Women's long quest for power in political arena

By GAKUU MATHENGE 

Kenyan women have come a long way in their quest to assume political leadership positions.

Those who have made it have tales of how they had to ignore nasty rumours and challenges to survive in a male dominated field.

Former MP and veteran women rights activist Njoki Ndung’u, for instance, says being a woman MP is like being the only girl in a boys’ school.

"The air of male dominance is suffocating, especially for first time women MPs. It is not until the men hear the women speak and make contributions on the floor of the House that do they sit up and listen with respect. It was an eye opener when I first landed in the House in 2003," Ms Ndung’u recalls.

A new publication on portraits of contemporary Kenyan women leaders makes a fascinating observation on the routes women have taken to political leadership.

They include harnessing sympathy votes after their spouses’ deaths.

Ndung’u, also a former member of the Committee of Experts, is ten among women leaders whose struggles and experiences in political offices have been captured in the publication, ‘Women and Political Leadership in Kenya’.

Dr Nyokabi Kamau, a senior lecturer at St Paul’s University, wrote the study published this year.

She notes that Kenyan women still have to overcome cultural, economic and political barricades.

The accounts on women leaders captured in the publication shows life in political parties is not a bed of roses.

Lengthy talks

Coming from civil society activism, Ndung’u says she was never prepared for the prejudice and chauvinism among male politicians.

Julia Ojiambo, Njoki Ndung’u,Mama Ngina Kenyatta and Nyiva Mwendwa. [PHOTOS: FILE/STANDARD]

"The most memorable anecdote was one politician cutting me short, reminding me to concentrate on typing, and stop distracting men’s contribution," she recalls.

The indefatigable Julia Ojiambo is hailed in the publication as "one of the leading lights of women leadership".

She was among the 18 women MPs in the Ninth Parliament credited with significantly expanding and pushing the gender agenda to the centre of policy making.

Ojiambo also recalls in an interview how her male colleagues in Ford-Kenya nearly cheated her out a nomination slot in 2003.

"I was the last to be nominated after lengthy negotiations with the late Michael Kijana Wamalwa and others, and even then it took President Kibaki’s intervention. I could not believe anyone was having second thought on me after we nearly lost our lives during the 2002 campaigns," she recalls.

While many women leaders waded their way to leadership through years of activism in other fields, veteran Ukambani politician Nyiva Mwendwa makes an interesting revelation.

At a time many men would never dream, let alone stand, their spouse joining politics, Kenya’s first African Chief Justice Kitili Mwendwa allowed his wife to join competitive politics.

Out of ten women leaders interviewed, only three had husbands at the time, four were windowed and the other three never married.

Former Thika Mayor and senior ODM official Mumbi Ng’aru says of family and women in politics: "Let us call a spade a spade. He (husband) agreed to have me nominated as councillor.

"But when I became Her Worship the Mayor, I noticed some changes. For over 30 years, I was known as Mama Githinji. Now this changed to Her Worship the Mayor.

"He used to take us to the local members’ club, but as mayor, the council pays membership. Suddenly roles had been reversed. I had become the centre of attention, and this was not easy for him."