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Despite a gender quota in its 2010 constitution, men continue to dominate Kenyan politics. Many women who fight for political participation suffer harassment and even violence, with no apparent consequences for abusers.
Presidential candidate Raila Odinga’s (L) running mate Martha Karua could become the first female vice president
According to Kenya’s constitution, women must make up one-third of elected and appointed organizations. But when Kenyans go to the polls on August 9 to elect a new president and parliament, there won’t be many female candidates to choose from.
Out of more than 16,000 political aspirants, less than 2,000 are women.
“We are rising, but we are not there yet. So I encourage more and more young women to go for elective positions because we can, yes, we can!” Susan Gitari, who is running for Embu county, told DW.
Reaching the goal set by the constitution is fraught with difficulties. According to the global Inter-Parliamentary Union, Kenya has the lowest rate of women in politics in East Africa, with women in 23% of parliamentary seats. Moreover, most of them are dedicated women’s representatives and not mainstream members of parliament.
Male politicians ignored court orders to implement the gender quota by blocking legislation. Then in 2018, politicians stayed away from a parliamentary vote which would have guaranteed women one in three seats in the National Assembly. Since then, no further attempt to promote gender equity in parliament has been made.
Susan Gitari’s sister, Mercy Wambui, who manages her campaign, is hopeful that things are beginning to change.
“We have had very good support from the people who understand her and who have had a brief history about her and know her capability,” Wambui told DW.
Perhaps sensing a shift in the country, one of the current presidential front-runners, Raila Odinga, appointed former justice minister Martha Karua as his running mate. Should Kenyans pick Odinga, Karua could become Kenya’s first female deputy president.
“I want to say this is a moment for the women of Kenya,” Karua said after her nomination in May.
Kenyan women who want to participate in political decision-making face more than just ill will from their peers.
Liz Njue knows all about this. When the Kenyan psychologist who wanted to vie for a county assembly seat arrived to vote in her party primary, opponents physically attacked her.
Njue fled without casting her ballot and lost the race. She reported the attack to the police, but there were no consequences.
“People are saying ‘we want women in politics, we want more women to get these political seats’. But how are they going to get them if they are humiliated?” said 39-year-old Njue, who had her hair pulled and her clothes torn in the attack.
Njue is one of the dozens of female candidates who have been physically assaulted while campaigning for the August 9 elections, according to the Kenya Women Parliamentary Association, KEWOPA.
Gender violence in Kenya is not confined to politics. According to UN Women, almost half of all Kenyan women have been beaten or sexually assaulted by their partners. In addition, 23% were child brides.
Women exposed to public scrutiny are often targeted for abuse by strangers. But many suspect political opponents are behind the abuse.
Mary Mugure, a former sex worker, received threatening phone calls and text messages while running for a county assembly this year.
In November, two men on a motorbike attacked her on the street. “It was just to intimidate me, to make me step down,” said Mugure, who continued campaigning but lost the nomination.
Mary Mugure was attacked by two men while on the campaign trail
Besides physical attacks, abusers also prefer to use social media. For example, when Kenyan politician Esther Passaris, who represents Nairobi County, posted a tribute to her late father, trolls heaped abuse on her.
KEWOPA program coordinator Mercy Mwangi said women lawmakers had reported more online abuse ahead of the vote, including sexism, misogyny, and humiliating imagery.
“It’s mainly a lot of sexualizing, insulting them for doing things like dancing at a political rally, zooming in on a picture of their breasts or legs, or body shaming them,” Mwangi said.
A growing number of Kenyan men are joining the chorus of voices warning of dire consequences.
“If no efforts are put in place to better protect women politicians online, we will see more women being put off politics,” said Robert Wanjala, program officer at Article 19, which promotes freedom of expression.
“Ultimately, we will fail to be a truly democratic country as the voices of women will be missing,” he said.
Sky FM and Radio Lake Victoria are the first radio stations in Kenya to commit to offering equal opportunities to men and women in their programming. “If you include both sexes, you get the best content,” says Sky FM presenter Irene Olwande (left). “We all benefit from cooperating on a level playing field,” says Sky FM newsreader Collins Dudi (center).
Irene Olwande (left) has to arrive on time for her broadcasts. As a mother, this can sometimes be a challenge. “Children can be demanding. Sometimes they did not sleep well or you have to go to the doctor with them or they have an important appointment at school,” says Olwande. Given the flexible working hours, Irene can now swap her shifts with colleagues. Of course this also goes for fathers.
In Kenya, looking after small children is mostly a woman’s responsibility, usually mothers or close female relatives. This can be a problem for well-educated women wanting to work outside the home. The new gender policies offer maternity leave and also parental leave for fathers. “I am very happy that I can look after my child without jeopardizing my job,” says Irene Olwande.
Journalist Irene Olwande is allowed to bring her baby to the station when she has no other option. “Of course this is a challenge but it is definitely better than not having my child looked after,” she says. Irene’s colleagues and her boss understand the challenges of being a young mother. There is even a mother-child room for breastfeeding.
The broadcasters’ gender policies have also led to gender equal recruitment and training policies as well as equal pay for women and men. “The mix in the team makes the work exciting. We have different perspectives but we come together for great results,” says Olwande.
DW Akademie is working with 13 radio stations in Kenya to implement gender policies. Jael Lieta is the only female station manager. “As a woman you often have it twice as hard in a leadership position. But every effort is all the more rewarding when, in the end, your work gets results and you are recognized for this,” says Lieta. She is also a successful trainer and mentor.
Zero-tolerance for sexual assault or harassment in the workplace is also a part of the gender policies. The employers must commit to ensuring the safety of their employees, especially for those working the late shift. “We walk home together after work. Moving in a group offers us security,” says Beryl Ouma, an accountant at Sky FM.
With the support of DW Akademie, Sky FM and Radio Lake Victoria have not only developed gender policies but also publicly adopted them. Three more radio stations in Kenya followed their example. These stations have realized that they need women to make good programs and they can only get them if women have the same rights and career opportunities as their male counterparts.
Author: Ole Tangen Jr, Jutta vom Hofe
Felix Maringa contributed to this article
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