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How initiatives in Kenya inspire women to engage in politics

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Women led initiatives encourage young women to engage in leadership opportunities in Bungoma County, Western Kenya.

By Jackline Opiyo

Kabuchai constituency lies 15 kilometres from Bungoma Town. It is one of the 9 constituencies within the county. Am here to meet Dr Electine Nasambu, a woman aspirant for the Member of Parliament seat in the Kabuchai Constituency. She was vying alongside 8 other aspirants who were men. Since independence, there has never been an elected woman Member of Parliament from the region and even some of the neighbouring counties.

Dr Nasambu is excited to engage in this conversation, but before we begin, she pops a question to me “What is stopping women from vying for political seats, in Bungoma County? We were only two women seeking the seats, but we didn’t manage” she continues “Am very confident that with the next elections, we are going to show up”

Dr Nasambu states that the biggest challenge is that many women do not have the support they deserve, but with her experience, she has brought up to 10 women together who describe themselves as “Women of Valour”. This is a group of young women in politics who vied for political seats in previous elections but did not make it, while others want to begin their journey.

As the chairperson, Dr Nasambu clarifies that they understand the gap first that the community is yet to accept the idea of women in leadership, let alone the possibility of them competing for and winning elective positions. And with this reason, they have come together to promote the agenda of women’s leadership and support each other.

Young women in politics are likely to face challenges that call for support to ensure that they are on the frontline to vying for different seats. Political parties play a vital role in making decisions on who will win. As Dr Nasambu states, “Running on a ‘dominant party’ in a region where a party is dominant improves chances of success.” But still, as a woman getting a party ticket is not easy as it seems especially with numerous well-resourced male candidates.

And even despite women spending more than men, they are not winning as often, making them feel no need to be part of this. According to the research done by Cost of Politics Africa, running for office is becoming increasingly expensive, with the rising costs being a challenge, especially to women aspirants with the prevalence of a gender gap in the continuum of election spending, performance and results.

“Running on a ‘dominant party’ in a region where a party is dominant improves chances of success.” But still, as a woman getting a party ticket is not easy as it seems especially with numerous well-resourced male candidates.

Dr Electine Nasambu

Initiatives of programme pillars of participation and promotion are breaking barriers to this issue and women are feeling the need to join politics. Just like Dr Nasambu and Women of Valour, the Maendeleo ya Wanawake women group in Bungoma County has made more strides to ensure that women are getting leadership opportunities and vying for political seats within the county. Translated from Swahili it means “Women Development “, with its main role being advocating for women’s leadership, mentoring and lobbying for support from both the government and other non-governmental organizations that promote gender equality.

Ms Ummy Maloba, the chairperson of Maendeleo ya Wanawake explains how this initiative works. She states “We have done a lot to ensure that women are being heard in this community. At first, we did lobbying to ensure that from the grass root level, women got the opportunity to lead as chiefs, and even have women elders in a region where elders are believed to be only men.”

“It is through this process that resulted in a woman being a running mate to the gubernatorial race and is currently the deputy governor, of Bungoma County. We ensured that we recogniSe a woman who had great potential, identified her and engaged the political parties to have her as a running mate, and through that women’s leadership was fully recognised and accepted by the society, “she explains.

Rosemary Cheptai is a community member who applauds women’s leadership.  She is a peace actor and woman leader from Mt Elgon Sub County in Bungoma. Even before the general election, she was at the forefront of preaching peace to protect women aspirants who have a higher risk of experiencing political violence. She states “I am glad that programme pillars have given women the confidence to feel that they are capable of leading and has changed the perception of women leadership around this region.”

Ms Janepher Mbatiany, the current deputy governor of Bungoma County is a product of this initiative. She states that it is women groups like Mendeleo ya Wanawake that supported her to become the first female deputy governor in the county. “Being the first time to join politics, it is not easy for people to support and believe that you are capable of attaining their expectations, especially as a woman. But through the support and priority given to me by other women and women groups, I was able to be confident that this is my space and am glad it has inspired many young women within the area to join politics.”

She further attests that it is not easy for the community to accept women’s leadership as from her experience. “ Women in politics experience a lot of challenges from being termed as “weak “,  to cyberbullying, cultural barriers, financial constraints and lack of support from most members of the community “ But through the support she has got from other women, it has become easier for her to work and also engage different women in society. She recommends women already in leadership to play as role models to inspire more women to have the confidence to join politics.

Civil societies are key to amplifying this initiative within the communities. Rural Women for Peace Link is one of the civil societies that has actively engaged women aspirants before the election period by giving them support on advocacy on matters of public interest and engaging different stakeholders. Vivian Sutter, the programme officer in the organization states “Efforts are needed to challenge the perception that women should only compete for affirmative action seats. Women should be facilitated and encouraged to compete for the full range of elective positions. Political parties, in particular, must lead from the front in this regard. Alongside this, public advocacy on the ability of women to fulfil any, and all, elective positions is
needed to start to address long-held attitudes. “

Further, she states that many women fear engaging in politics due to the violence they experience in the process. “Many women still have the fear to engage in politics due to the attacks that they experience, both physical and online, but through engaging them and support, we have had campaigns on ending violence against women, and when they feel covered and have support, then they get convinced on safety during their political journey .”

According to the report by the policy organisation on online violence against women in the 2022 elections, while social media has been beneficial to women in politics, women are still struggling to break through when it comes to effectively participating in leadership and governance in Kenya. This is because they have been exposed to online violence on social media platforms, which has hindered them from further engaging in political dialogue.

Mechanisms to Promote Advancement of Women (MePAW) Is a grassroots-focused initiative aimed at educating, empowering and enabling women to participate and get included in every level of decision-making, be it government and political leadership, community leadership or corporate leadership. Olive Gachara, the Project Manager at MePaw states that the inclusion of women in politics needs support and active engagement from the grassroots levels. “Through engaging the women politicians, voters and even the community at large, they will have the feeling of supporting other women, especially in areas whereby there are still challenges and gaps for women to be included as leaders.”

Emmanuel Were, a human rights activist, a political analyst and an advocate for gender equality states that engaging women in politics through support comes with many advantages. He states “Through participation and involvement with the programme pillars, women get the opportunity to express their interest in different leadership positions with the positive side is by getting support from other women, who are the majority of voters especially in the grassroots levels.

Despite the historically slow pace of electing women into leadership and governance positions in Kenya, there have been instances where women have proven their capabilities and delivered when given the opportunity.  The involvement of women in politics through programme pillars of participation is an example of women succeeding in political positions and becoming effective leaders.

This story is part of the African Women In News (AWIM)/ Luminate Young Women In Politics Media Project.