By Kimani Njogu
Which East African nation will be the first to give the region a female president?
Initially, it appeared as if Kenya might lead the way, especially with the electrifying power of the late Wangari Maathai, the stunning Charity Ngilu and Iron Lady Martha Karua. But patriarchy, ethnic fixation and monetisation of the electoral process slowed the momentum of this liberating experience.
Meanwhile, in Uganda, in the earlier days of his rule, Yoweri Museveni created the impression that he might indeed eventually hand over to a female comrade but, although we cannot rule out Janet Museveni taking the mantle in future, the taste of power appears to have erased this possibility. And in neighbouring Tanzania neither Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) nor Chadema will field a presidential candidate soon.
Still, while patriarchy is well entrenched in the region, the dominance of the youth demographic means this power dynamic can be reversed but only if the youth, especially younger women, collectively appreciate the power they possess.
When men and women lead together, they create a powerful nation for generations to come. Disturbingly, the principle of inclusive governance is not always respected when it comes to women leadership.
Although women have reached out and voted men into powerful positions, men have hardly reciprocated this gesture. They have tended to support fellow men, even when such men are clearly mediocre.
The time has come for men to rise up and support transformative women leaders. And there are many in our neighbourhoods who are making the world go round. But due to a dehumanising masculine lens, we cannot see or appreciate them. Positive masculinity demands that we enrich the world with leaders of different genders.
Although there are many highly educated women in the region, they have little access to political power due to an un-accommodative political system, patriarchy and cultural subordination. The electoral process itself is imbued with violence and gender insensitivity, making it virtually impossible for our mothers and sisters to present themselves as candidates for political office.
One would have expected those political parties that profess a social democratic outlook to practise affirmative action in electing party leaders. However, across the board, political party leadership is pretty exclusively male.
When women present themselves for consideration for political office, language that is demeaning and utterly unacceptable is used to harass them out of the contest. References to lower body functions becomes a way of ejecting them from the competition.
Although gender-sensitive legislation is necessary and urgent, it is not sufficient. We must, as a region, change our attitude towards women in leadership. When women occupy leadership positions at national and county levels they bring in new ideas; policies and programmes can be genuinely transformative.
Rwanda has clearly shown the way. It has the highest percentage of women in key leadership positions, women account for 64 per cent of its parliament.
They have been at the centre of rebuilding their nation through local councils and the judicial system. They are leading in the land reform agenda and transforming the educational system.
Through community action, more women can occupy decision-making positions at all levels of society throughout East Africa. Article 7 in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) reiterates the importance of women’s representation in the political life of their countries.
This is further emphasised in the 2011 General Assembly resolution on Women’s Political Participation (A/RES/66/130), which reaffirms “that the active participation of women, on equal terms with men, at all levels of decision-making is essential to the achievement of equality, sustainable development, peace and democracy.” When we develop a politics and culture of inclusion, we become more caring and consultative. In contrast, a culture of exclusion will lead us to intolerance and dictatorship.
These ideas are not foreign. In the ancient kingdom of Congo, female rulers such as Donna Veronica and Donna Susanne di Nobrena were held to high esteem. In the kingdom of Songhai, Queen Amina ruled, founded cities and extended her influence to the Atlantic coast. And the fearlessness of the Amazons of Dahomey (Benin) is legendary.
Closer to home, in 1920, Mary Nyanjiru led a demonstration against the British colonial government of Kenya and demanded the release of Harry Thuku. She was shot dead near the University of Nairobi and her blood was invoked throughout the struggle for Independence.
In 1913 and 1914, Mekatilili wa Menza joined forces with Wanje wa Mwadorikola to resist British colonial policy of forced labour. They were both detained in imprisoned in Kisii.
And in the struggle against German colonialism waged by Mukwava and in the Maji Maji war of 1905-1907, women fought oppression alongside their male counterparts, Using cultural spaces, they articulated the vision of a free society achieved through sweat and blood. Siti Binti Saad challenged negative masculinity in her taarab music, breaking new ground in the performing arts.
Furthermore, in the struggle against British colonialism, Bibi Titi Mohammed not only taught Mwalimu Julius Nyerere the power of language and oratory in politics but also actively fought for political and civic rights through Tanu, as head of the women’s wing. Sadly, during the early years of Independence, her criticism of Nyerere could no longer be tolerated and in 1965 she was charged with treason and imprisoned.
In our communities, we know of many other credible, hardworking and trustworthy women who can provide leadership.
They are our mothers and sisters and can be found in agricultural activities, self-help groups, educational institutions and the health sector. They can occupy decision-making positions and contribute to the economic and social transformation of our country. But we need to reach out to them because working together we can achieve more.
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