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For Juliana Omale-Atemi and Rosemary Okello the electoral landscape mirrors that of the Kenyan society at large, a reason therefore for the struggle of women empowerment to continue after the elections.

For those who are interested in the struggles of Kenyan women political aspirants, it is not hard these days to miss the recurrent conversations revolving around fears about these women aspirants. They face an uphill task. Not only do they have to tackle the problems of financing their campaigns, there are also the ever-changing dynamics in the main political parties, making it difficult for them to participate meaningfully in competitive politics. However, the most serious threat is the violence that may be meted out to them.

Being in the wrong place in an election is something that women candidates can readily attest to. The irony is that in 2007 the situation is no different from the 2002, 1997 election periods. In fact, it is not different from every previous election back to 1963 when Kenya became independent: women have always found themselves pushed into the political periphery.

Unlike the previous elections in the Kenyan history, this year’s General Elections looked better for women since three women, namely Hon Charity Ngilu, Hon Julia Ojiambo and Nazlin Omar had declared their interest in vying for the Presidential seat. However, this has been overtaken by events due to the political re-alignments which, just like in 2002, have become the order of the day. Many women are now wondering whether Kenya will attain the 30 percent affirmative action in political leadership.

A look at the regional statistics as far as African women in Parliament are concerned, shows Rwanda to be the highest with 48.8 per cent, Tanzania (30.4 per cent), Burundi (30.5 per cent), Mozambique (34.8 per cent), Liberia (30 per cent) and South Africa (32.8 per cent).

With the elections on the horizon, the subject of women’s participation in the 2007 general elections is dominated by concerns that history will repeat itself once more.

Speaking recently to a gathering of women’s organizations and journalists in Nairobi, Ms Violet Awori, the chair of the Federation of Women Lawyers – Kenya (FIDA-K), said the escalation of violence targeting women candidates is cause for concern and a pointer to the fact that once again women are being denied an opportunity to participate freely and fairly in the election processes. “Before Flora Tera was attacked in Imenti North, Orie Rogo Manduli, who is a candidate in Nairobi’s Kasarani constituency, was rigged out during the NARC-K party nominations and roughed up when she tried to protest,” said Ms Awori.

The Executive Director of the Caucus for Women’s Leadership, Mrs. Deborah Okumu, says women need to understand that the stakes are high in these elections – the fourth since the advent of multiparty politics in 1991 – and women are under pressure to fit into pre-determined pigeon holes, including within their political parties.

Her argument is that women’s power to mobilize and organize human and material resources for political processes has been compromised and whittled away over the years. “This is a mini-war, and the ingredients include violence,” she explained, “The women’s movement has lost its dominance in Kenya’s political agenda, we have been boxed into programmes, yet all along we were the drivers of a political process,” she says.

The Executive Director of the Centre for Multiparty Politics, Ms Njeri Kabeberi, cautions women’s organizations reliant on donor funding, that the circumstances in 2007 are not necessarily similar to 2002. New funding mechanisms originating in the donor countries mean that aspirants seeking support within women’s political organizations will face new challenges.

“Donors have warmed up to the Paris Declaration which has given a nod for aid flows to governments rather than to civil society organizations,” she explained

Mrs. Okumu is also concerned about the dominance of patriarchy within the election processes saying that it is difficult to recognize and define it: “It has no face or form because it is in the minds of people, and in the environment of an election period, it places women in a tight box,” she adds. Mrs. Okumu says women’s organizations’ programmatic approach to the elections may actually be working against candidates in the context of patriarchy. “Non-engendered institutions are a branch of patriarchy and women cannot count on the police, their parties or the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) to come to their aid,” says Mrs. Okumu.

According to Dr Josephat Ludeki Chweya, from the University of Nairobi’s Department of Political Science, this is the reason why Kenyans ought to address the condition and roles of women in Kenya. He argues that the processes and returns of Kenya’s electoral regime affect men and women differently. “The reason there are more men than women represented in Parliament, City Councils and County Councils is because the constitution and electoral laws are blind to the marginalization of women,” says Dr. Chweya, “The constitution assumes that society is homogeneous between men and women when in reality this is not the case, hence the voices demanding affirmative action in matters of representation.”

A nagging problem for women seeking electoral posts is the realization that it is extremely expensive to run an election campaign. Conservatively, candidates in urban constituencies need between Ksh. six million and Ksh. 10 million, while their rural counterparts would need between Ksh. six million and 10 million. Taking the long-standing economic subordination of Kenyan women into account, this scenario is particularly challenging.

However, Ms Njeri Kabeberi says that winning an election is not necessarily about how much money a candidate has in the bank. “I would like us not to dwell too much on finances for campaigns,” she says, “It is actually possible for a candidate to win an election in this country without money but with the right strategy.”

This is a point that Dr Chweya agrees with: “The constraints women face are not an excuse not to go for those seats,” he cautions, “We cannot wait around until the constitution is amended, laws and cultures changed and the economic situation improved.” The point being, that as they wait to get their feet under the table in 2008, the work is not quite done for women. Dr Chweya says women can use their numbers as a basis for political mobilization and work to subdue ethnicity, cultural and economic hindrances.

* Juliana Omale-Atemi and Rosemary Okello are Editorial Director and Executive Director, respectively, of the African Woman and Child Feature Service (AWC)

*This article was initially published in the WAJIBU JOURNAL Volume 22. No 4 (November - December 2007)