January they began touring the country’s colleges and markets to engage people in the push to help nominate more women. They are urging campaigns to stop politicians from bribing voters with salt or a kilogram of sugar and hiring goons to heckle and beat opponents.

The nongovernmental Institute for Education in Democracy and about 30 other local groups are arranging tours across the country to promote ballot secrecy in marginalized districts where men frequently demand their wives’ voting cards and cast ballots on their behalf.

Kenya’s constitution allows every native-born citizen to vie for any public office without hindrance. However, Kenya does not set aside a quota of seats in parliament seats for women and an effort to do so this year lost steam before it even came to a vote. Nor does Kenya allow state financing of political parties.

By contrast, neighboring Rwanda and Tanzania have tied state financing to party quotas for female candidates. Parliament member Ruth Oniang’o says this has driven up women’s party leadership and resulted in higher numbers of female parliamentarians.

Compared to Kenya’s 9 percent, Burundi’s parliament is 32 percent female; Tanzania and Uganda both have 30 percent; and Rwanda has 49 percent, the highest in the world.

The Kenyan government this week issued a short-lived proposal to set aside 50 parliament seats for women, but opposition leaders dismissed it as a ploy to gain female votes. It is not likely to be implemented soon, and some members of parliament are pushing to place the idea before Kenya’s voters as a constitutional amendment.

Working Against Women’s Interests

“Being in the party is very important,” says Ida Odinga, chair of the League of Kenya Women Voters, who is married to a leading opposition member of parliament and presidential candidate, Raila Odinga. “To fight and win elections, you need to understand and be understood in the party. Most women sit aside on party matters and only show up during elections expecting material and other forms of support from men. It works against them.”

Pamela Baraza, a journalist and an aspirant for the Mumias parliament seat, raises another major barrier facing female politicians.

“Most Kenyan communities still regard women as property. This is perpetuated by exclusion of women from inheriting their father’s property and bride-price exchanges.”

Voters, she says, are not inclined to confer leadership on people who are owned.

As a result few rural people–including rural women–take local female candidates seriously.

The Nairobi-based Center for Multiparty Democracy and the League of Kenya Women Voters are both trying to tackle these issues.

The center hosts a Web site designed to match political parties with qualified female candidates, whose resumes, photos, visions, missions and agendas are displayed. To be included, a woman has to demonstrate she can run a campaign and have prior political campaign experience and the ability to articulate issues affecting the constituency.

The groups also train female political hopefuls on media engagement with sessions on handling press interviews, writing advertisements and using posters, billboards and handbills. The cost of each training workshop ranges from $5,000 to $20,000; enough to rent a hall, produce training materials and provide transportation and facilitators. The sessions usually attract dozens of female candidates, said Pamela Mburia, executive director of the Nairobi-based Association of Media Women in Kenya.

The League of Kenya Women Voters is working with rural female voters through workshops, radio shows and public meetings to explain the voting process and methods for evaluating a candidate.

The group has also bought 30 minutes of air time twice a week on Kenya’s leading public television station, the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, to promote respect for female candidates and voting rights.

One of the ads runs in the print and broadcast media every Sunday, urging women to only surrender their ballot on election day and to the ballot box.

“Your vote is your voice,” the ads say.

Henry Neondo is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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For more information:

Center for Multiparty Democracy, Political Power to the Women is Power to the People:

The League of Kenya Women Voters:

Kenya Women’s Political Caucus:

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