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Can women in politics overcome stereotypes?

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By Florence Gichoya

From the time a girl is born, the society already has pre-determined expectations from her. Many cultures bring up the girl child to be a home maker, caregiver, submissive follower and to uphold the family values. This is contrary to the expectations of the boy child. A boy is groomed to be a leader, provider, assertive and hard worker. The girl develops to be the kind of woman who would rarely be interested in political leadership. Society often frowns upon those that go against these norms.

Dr Alice Eagly a psychology professor once said that, “Cultural stereotypes can make it seem that women do not have what it takes for important leadership roles, thereby adding to the barriers that women encounter in attaining roles that yield substantial power and authority”

For a woman to vie for a political position today, she has to contend with lots of stereotypes compared to her male counterparts. There are numerous stereotypical views that she has to overcome during the race. This could be cultural, historical, personal, education, career development or media portrayal of a woman. More so, women do not support other women vying for political leadership like the male candidates do.

Chapter 4, article 27 (3) of the Kenyan constitution clearly states  ‘Women and men have the right to equal treatment, including the right to equal opportunities in political, economic, cultural and social spheres.’

Women leaders in the corporate world and local communities find it a challenge to be fully accepted. This is even harder for those that get into political leadership. A woman has to work harder to prove her worth and respect as compared to her male colleagues. It is hard enough for them to be nominated from respective political parties.

Also previous research showed that predominantly communal qualities such as being nice and compassionate are associated with women. While being assertive and competitive are associated with men. Hence women are expected to be soft and motherly in their leadership ventures.


It can be done

Over the years there are women who have succeeded in politics though the journey has not been smooth sailing. Since we attained our independence the rate of women who venture into politics as compared to men has been discouraging. A political career is not for the faint hearted. We have leadership personalities like Dr. Julia Ojiambo, Nyiva Mwendwa, Martha Karua, and Prof Wangari Maathai among others.

These remarkable Kenyan women leaders have experienced stereotypes though some more than others. For instance, former assistant minister Wangari Maathai had to endure a humiliating divorce and adultery accusations from her husband in 1979. Her husband alleged that she was too strong-minded for a woman and that he was unable to control her. As if this was not enough she had to contend in court for using his name. In 2004 while still an assistant minister she put Kenya on the map after she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in conserving the environment. The world celebrated her, yet she was not promoted to be a full minister. Others like Starehe MP Margaret Wanjiru had to go through invasion of privacy to a point of cancelling her wedding.

These women were not accorded due respect in their personal lives as compared to the male colleagues. Because of what the society dictates as what women ought to be. It is yet to fully accept and embrace women leaders.

The media can also be a fan of these stereotypes towards women. Many movies, soap operas and magazines undervalue women to sex symbols, and vulnerable individuals in need of male approval and attention. Very rarely will they emphasize a well balanced female character that is career focused, family oriented and successful. It is often quoted that women are the weaker sex. On the contrary women are strong and are capable of achieving just as men can.

Kofi Annan concurs that “…there is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls.” Literate women are more aware of their rights, are open to vie for political positions and fight against stereotypes. Because of illiteracy levels, during the voting period most of the assisted voters are women and they are just given directions on whom to vote for by men.

In schools the education system needs to be reformed in order to cater for the needs of girls. In many homes especially in the rural areas the girl is expected to cook, clean, and take care of other siblings. At the same time that girl is expected to perform well in school.

Today there are more women who are educated and have vast career experience as men, yet research has shown that women are viewed as less capable as compared to their male counterparts.

Very few women take the plunge in politics; many are not willing to face the challenges and problems associated with being stereotyped. Therefore there is no true representation of a large part of the population. It’s ironical that the biggest percentage of voters is the least represented.

Interestingly women also don’t support each other in politics, if they would; women emancipation would be a won battle. Just as Germaine Greer a writer once said “Men rule because women let them. Male misogyny is real enough, and it has dreadful consequences, but female misogyny is what keeps women out of power.”

InKenya, women are majority voters yet they don’t vote in large numbers for other women. They are not accepting to women candidates and judge them harshly. This makes it very easy for the male candidates to win political positions.

Stereotypes against women in politics may take years to overcome. More women need to be encouraged and supported as they join political leadership. With time the society will fully accept and appreciate these incredible women. They will not have to validate themselves any more.


Role of NDI in promoting women participation in political leadership

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By Florence Gichoya

As years go by, more women are taking part in political positions from the grassroots to the national level. It is imperative to sensitize the society that the women can deliver if given an opportunity to lead. More women need to be encouraged to get in the political system. With increased numbers the society will gradually be convinced that women can achieve citizen’s interests even better than men.

There are many organizations that deal with educating, sensitizing and empowering women who are interested in running for political positions. One such organization is National Democratic Institute (NDI) which is nonprofit, nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization that has supported democratic institutions all over the world for over 20 years including Kenya. NDI promotes openness and accountability in the government. The organization empowers citizens to articulate the leadership concerns hence promote citizen participation.

NDI has the mandate to work with all the 47 registered parties. One of their major focus is affirmative action. They encourage parties to advocate for women leadership in branches at the counties in order to have an impact in the grassroots levels.

County level capacity building is achieved by strong presence of the political parties in the counties. Developing these branches facilitates women programs that focus on training potential candidates.

In regard to women participation in leadership, NDI is at the forefront in conducting training for potential female candidates. They however have to come through their respective political parties. These capacity building trainings are designed to equip and create opportunities for the aspiring candidates with the motivation, proper skills and networks to position themselves to successfully run for political office and win elections.

It is important to have gender mainstreaming in the 47 registered parties. In the current 10th  parliament women comprise 10% of the 222 members of parliament. It is this reason that the constitution emphasizes on equality in order to get rid of the existing disparity of women leadership as compared to men

That is why NDI and other organizations take the role of training members of these parties in order to increase citizen participation especially in women. This is actioned from the grassroots up to the national level.

NDI also publishes an e-newsletter called Win with Women; this newsletter highlights stories on women participation in selected countries around the world.

Another organization that is active in empowering women political candidates is the Centre for Multiparty and Democracy (CMD). CMD was founded by Kenyan political parties in early 2004. Its main objective is to enhance gender equity and effective participation and representation at all levels in the management of political parties.

There have been instances where potential women candidates have approached these organizations for help yet they are not registered in any political party. This is very unfortunate because many women lack awareness on the importance of being a registered member of a political party, yet a lot of emphasis is placed on training potential candidates on how to prepare them and be fully equipped for leadership.

Challenges of potential women candidates

Women are subjected to numerous challenges especially socio-economically. In almost all communities inKenya, women are socialized from a tender age that men are the leaders and this affects their attitudes towards leadership. There have been situations where men determine the family’s choice of candidate during elections. Political campaigns also require a lot of money and economically women are disadvantaged as compared to men because in most families men control the family resources therefore the women don’t have access to these resources in order to vie for political positions.

Moreover there are still communities that frown upon women interested in taking up leadership positions. For instance Nyanza, Western and North Eastern regions do not have elected women MP’s in the current parliament. There are only nominated female MP’s.

There are hardly any mentoring programmes for inexperienced women aspirants. That is why NDI organizes training sessions through political parties to mentor young women interested in venturing into politics. They gain more confidence to even run against the veteran politicians.

Is it possible to translate women’s socio support network to political support?

Women have a very strong socio support system, for instance there are very many ‘chamas’ or self help groups in almost all communities from all walks of life. Women support each other in business, purchasing properties, paying school fees and taking loans. They also support each other socially like family events, religious activities; however this network support does not translate in the politics arena.

There needs to be a support system for these potential women candidates. More emphasis should be put in to mentor them because many have the desire but lack the necessary skills, money and will power to compete with other male aspirants.

In addition to that the women aspirants need to plan early for their campaigns because they demand a lot of money and time. Organizing fundraising activities and mobilizing volunteers at least a year before elections is a strong driving force for a successful election.

NDI and other like-minded organizations and the Kenyan constitution fully support the women venturing into politics. They no longer have an excuse and should make use of these available opportunities.

A woman leader making a difference – Chief Mary Maina’s Story

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Chief Mary Wambui Maina

By Florence Gichoya

My journey to Kimathi Location in Murang’a East district in Murang’a County was an epic. It was during the rainy season and the villagers were busy tending their farms and removing all the unwanted weeds in the fertile soils. The people were of good cheer and very friendly, they easily gave me directions to their chief’s homestead and even one offered to accompany me.

When I first met Chief Mary Wambui Maina I was impressed by her warm heartedness and welcoming cheer, very friendly and easy to talk to. It was no wonder the only woman chief in the Murang’a East District is a role model for the women in the district and in her country Kenya.

Chief Mary has being a chief for one year and no doubt she has accomplished a lot and brought many positive changes in her locality. Her journey to government leadership was far from easy. Born in the location over 40 years ago in Kimathi location her family struggled to get her through school and she had to drop out for one year in form three because of lack of school fees. But with determination and strong will she finished high school in 1986 and achieved 3rd division. However due to lack of school fees she was not able to further her studies due to financial constraints.

Just as Tommy Lasorda said that “The difference between the impossible and the possible lies in a person’s determination.” Mary may have been down, but she was not out. For more than 10 years she involved herself with community projects and was an active community leader. She was consulted by the community for various issues. It was also in this period where she involved herself in women self-help groups and was their leader in that capacity.

In the year 1999 she applied for the position of sub-chief. She had confidence that with her vast experience in community leadership she would meet the government expectations. Mary Maina was appointed by the government to head the Rurii sub-location. At the time the Rurii people wondered whether a woman would manage the position. It was a first in the locality and Mary was determined to proof her detractors wrong. She says that self-confidence and determination that she could do it propelled her to the people of Rurii.

When she took over leadership her biggest challenge was widespread brewing of chang’aa (illicit brew). Together with a cooperative community she embarked on flashing out the activity by dismantling the brewing dens. Eventually the brewing of illicit brew became a thing of the past. With the success of curbing illicit brew, Chief Mary realized that unemployed youth who had been engaging in drunkenness were idle and desperate. She encouraged them and implored them to start a self-help group and engage in the sand harvesting business which is readily available in the locality.

With an impressive work record for 10 years, in the year 2010 she was appointed chief of Kimathi location, the only woman chief in Murang’a East District.  She heads two sub-locations Rurii and Githuri. In addition to Chief Mary representing the government in Kimathi Location; Mary’s daily activities also include attending government meetings, advising women, farmers, parents, students, solving domestic disputes (which include inheritance wrangles, land disputes among others.

Mary believes whatever a man can do a woman can do even better. Women need to come out of their comfort zones and embrace leadership. Women need to know that they can be capable leaders not just because they are women but because they have to be self-assured that they can lead. Women should be validated and given opportunities to lead.

There is no position in life without its challenges. For Chief Mary for instance there are numerous orphans and vulnerable children in the location where the government is supporting them. There are also old people who are too weak to take care of themselves however the government has rolled out a plan to provide food and basic medical care for them.

Also, in terms of education the people of Kimathi have taken advantage of the free primary education. However, many still lack school fees and school necessities like school uniforms. Mary has mobilized the community and local churches whereby they organize for fundraising activities to support the bright students from poor families. They have being able to send many children to the universities which was rare a while back.

Chief Mary’s inspiring life assents Diane Mariechild wise words that “A woman is the full circle. Within her is the power to create, nurture and transform”. She affirms that when women validate themselves they will be proud of their jobs or whatever they do for a living. They should know that they can achieve whatever they set their eyes on and should not despise themselves; eventually they will see and enjoy the fruits of their hard work. Ultimately the society will have educated children, successful and fulfilled communities.

She is very thankful to her employer – Government of Kenya which has set a favorable atmosphere to work well and is very supportive of women leaders. She is also indebted to her supportive husband and two sons.

My Addis Ababa experience

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By Florence Gichoya

It was my first time to visit Ethiopia on 22nd January, 2012. I was eager to experience the most populous land locked country in the world. My first impression of Addis Ababa was beauty and warm loving people.

Beautiful scenery of distant mountains meets you as you drive from Bole International airport. The city has great warm weather during the day and it gets chilly at night. I was in the country for FK preparatory course training.

It was interesting to learn that Ethiopia is in year 2004! The country applies the Ethiopian calendar which is 7 years behind the Gregorian calendar that is mainly used by many countries in the world.

As we embarked on the training i got to meet other FK participants from different countries. We were all excited about our FK exchange opportunities. The home coming participants were also present and they shared with the new participants on their experiences with FK exchange in former host countries. It was a valuable session as they shared with us both the good and the challenges that they went through in 2011.

Having attended training sessions for the first five days, during the weekend the organizers Eminence Group organized for us a tour to various historical sites in the city.

The first was Menelik II museum; the shrine is located on a hill overlooking the Addis Ababa city in the valley. The scenery was breath taking. We learnt of Ethiopia’s hero Emperor Menelik II’s courageous role in the battle Adwa that gave the country victory over the Italians hence they were never colonized. The Menelik II museum consists of the original palace where the emperor and his wife lived in the 19th century.

Our guide also enlightened us on the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – which majority of the Ethiopians attend. Later in the afternoon we attended the Merkato – the biggest market in Africa. In this market there was everything and anything that anyone wanted to buy, from clothes, vegetables, livestock, vehicle spare parts name them all.

Ethiopia has a rich culture. It is evident in their tradional dressing, monuments, language which is mainly Amharic. The main local food is injera which is made of teff flour. Injera is eaten with spiced beef stew. Their weddings are also flamboyant with dances and traditional music. I was also shocked to know that raw meat is a delicacy for the Ethiopians!

The night life in Addis is vibrant. There are many night clubs that are frequented by the youth and young at heart revelers. Some clubs play hip hop, rap, rock and other western music. On the other hand there were those clubs that played Ethiopian music and served coffee instead of alcoholic drinks.

As the training concluded the deputy director FK Norway – Grete Thingelstand told us that the FK experience will give us an ‘extreme makeover’. That some of us will develop a bigger heart while for some we will develop a totally different mindset from what we had. Through these experiences we will be good change agents. She concluded with a quote from Nelson Mandela “a different world cannot be changed by indifferent people”

What i gained from the preparatory course in Addis Ababa was informative, educative and eye opening. I made lots of friends and realized that we’re all working towards the same goal and collectively real change will take place. And i concur with Grete Thingelstand that we will always remember the year we were on FK exchange.

FK participants in Addis Ababa

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