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KENYA: Women Parliamentary Candidates on the Ballot, But Not in the Race?

Kwamboka Oyaro

NAIROBI, Dec 22 2007 (IPS) - At first glance, it seems like a good news story. When Kenya goes to the polls next week for general elections, it will do so with record numbers of women on the ballot.

Of the 2,548 parliamentary hopefuls, 269 are women – or about 10.6 percent of candidates, compared to some four percent during the last poll in 2002, when just 44 of the 1,015 legislative aspirants were women.

Close on 1,500 of the 15,332 candidates for local office, 9.6 percent, are women (at the time of publishing this article, IPS could not obtain figures for the number of female civic contenders during the last elections). One of the nine presidential candidates in the Dec. 27 poll is a woman; no women ran for the presidency in 2002.

Closer examination of these figures – which must be seen in the context of an overall increase in the number of electoral candidates – reveals a more troubling picture, however, at least in terms of the legislative election.

While 108 parties are contesting the polls, the race has essentially narrowed down to three groups: President Mwai Kibaki&#39s Party of National Unity (PNU), in a battle for the lead with the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) – and in third place the Orange Democratic Movement Party of Kenya (ODM-K).

Of the 135 parliamentary candidates on the PNU ticket, 13 are women (9.6 percent). The ODM is fielding seven women out of a total of 190 candidates (3.7 percent), and ODM-K has 15 women among its 133 candidates (11.3 percent).

It may well be argued, then, that just 35 women – 13 percent of the total number running for parliament – are in the legislative race with a real chance at victory.

"The rest are in periphery parties which are unknown to voters. I am not seeing a need to celebrate the high number of women contenders, because the performance is likely to be as low as it was in 2002," says Rosemary Okello-Orlale, executive director of the African Woman and Child Feature Service – all this in a country where more than half of the population of some 37 million are women.

The Party of National Unity, through which Kibaki is seeking a second and final term in office, blames the low number of PNU women parliamentary candidates on lack of interest in leadership among women, along with a fear of taking up politics as a career.

"PNU&#39s wish is to have as many women candidates as possible to give the president a wider variety to choose from once he forms his cabinet, but that is not the case as women fear to take up the political challenge," the party&#39s press secretary, Dismas Mokua, told IPS in Kenya&#39s capital – Nairobi.

This fear stemmed from lack of resources, concerns about political violence and family demands, he added. Generally, married women were reluctant to join politics, Mokua said; instead, they gave priority to their families.

Jacqueline Oduol, a member of the ODM&#39s national executive committee and chair of the Orange Women Democrats – the branch of the party that deals with issues affecting women members – said flawed primaries were to blame for the paltry number of women on her party&#39s ticket.

"When a system fails, it is known that women suffer most because they depend on fairness to thrive. If the primaries were transparent, then more women could have been nominated," noted Oduol, who herself lost in primaries for the Usonga-Alego constituency in western Kenya.

She told IPS that her supporters, mostly women, had arrived early to vote for her during the party elections, but were obliged to return to their chores after balloting failed to get underway. "They gave up and went home, and when voting started late in the day the women were unable to go back to the stations to vote: they have other engagements, and some walk long distances to polling stations."

One of ODM&#39s goals is for 30 percent of parliamentary seats to be held by women, Oduol added, but the party would not be able to help achieve this if it did not take steps to ensure that primaries were above board. (It is widely held that women need to control about a third of seats in a legislature to begin influencing parliamentary affairs.)

For its part, ODM-K admits more needs to be done to put women on its ballot. The 15 female candidates the party is fielding "…is not enough," communications head Kaplich Barsito told IPS. "We would have wanted more women to participate, but the number we got – mostly elected during primaries – is a good starting point. I am sure next time more women will be interested in contesting leadership."

Looking at the increase in women candidates that did occur this year, Joy Masheti – programme officer at the Nairobi-based Caucus for Women&#39s Leadership, a non-governmental organisation – believes it can be ascribed to civic education: "Many organisations have talked to women about the importance of participating in decision making for the good of the country."

Notes Kwamchetsi Makokha, another analyst, "Generally, Kenyans agree that women are under-represented. The constitution making and review process had an effect in encouraging women to seek leadership." His comment was in reference to efforts made over past years to overhaul Kenya&#39s independence-era constitution.

Just over 14 million people are registered to vote in next week&#39s polls, which will see 210 parliamentary seats and approximately 2,500 local council posts contested, in addition to the presidency.

In 2002, eight women were elected to the legislature, while another won a seat during a by-election the following year. Parties then nominated nine more women to parliament, giving a total of 18 women legislators (in addition to the 210 elected members of parliament in Kenya, there are 12 nominated MPs).

At the time of publishing this article, IPS was not able to get figures for the number of women voted onto local councils in 2002.

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