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POLITICS-KENYA: For Women, Elections May Be the Milestone That Wasn&#39t

Analysis by Rosemary Okello

NAIROBI, Dec 27 2007 (IPS) - General elections are underway in Kenya, marking the end of a titanic struggle between incumbent President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, heading the Party of National Unity and the Orange Democratic Movement, respectively.

While Kibaki&#39s campaign has traded extensively on the economic growth that his administration has overseen since the last polls in 2002, Odinga has made mileage out of the corruption that marred government&#39s achievements over the past five years – this amidst violence fuelled by ethnic disputes, and concerns about vote rigging. Over 100 political parties are on the ballot for Thursday&#39s vote, for which about 14 million Kenyans are registered; in addition to the presidency, 210 parliamentary seats and some 2,500 local council posts must be filled in the polls.

But what of female candidates who have thrown their hats into the ring this year? Will 2007 mark the point at which Kenya finally puts women into decision-making posts in substantial numbers?

IPS has examined the situation of female aspirants from a number of angles over recent weeks – and for election day, we&#39ve asked guest columnist Rosemary Okello to provide her insights on the overall progress made by women since 2002. Okello heads the Nairobi-based African Woman and Child Feature Service, which published a key overview of the last polls, titled &#39A Journey of Courage: Kenyan Women&#39s Experiences of the 2002 General Elections&#39.

As Kenyans elect their leaders, writes Okello, the country is far from achieving gender balance in political representation.

The highest number of women nominees in Kenya&#39s history, for both parliamentary and civic seats, is on the ballot Dec. 27 in what is seen as the most competitive election to date. However, concerns remain about the situation of women in politics.

Of the 2,548 aspirants running for parliamentary seats this year, 269 are women (44 women were nominated in 2002); similarly, 1,475 of the 15,332 persons running for civic seats Thursday are women. Just 300 women contested civic seats in 2002.

These candidates have had to endure many challenges to get this far. The same problems that dogged the 2002 elections – electoral violence, bribery, hooliganism, verbal abuse and threats against women aspirants – repeated themselves during this year&#39s nomination process.

This leaves us wondering whether we have learnt any lessons when it comes to ensuring women are not silenced in political competition; clearly, it is imperative that political parties start enforcing affirmative action policies to overcome these difficulties, and bring as many women as possible on board.

Lack of financial resources and limited access to political networks are other factors that are seen to undermine women&#39s political progress. Notes political analyst Kwamchetsi Makokha: "A lot of women are not in the mainstream of parties and it is very easy for them to get rigged out."

An overview of the major parties reveals that they are fielding relatively few women. Consider the figures for legislative candidates.

President Mwai Kibaki&#39s Party of National Unity has 135 parliamentary candidates in the race, of which just 13 are women (9.6 percent); 73 out of the 727 PNU party members who competed for nomination were women.

The Orange Democratic Movement has included seven women among its 190 legislative aspirants (3.7 percent); 59 of the 836 candidates vying for nomination by the ODM were women.

The Orange Democratic Movement-Kenya, for its part, has a total of 15 women among its 133 candidates (11.3 percent). ODM-K had 20 women out of a total of 300 parliamentary aspirants in the nomination process.

The rest of the female candidates are standing for smaller parties which political analysts typically dub "inconsequential".

Some argue that if nomination had been conducted in a more orderly manner, many women could have made it onto the ballot of key political groupings.

But, says Nancy Abisai, an ODM national executive council member, "Right now the problem is on the ground and not about the party. It&#39s about cultural issues, and it is beyond the party&#39s reach."

Using direct nominations to put more women in the race lands the party in a Catch 22, she adds. "We were in a debate on how to ensure women get well represented. When we said that women should get direct nomination, it was said it would not be fair to male members and would contravene our party constitution and election guidelines."

Some take encouragement from the fact that those women who have been nominated are formidable individuals who would appear to stand a good chance of winning seats in Kenya&#39s tenth parliament.

Just 8.1 percent of places in the previous legislature were held by women. But, "The number (this year) will only be slightly higher than the last eight percent," predicts Makokha. "I don’t think it will go past 20 percent…Women are still doing very badly."

For those who fail, even at the outset, a long term view is needed, councils Yvonne Khamati, deputy permanent representative to the African Union.

"Women on party lists who lose nominations can choose to remain in their parties and negotiate for positions in government from there. They can then use this as a springboard to go it again in the next election. Also, they should use the political parties act to try and ensure that gender parity is actualised after the elections."

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