NAIROBI, Kenya – In a lively room in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, a group of women have gathered to discuss how to keep the upcoming Kenyan election free from violence. The women are not politicians, election officials or campaigners – they are grassroots activists, working with their communities to keep the peace on August 8.
In the lead-up to the election, they and 800 other women volunteers will look for early warning signs of violence, inform the police of what they find, map “trouble zones” and host dialogue forums. On polling day, they will monitor polling station lines and urge people to go straight home after voting.
The three-day workshop was organized by Jane Anyango, a seasoned activist from Kibera. In the aftermath of the 2007 Kenyan election, she created the group Kibera Women for Peace and Fairness to combat the violence that erupted in Kibera.
Ten years later, she gathered grassroots women leaders from across Kenya to discuss women’s participation in Kenyan politics, and the role they could play in reaching the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals – work that hasn’t included grassroots organizations yet, Anyango says.
“Big organizations and donors don’t realize that grassroots women have the potential to do something about the goals or even in their own lives,” she said. “They believe in working for the women and not with the women. We’re trying to claim our space.”
Anyango has been working to empower women since 2003, when she responded to a case of sexual violence against her niece. She dropped the case when she decided instead to focus on helping survivors heal and move forward, and this has been her main motivation since.
Now, she runs the Polycom Development project, an organization that advocates for women in Kibera. With elections rapidly approaching, she leads a group of other women working for peace. They don’t want a repeat of 2007-2008, when post-election violence claimed as many as 1,100 lives and displaced more than 600,000 people.
Although Kenya’s 2013 election passed more peacefully, women at the workshop expressed fears of more violence this time around.
“Right now, a lot of women are going to the rural areas to hide out,” Anne Wanjiro, an organizer from Mathare slum in Nairobi, says. “We’re trying to tell them, ‘Don’t go, we need your vote to make a change.’”
If violence breaks out, women are particularly vulnerable. In the 2007-2008 post election violence, Human Rights Watch reports that at least 900 cases of sexual violence took place.
Wanjiro says she’s prepared to help if this happens, “My plan is to rescue those affected by the violence and organize a safe space for them,” she says. “If they’re injured, take them to the hospital, and then look for partners who can support their basic needs until the situation is in control.”
Women Excluded From Politics
More Kenyan women are involved in politics than at any prior election – both at the grassroots and official level. But women still face many challenges as they try to take part in the political process.
“On election day, men and youth wake up very early in the morning to vote while women are feeding their children,” Wanjiro explains. “When women come to vote, the men have already ganged up around [the polling stations] and the women get scared.” Lines to vote persist until late, and women may be forced to go home without voting because of safety concerns after dark.
Women are often pressured by male family members on how they should vote. “Some husbands claim their wives don’t know how to read, and accompany them to the booth to ensure they’re voting for the same candidates,” Pauline Kariuki, from Kajiado County, says.
On the campaign trail, most events take place in the evening, when women are busy with their families. Excluded from participation in forums and rallies, they’re further alienated from politics.
For women aspiring to hold office, it’s also a bumpy road. Diana Gichengo from the Kenya Human Rights Commission says some women running for political positions have been disowned by their families, pressured by community leaders to step down, and even physically attacked.
Filing from the IEBC show that only 11-13 percent of Kenyans running for a political office this election are women, she says.
The much discussed two-thirds gender rule, under the Constitution of Kenya Amendment Bill 2015, would ensure women make up a least one third of all elected bodies.
But the bill has already been rejected twice, and some members of Parliament are still opposed to it. Currently, there is only 19 percent women’s representation in the Kenyan parliament, the smallest percentage in East Africa.
Women Ready to Lead
However, Gichengo sees areas of Kenya where the electorate is ready for women leadership. She names a few – Homa Bay, Siaya and Kirinyaga County. “If you look at the places where we have gubernatorial and senatorial women aspirants, it’s areas where we’ve had strong women leaders before,” she says. In Kirinyaga County, the race for governor has narrowed to a runoff between two female candidates.
With hard work, grassroots activists are changing perceptions of women leaders in their local communities too.
“When I first became a leader,” Violet Shiyutse from Kakamega says, “society expected women to stay home. When we started traveling, addressing real issues, and transforming our society, it changed people’s perceptions of what a leader could be.”
Anyango is optimistic. “What I’m excited about is finally the women are coming out and they’re really interested in changing their lives,” she says.
Gichengo is also hopeful. The best thing she’s seen in this election, she says, is women supporting other women. “There’s a lot of sisterhood, women raising their voices if their [female] opponents are attacked. The women’s movement is growing.”