By Mwendwa Chuma
As far as women’s liberation goes in Kenya, one recent event stands out boldly, especially given our patriarchal political space: the ouster of William Kabogo, the current Kiambu Governor, during the Jubilee Party primaries. It was an event that in and of itself begs for attention as it was one in which one from the moneyed class was felled by a, relatively speaking, financially less endowed candidate, one Ferdinand “Baba Yao” Waititu, the current MP for Kabete Constituency.
This was arguably a case of Kabogo losing rather than Waititu winning the coveted ticket. More important, however, which is also the intention of this article, is to highlight the role played by women voters in the ouster of Governor Kabogo. It was reported widely that the women voters in Kiambu voted almost to a woman to send the incumbent packing, because of slights against women and girls during his tenure as the county boss. In the context of women exercising their franchise, this was a huge achievement anyway you look at it, and it demonstrates what can be achieved by women if they pull together. They could not only have more political clout but very possibly vote one of their own as president.
I do not hold the view that women are their own enemies in this quest for political equality; rather that the well-known divide and rule policy has been utilised with ruthlessness by the powers that be. The media is also a co-conspirator in this insidious attack to the possible unity of purpose of women in their fight for equality. The shadow operators have convinced the majority of women that any one of their numbers who vies for a political seat against men is acting “like a man”, and the attacks have ranged from the personal to economic sabotage, with aspiring candidates losing jobs for going against the political grain. This narrative, of course, is as old as time itself, considering that it has shown its ever-shifting face since Biblical times when women of note were discriminated against in their quest to be recognised as contributors, alongside men.
Here at home, women gunning for political posts have had to “act like men” to compete against men for political and, indeed, elective seats. Therein, I submit, lies the problem. When we see a mother acting in the most brazen way in an attempt to get a party ticket, as we saw with Bishop Margaret Wanjiru, then the public is taken aback. The malodorous attack by Millie Odhiambo on the person of Uhuru Kenyatta also falls in the same category. While they have every right to act as nastily as they choose, such sideshows are latched on by people to justify their opposition to having women in positions of leadership. It is a distraction that women do not need as they make strides into the upper echelons of political power.
I posit that women bring something unique into the political discourse. One of my favourite politicians across the gender divide is Beatrice Elachi, who, in every engagement, combines political acumen and womanly poise to deliver a strong argument for the necessity of having more women in the political space. Two borders away in Rwanda, women dominate Parliament with a whopping 64% of MPs being women, the highest number of women legislators anywhere in the world. It is worthy of note that President Paul Kagame has led the campaign for increased women representation from the front, and the results are clear for anyone to see.
It takes real commitment to deliver on this constitutional aspiration and we have not seen that yet in this country, but also what passes for the women’s liberation movement needs clarity of purpose. The issues affecting women can only be best dealt with by women themselves. This has informed the agitation for political inclusion in other jurisdictions. Issues like maternal mortality, domestic violence, girl child education, early marriages etc. are, by their very nature, gender sensitive. Women politicians must learn to craft their strategy around those issues and appeal to what is similar to draw women to vote for them.
Unfortunately, our women politicians have resorted to just throwing in their hats, as it were, without properly thought-out manifestos. To be a politician for its own sake, as most of them do right now, alienates the majority of voters from casting their votes in favour of women candidates.
I remember former MP for Elgeyo Marakwet, Jebii Kilimo, and her campaign against female genital mutilation, which thrust both her and the retrogressive cultural practice into the national limelight. Supreme Court Judge Njoki Ndung’u is also remembered for her contribution to our body of laws with the Sexual Offences Act, which she successfully dragged from the murky shadows into national prominence – an issue that was primarily unique to women but whose consequences reached across the gender divide. One could argue that the work she did with the Sexual Offences Act is what, inter alia, won her the Supreme Court nod.
More recently Senator Elachi has brought to the floor of the Senate the Food Security Bill, which is a critical piece of legislation if this country is to deal conclusively with the matter of food insecurity and the peculiar challenges it poses to the overall security of this nation. Even more recently is the Gender Parity Bill by another nominated senator, Judith Sijeny, which seeks to implement the two-thirds gender rule, provided for in the Constitution. Senator Elizabeth Ongoro has also sponsored the Care and Protection of Child Bill, which seeks to protect pregnant girls from being denied an education on account of their pregnancy.
Senator Martha Wangari recently became the first woman senator to have a Bill she had sponsored signed into law with the County Government (Amendment) Bill 2016 that sought to have nominated MCAs sworn into office before the transaction of any business in the County assemblies. She has also sponsored an amendment to the Employment Act that seeks to have adoptive mothers given ninety days maternal leave just like biological mothers. These are all vitally important legislations that ordinarily should receive the support of all legislators, but all strides made are dead on arrival because of the patriarchal nature of our politics. The fact that all these pieces of legislation were sponsored by women legislators gives an indication of the calibre of leaders women make and the paucity of our debates because of the low numbers in both houses of Parliament.
In Kenya, the feminist movement took root initially as a result of the Kennedy airlifts to the United States of America organised in the 50’s and 60’s by the late Tom Mboya, and the Western education received in the UK. Those who formed the first batch of educated native Kenyan women included the late Nobel laureate Dr Wangari Maathai, Professor Micere Mugo, Professor Julia Ojiambo, Grace Ogot and Dr Eunice Kiereini, among others. Anyone with an appreciation of the history of Kenyan politics and socio-economic sphere knows the pivotal role played by these ladies to women empowerment, as well as to the advancement of our political independence as well as other roles in academia and research.
The movement was acknowledged formally in 1995 during the Fourth World Conference on Women, popularly known as the Beijing Conference, which discussed various issues with the stated objective of mainstreaming what until then had been classified as women issues. It was, arguably, the first time the feminist agenda gained national prominence in Kenya and where the general population had an opportunity to interrogate the issues raised at the Conference, and which, by logical extension, affected half the population of the country.
I am certain that in the future, as we strive to perfect our democracy, there will be many great women leaders, not just advancing the cause of their gender but that of all Kenyans. And I look forward to the laying of a foundation that will promise not just complete inclusivity but also assure us of the certainty of a woman president in the House on the Hill.