Cash, sexism keep women out of politics

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Nairobi - Violence, a deeply chauvinistic society and a lack of cash are locking women out of elected office in Kenya, east Africa's leading economy but a laggard when it comes to female representation.

The country's new constitution guarantees women a third of seats in parliament, but two and a half years since its adoption, Kenya's male-dominated assembly has still not passed the necessary legislation to put the constitutional principle into practice.

In next month's general election only one of eight presidential runners is female, and women held just 10 percent of seats in the last parliament, half the sub-Saharan average.

“Society sees our place being the kitchen and the bedroom. Nothing beyond there,” parliamentary candidate Sophia Abdi Noor told Reuters. Noor is the only woman running for parliament in the remote, arid northeast.

Hailing from Kenya's conservative ethnic-Somali community, Noor and her family have been on the receiving end of public taunts and curses since her first foray into politics in 1997.

“People abused my husband. They told him, 'Now wear the skirt, let Sophia wear the trousers',” said Noor, who in 2007 was handed a seat reserved for marginalised groups.

The northeastern region has never elected a female lawmaker.

Across Kenya, from the fertile slopes of the Rift Valley to the steamy Indian Ocean coastline, female political aspirants painted the same picture: politics is the preserve of men in a country that struggles to deal with women in authority.

Many look with envy to Rwanda, where more than half of legislators are women, more than anywhere in the world.

There women have pushed through reforms granting them equal inheritance, property and citizenship rights. The lack of women in Kenyan politics, critics say, means women's and children's rights rarely get a proper hearing in the rowdy parliamentary chamber.

“We are a patriarchal society. Power and money are two things that are very difficult for men to let go of,” said Naisola Likumani, a former head of advocacy at the Africa Women's Development and Communication Network.

That desire for power and money - and political office tends to bring both in Kenya - means that violent attacks, or threats of violence, against women are not uncommon.

Last month, Millie Odhiambo was seeking her party's nomination for the Mbita parliamentary constituency in western Kenya. Before voting even began in the party primary, she says, supporters of a rival loaded the ballot papers on to a pickup truck as three men in police uniforms entered the polling station firing guns in the air.

Their intent, she said, was to spoil the vote.

“I literally had to jump on the pickup to protect that ballot,” Odhiambo told Reuters. She went on to win the ticket.

In other primaries, female candidates said they were threatened with rape and shunned by elders for violating tradition. One found a rival had littered the polling station with condoms with her name on them in an attempt, she said, to portray her as promiscuous in the eyes of conservative voters.

In next month's general election, 156 women will battle it out against men for parliamentary seats, a sharp fall on the 269 who contested the last ballot in 2007.

This is, in part, because another 300 will focus their bids on the 47 seats reserved for women representatives of each county, a new post. This, however, will only guarantee women 16 percent of the overall seats in the chamber.

A complete lack of political will was to blame for the last parliament's failure to implement constitutional guarantees of affirmative action, said social policy analyst Atieno Ndomo.

“People who are benefiting from this arrangement have no interest whatsoever to change it,” she said.

Kenyan lawmakers are among the best paid in the world.

One woman determined to shatter the common belief that Kenya is not ready for a female president is Martha Karua.

Nicknamed the 'Iron Lady' after the steely former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the former justice minister is the only female presidential candidate in the March 4 vote.

She won't win. The latest opinion polls show her with just 1-2 percent of the vote, a sign Kenyan voters are still not ready to depart from the old-boys-club style of politics that has defined Kenya's political scene since independence.

Karua's gender, and the fact she is divorced, often count against her in this deeply religious society.

“A woman is supposed to be under men,” said 23-year-old Hyphe Ouya at a rally attended by Karua. “We don't believe a woman could be president.”

Women politicians don't only need to change the minds of men like Ouya, they also need cash to run their campaigns.

One Nairobi think-tank estimates that the front-runners Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta will spend a combined $350 million on their campaigns, a record for Kenya

Personal wealth and political and business ties are key to wracking up such huge campaign funds. Karua has said she can't match their spending power.

But sidelining women from politics when they make up more than half of Kenya's 40 million-strong population is not an option, says Karua.

“If you don't include women, then it is a sham democracy,” she told Reuters.

“I don't want my daughter ever to be told that Kenya is not ready for a woman president. If there is a glass ceiling, I am here to break it.” - Reuters


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