Unbounded ambition: Women candidates speak of drive

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Nyeri senatorial candidate Priscilla Nyokabi (Jubilee) addresses wananchi during Azimio la Umoja campaign rally at Kabiruini showground in Nyeri town.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Compared to neighbouring countries of Rwanda and Tanzania, Kenya still lags behind in the number of women holding elective seats.
  • According to the 2021 World Bank collection of development indicators, over 60 per cent of the seats in Rwanda's parliament were held by women as of 2020.

She never thought she would turn into a firebrand politician and the fact that she got involved in an accident that maimed her, only worsened her prospects in Kenya’s cut-throat politics.

Still, nominated MP Dennitah Ghati has defied the odds, rising through the political ranks to be a force in Migori County. She has cut a niche for herself as warrior championing the rights of people living with disabilities (PWDs) in the National Assembly since 2017.

Just two months ago, she floored her opponents and won in a hotly contested Orange Democratic Movement nomination to fly the party’s flag as woman representative candidate in the August General Election. She admits that politics has never been a bed of roses for women, and it is even worse for PWDs.

“Politics where a man is contesting against a woman is extremely difficult... There are only 47 seats given as elective woman rep seats, but there are so many women, yet these are the only affirmative action seats.”

Challenges

Male politicians, Ms Ghati explains, not only have more financial resources but also employ all sorts of cultural stereotypes that favour male leadership. At times, they urge their supporters that women “belong in the kitchen”, a subliminal cultural phrase implying women should be subservient to men and focus on domestic affairs. Also, they can decide which candidate to bankroll, effectively disadvantaging whomever they believe is a threat to their business or political interests, she says.

While the Constitution requires that no more than two thirds of the members in the National Assembly or the Senate be of the same gender, this has not been attained. In 2017, the High Court ruled that the two houses had failed to perform their constitutional obligation. In addition to the 47 designated woman representatives, only 23 women were elected during the last general election as constituency representatives, with five others being nominated to represent special interest groups. This resulted in a total of 75 women, translating into 21 per cent of members.

Compared to neighbouring countries of Rwanda and Tanzania, Kenya still lags behind in the number of women holding elective seats. According to the 2021 World Bank collection of development indicators, over 60 per cent of the seats in Rwanda's parliament were held by women as of 2020. The country had the strongest female participation in politics in Africa. This performance was boosted by their 2003 constitution, which implemented a gender quota in elective positions. Additionally, political parties adopted their own voluntary quotas for female candidates.

The trend is also impressive in Tanzania where women held 36.7 per cent of the seats in parliament after the 2020 elections. This was due to the implementation of a gender quota that has advanced female representation.

Ray of hope

In Kenya, however, the recent nomination of women by different political parties fills the lawmaker with hope. She particularly cites the nomination of Narc-Kenya party leader Martha Karua as the presidential running mate in a major coalition party—Azimio la Umoja One Kenya—by presidential candidate Raila Odinga. “Kenyans now know that leadership belongs to both men and women. Yes, we are still struggling, but the picking of Ms Karua is a positive gesture.”

Moving in a wheelchair for the past six years has taught Ms Ghati several sad truths. Many challenges beset her political journey; she has had to redouble her efforts to win her constituents’ hearts. Her opponents have tagged her very demeaning names on account of her condition. She also felt the difference when she came back to politics with a disability after an accident. The people’s perception of her changed, she says.

“Disability and active politics do not go together. People do not expect you to have a disability with your brain intact, even when you are the best. I have pushed for my space. The people of Migori see my value, I have a very sharp brain and they know it.”

She notes that accessibility problems in some places and limited mobility persist and she has had to adjust her vehicles’ seats to fit her wheelchair and have someone push her while campaigning. However, she counts herself lucky to have the maximum support of her political party.

“That decision by the party (ODM) to support me and have trust in people with disabilities to contest in competitive seats is an indication of its will to ensure our participation in politics. Without the support, it becomes very difficult to join politics.”

Currently, the legislator runs a female genital mutilation rescue centre that she built in Kuria East, where locals still practise this outlawed cultural rite. One of her priorities, if elected, will be continuing the programme and encouraging her community to abandon the harmful practice. She also plans to ensure the people of Migori have piped water, improved healthcare, education and more jobs. She further seeks to nurture talents and establish a kitty for the elderly and PWDs.

She advises women and PWDs wishing to join politics to actively participate in their party’s activities, confidently throw themselves into the political ring, and fight for their space. “You must learn the game. Women have it rough, but if I can make it to where I have with my disability, [you, too, can do it]; nothing is too difficult for women. Women must get out there and fight for their space, politics is not for the faint-hearted.”

Nyeri senatorial race

Several hundred kilometres away in Nyeri County, another female candidate, who will fly the Jubilee Party’s banner in the senatorial race, calmly plans her campaigns. As the county’s woman representative from 2013 to 2017, Priscilla Nyokabi believes she is well acquainted with the issues of health, agriculture, water, education and unemployment, especially those that affect women and the youth.

Having not won a seat in 2017, Ms Nyokabi was appointed to the National Gender Equality Commission (NGEC). She hopes to leverage her networks to develop a formula on revenue allocation to ensure women, youths, people with disabilities and the elderly are funded well.

Ms Nyokabi, an experienced constitutional and human rights lawyer, has never shied away from calling out sexual and gender-based violence. She is so bold she once shocked the nation when she said sexual harassment was rife in Parliament. She is proud of being the only female seeking the senatorial seat. Her rivals are Wahome Wamatinga (UDA), Boniface Njagi (TSP) and Kabando wa Kabando (Narc Kenya).

“We do not have a woman candidate in the gubernatorial race and women are happy there is one in the senatorial race. I run for a competitive seat to try to increase the number of women in leadership.”

Her bid nearly collapsed shortly before the party primaries when her critics said she had not resigned from her commissioner position at NGEC before the deadline set for public officers. She refuted the allegations, terming them distractions meant to kill her political ambitions.

“I resigned as directed by the Head of Public Service. I understand that my sudden announcement rattled my opponents and they wanted to lock me out. They did not succeed.”

Despite the smear campaign, Ms Nyokabi remains committed to winning so that she can continue with her impressive record of moving bills that seek to improve the welfare of women. Pieces of legislation sponsored during her tenure as National Assembly Justice and Legal Affairs Committee vice chairperson include the Marriage Act, the Matrimonial Property Act, the Access to Information Act, and the formulation of guidelines on MPs’ conduct in Parliament. 

She hopes to push for a formula that will increase counties’ equitable share of revenue, social accountability and pass progressive bills with a focus on health. “We need money allocated for health to go straight to health institutions just like it goes straight from the Ministry of Education to schools. For this to happen, the law needs amendments and I will steer that change.”

Gender rule

Ms Nyokabi is, however, displeased with the High Court that recently issued temporary orders against the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission’s (IEBC) directive seeking political parties’ compliance with the two-thirds gender rule. This move, she says, rolled back the strides made towards achieving the elusive gender rule.

“That High Court’s ruling was a setback. I hope the IEBC, Attorney General and NGEC appeal against that ruling. The court has been asking Kenyans to adhere to the two-thirds rule but has now taken us many steps backwards.”

Her sentiments were shared by Ann Ireri, a senior legal counsel and regional coordinator at the Federation of Women Lawyers- Kenya, who said Kenya had made progress after the Office of the Registrar of Political Parties and the IEBC ensured compliance on the gender rule, only for the courts to pour cold water on the progress. “The majority of the parties, if not all, complied with the two-thirds rule. It is disappointing, we are back to the struggle again. We need everyone, including the court, to help us.” 

Anne Nderitu, the Registrar of Political Parties, said the rule faces serious challenges. Her office, which is mandated to ensure political parties present a list of candidates for compliance, did so, but unfortunately, court orders undid the gains.

“At what point will we bite the bullet and implement the constitution? We need to focus and implement the constitution fully, not selectively. We have to say the time is now and we are implementing it for the benefit of half of the population who are women, actually more than half.”

Whereas the odds may be against women in politics, Ms Nyokabi, just like MP Ghati, harbours no doubt in her ability to lead. “I will win this election. I am not afraid of my male competitors. I am past phase one, where I won the party’s ticket in the nomination process and I will win in the next round.”

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