For female aspirants in Kisii County, the age-old obstacle of patriarchy, skewed party nominations and lack of finances continue to hamper their quest to ascend to power as the August 8 election nears.
In the 2013 election, only one out of the 45 wards in the region which had 413, 161 voters casting their ballots in 553 polling stations managed to elect a woman as MCA.
Catherine Manzi managed to triumph over a crowded field of aspirants in 2013, emerging victorious with 1,183 votes against her nearest challenger, Dennis Mauti who garnered 754 votes.
So bad was the situation that the Assembly was forced to nominate 23 women out of its 25 special MCAS in order to meet the constitutional membership threshold of one third.
Undaunted by the setback, women in the county have once more hit the campaign trail in a bid to secure their place in the region’s power structure as MCAs in next month’s General Election.
The MCA who made it to the county assembly on a Kenya Social Congress ticket was all set to defend her ticket on a Jubilee ticket in this year’s party primaries when “disaster” struck.
“We had what I thought was a fruitful discussion with my opponent who agreed to drop his bid in my favour. After we sealed the deal with a signed letter he wrote to indicate he had quit the race, he was later to turn round and take part in a nomination process which I was unaware of, says Ms Manzi.
Her opponent went on to swear an affidavit in court declaring the document to be a forgery she had done, setting the stage for a ruling by the Jubilee party headquarter that his nomination was valid.
“The ruling left me with no choice but to sit out the election since it came too late for me to run as an independent candidate”.
After the subsequent court battle and the bitter prospect of facing her supporters with the sad news of her exclusion from the race, she received some consolation by recently being nominated for the County Assembly by Jubilee.
NOMINATION A LIFELINE
Although hesitant to apportion blame for her fate, she nevertheless remains confident that her time to fade away from the political arena has not come just yet.
“My nomination is a lifeline to my political career and ambition and I will still serve my people in the nominated capacity and strive to ensure that I complete the projects I began in my term.
“My passion to help my people secure funds for women and youth group enterprises and more ECD classrooms and libraries for schools is still burning,” she told the Nation.
Ms Manzi says her stint as MCA has inspired four other women to run for the position in her ward, which coincidentally has the highest number of female aspirants.
Rosa Orondo (ODM), Sabina Nyangau (Wiper), Mary Oisebe (independent) and Beatrice Moraa (Kanu), are the four women who have stepped into the ring in a bid to inherit her mantle in a race of 18 contestants.
The fact that four others have stepped up to take my place shows that my term inspired women to believe in their ability and offer themselves for leadership positions in the region, says Ms Manzi.
Her fate during primaries represents just some of the myriad challenges that lie in wait for female politicians with the seemingly impossible dream of clinching elective seats in the county.
Like Ms Manzi, a number of women lost out during nominations as a system whose odds are heavily stacked against them went on an all-out offensive to deny most the chance to secure party tickets for the August polls.
From the ancient political patronage structure that favours male candidates to negative attitudes towards female candidates by members of their own gender, women have faced a steep climb to power in the region since independence.
Claire Omanga was the first woman to break the glass ceiling with her election as Kisii Town mayor in 1995.
Prior to her win, the wife of the late Moi-era Cabinet minister and Nyaribari Chache MP Andrew Omanga had cut her political teeth in the women’s movement, getting elected as the chair of the then larger Kisii District Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organisation (MYWO) in 1985.
Ms Omanga followed this up with an electoral win over five male opponents as Bobaracho Ward councillor in 1993, before ascending to the mayor’s seat two years later.
She used the mayoral position and her profile as her councillor to push the female agenda to greater heights, attending the historic Beijing Conference in 1995.
The retired politician and author of the book The Girl Who Could Not Keep A Secret is credited with the improvement of Daraja Mbili market, where women carry out the bulk of their business on Mondays and Thursdays.
A total of 34 female candidates have thrown their hats into the ring to battle it out with their 680 male counterparts in the county’s 45 wards incorporating 546, 580 voters casting their ballots in 1,126 polling stations.
Kitutu Central, which ironically covers part of the liberal and relatively modern Kisii Town, Bobaracho which is in Kisii Township, Ichuni, which is a less than ten minute drive away from Keroka Town, Keumbu, partly situated in the town, Kiogoro, Ibeno, Nyatieko, Sameta Mokwerero, Bassi Central, Boitangare, Bassi Bogetaorio, Bassi Bomariba, Boikanga, Riana, Bogetenga, Boochi Borabu, Bokimonge, Masige East and Chitago Borabu are the 21 wards without female contestants.
Chitago Borabu, with 33 aspirants including the incumbent Albert Oino running as an independent, perhaps carries the most dubious distinction of having the most aspirants in the county but sadly lacks a single female candidate in the roll of contestants.
Ichuni Ward also has the unique distinction of being home to popular Jubilee women representative aspirant Donya Aburi, and her father Francis Aburi is the MCA, seeking to retain his seat on a Party for Development and Reform (PDR) ticket.
The women running for the various seats in the other wards have not experienced smooth sailing in this society where deep-seated suspicion of a woman running for a seat with her husband in the shadows or lack of one is rife.
Jeriah Sangae, vying for the Moticho Ward on a KNC ticket, has identified the provision of accessible piped water and the expansion of the County Bursary Fund to enable more disadvantaged learners get education.
The career teacher and lecturer says many voters have the mistaken notion that women are weak leaders.
“Some will even openly wonder how I will be able to articulate their issues in the male-dominated assembly, to which I use my campaign activities as a defense. How can I fail to stand my ground in the House when I meet and debate my male counterparts on a daily basis while on the campaign trail?” she says.
Ms Sangae says some of her more malicious doubters have even insinuated that she is likely to abandon her husband get married to someone else should she get elected.
“It is strange and even hilarious to hear some of the conspiracy theories being bandied around regarding my candidacy. Female candidates are subjected to rumours and innuendo that can even break up their marriages if taken too far,” she said.
Nominated MCA Risper Kemunto echoes her sentiments, stating the oft-repeated adage that women are their own worst enemies.
“Women are mostly the ones behind the nastiest propaganda circulating out there regarding female candidates yet we don’t even bother to vote for them when voting day comes. There is a need for serious change,” she said.
Kisii Central Ward aspirant Ms Jane Matiabe (Maendeleo Chap Chap) concurs, saying women voters require civic education to overcome their tendency to stigmatise their own.
“We must move beyond the outdated idea that women only belong in the kitchen or as flower girls in token political appointments like nominated Senators, MPs and MCAs. Our time to go into mainstream leadership is here and we cannot afford to postpone it any longer,” says the candidate.
Ms Matiabe, who is keen on modernizing Kisii Town’s markets and bus park via construction of multistorey shopping complexes, says she has established her profile as a human rights champion in the region.
“As a founder member of the NCEC, I worked in the region between 2002 and 2007 agitating for the entrenchment of constitutional reforms in the country.
Despite narrowly missing out on a county assembly nomination due to what she terms “collusion by party insiders keen to cut down her influence in Kisii Town politics,” the ODM activist was later to engage the county administration in negotiations to reduce the daily cess levy for small traders from Sh100 to Sh50.
“My insistence on the reduction earned me powerful enemies, with threats being made against my life at one point but I preserved and the county administration eventually caved in to my demands,” says the chair of the Open Air Market Association’s Kisii chapter.
Ms Zipporah Ariga, the Boochi Tendere aspirant, is passionate about the empowerment of tea farmers, whose earnings are often diminished through fluctuating prices and corruption among unscrupulous tea factory staff. She seeks to improve school infrastructure, promote sporting talent and improve her ward’s road network once elected.
Ms Ariga says her opponents spread malicious lies claiming her husband was against her candidature, an uncomfortable cloud that hang over her bid until he joined her on the campaign trail.
She however gives credit to her supporters for keeping their faith in her despite the negative commentary her foes were dishing out.
“Such trials only made me more determined to serve my people as their elected representatives. Growing a thick skin to counter the allegations and lies was the best thing I could have done as it gave me time to concentrate on selling my policies as opposed to being worried about what my opponents were cooking up,” she said.
Ms Manzi says online abuse and intimidation is often reserved for female candidates, with obscene Photo shopped images and cynical memes used to disparage their electoral bids.
“Some of us have head to endure the agony of having family and close friends accessing those images in WhatsApp and groups and Facebook pages which they belong to or seeing them shared in other online forums,” she said.
Finances are also a major challenge for women, who often have to contend with a culture of handouts that mostly male politicians have inculcated in voters.
“Voters always ask me for money on my campaign tours, and having to tell them that I am not able to afford the price of their loyalty was initially a serious threat to my bid to get elected,” says Nyamasibi Ward aspirant Evalyne Ondieki.
Ms Ondieki, who intends to improve healthcare facilities and infrastructure if elected, however overcame the handout handicap by tailoring her approach and message to fit the needs to her people.
The customer care executive who was working in Dubai prior to announcing her bid, has stuck to the door-to-door method of meeting her constituents.
“I take my time to do interactive campaigns where I listen to my voters’ concerns and propose workable solutions. I do this by moving from door to door,” said Ms Ondieki, popularly known as Anita.
Kisii University Vice-Chancellor John Akama says the community’s women have been relegated to a peripheral or supporting role in the political arena due to traditional family roles that followed a similar pattern.
“We are used to a system where women are seen as more of kitchen experts and homestead caretakers as opposed to actual movers and shakers of the society, which should not be the case since most of the male leaders in society were raised and guided by mothers in their formative stages,” he says.
He says the phenomenon is ironical considering the fact that single many parent families are managed by women in the region.
“It is ironical for our community to deny women votes when they run for elective positions when they run a staggering 95 per cent of our homes,” he told the Nation in a recent interview.
Prof Akama expressed his hopes in a resurgent women’s movement taking more seats in the election, saying it would herald a new chapter in the region’s politics.
“We need to elect more women if we are to revamp our political line-up to position ourselves for greater stake in national affairs,” he said.