August 27, 2011

Hundreds of Kenyan Women March to Parliament to Secure 2/3rds Rule

A police officer guards the doors of parliament, as Kenyan women
activists demand access to their legislators.

August 25, 2011

Bunge La Mwananchi: The People’s Parliament

Ms. Beatrice Karore shows her Voter ID Card before
voting at the 2011 Bunge La Mwananchi elections.
To vote in Kenya, every voter must possess one.
Kenya is a country that until recently, has had no formal local governments---only a national  government with  positions  frequently filled with people of power, money, and political party influence.  Involvement in governance by ordinary members of the community has been limited, and the Bunge La Mwananchi or People’s Parliament evolved in 2008 as an alternative citizen governance body to unite together members of every tribe and regional community of Kenya in shadow parliaments.  As past president, Samson Owimba Ojiayo noted, “Bunge La Mwananchi is a platform which was started to discuss the social, political, and economic status of the citizens of this country, in Africa and the world at large.”

When I arrived at the Bunge La Mwananchi elections at JeeVanGee Park in central Nairobi on the August 17th, 2011, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I had been invited to witness the election process, which happens  every two years, by Ms. Beatrice Karore, a Nairobi resident who was running to become Coordinator of the Bunge La Mwananchi. 

Unlike most elections that I have witnessed, the Bunge La Mwananchi elections were held outdoors in the center of JeVanGee park, one of Nairobi’s public park.  No campaign signs, nor campaigning (contestants vying for seats were required to end campaigning  the day before, and I was kindly reminded not to mention any names , as it could be inferred as support for specific candidates), or protests of any sort.  Instead, I found an orderly process that appeared to be held to high accountability standards.  As I traced the long line of voters to the front of the line, I found an election chairman overseeing a voting process that included signing in, showing your voter card, filling out ballots for each of the seven positions being contested, depositing your votes into the appropriate buckets, and receiving a purple stamp that indicated that you had voted.  The entire process was monitored by a row of election observers who seemed to be quite diligent. With 450 members expected to cast their ballots, the voting process really could take all day!

The absence of women members was disconcerting to me; during the time I was there, I counted over sixty male participants and only six women participants.  Male members noted that there organization was inclusive and open to women, but enough did not come out and participate---placing much blame on the Kenyan culture, which has marginalized women in the political arena.   Some noted that the Bunge may implement the new Constitution’s rules on gender(no more than 2/3rds of an elected body can be of a single gender) to reflect the new rules of the land.

From the experience of watching the Bunge La Mwananchi elections, I can say that I am impressed by the level of civic participation in some circles of Kenya.  Beyond shadow parliaments, you can find political forums in local vernacular languages on street corners of central Nairobi on a daily basis.  I am curious to learn about political activism in other parts of Kenya and to compare and contrast civic involvement across the country.

The photo essay below illustrates the Bunge La Mwananchi process.  Hope you enjoy!

Voters---mostly men, wait in an orderly line to vote for new Bunge La  Mwananchi  leadership at the JeeVan Gee Park in Central Nairobi on August 17, 2011.

Ms. Beatrice Karore, a candidate for the seat of Coordinator, stands at the front of the line to vote at the 2011 Bunge La Mwananchi elections.

"People's Parliament" member, Florence Kanyua, prepares to vote.

Voters mark their candidate choice for each position on paper ballots.

Ms. Beatrice Karore casts her ballot into a plastic bucket.

Vigilant election observers watch as Ms. Beatrice Karore cast her ballot.

After casting her ballot, Ms. Beatrice Karore receives a purple stamp to show that she has voted.

After voting, members of the Bunge La Mwananchi greet one another and talk politics.

Mr. Otieno Cidi David, a candidate for president of the Bunge La Mwananchi, proudly shows the purple stamp that has been placed on his palm.

August 23, 2011

MEET THE CANDIDATE: Ms. Cathy Wanjiku Irungu: Candidate for County Assembly Representative in Nairobi County

Catherine “Cathy” Wanjiku Irungu

                        Age 27
 Candidate for Women Representative
             Mathira Constituency
                    Nyeri County

“Women need to have synergy in what they are doing….so that as we try to address challenges and we try to make Kenya a better place, we do it has one.”

When I first met Cathy Irungu in passing on the street, I could feel her wave of confidence and self-assurance from a mile away.  Business owner, second-time candidate, ngo-founder, and citizen mobilizer; these could be the job titles of many people, but Cathy, at only the age of 27 embodies each and every one of these roles.

Starting her first business as the age of 17, Cathy followed in the footsteps of her father who was a farmer and entrepreneur in Nyeri County in Central Kenya.  The lessons she learned as the eldest child in her family translated into skills that she would utilize as a class prefect and later head girl during her early education at D.E.B. Ndimaini Primary School and Muruguru Girls High School.

When she left her village to study biochemistry and molecular biology at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology(JKUAT), she subsequently discovered her intuitive talent for political engagement when she became a student leader in university government.  It was also during her formidable period in her life that she became involved in national political campaigning and the party system. Unlike many of her peers, who saw their university educations as a ticket for finding a job to work for someone else, Cathy challenged the norm by forging her own pathway as an entrepreneur, problem solver and candidate for office.

Her life-long observation of the environmental, social and cultural barriers that challenged farmers in her village of Ndimaini from reaching their greatest economic potential lead her to start the African Food Security & Environmental Program (AFSEP).  Cathy also saw the need for educated young people to have a platform for connecting their ideas to those who could fund and implement them, and become the Kenya representative for Infospring---an online resource for development professionals and members of the community to exchange solutions for complex challenges. With a strong business background and a desire to help other women, she co-founded the Kenyan Women Chamber of Commerce (KWCC).

When Cathy began her quest for office as a candidate for Parliament in 2007, she saw it as a starting point for her role in governance----the place where she could bring the greatest positive change for her village and the people of Nyeri County that she cared so much about.  Although she knew she was young, she embraced the call to office:  “I’ll start right now. I’ll go for it!  I will not wait until I’m 30.  I will not wait until I’m 35.” 

Cathy is among the many women in Kenya who tirelessly campaigned for the implementation of Kenya’s new constitution in 2010.  Among other rights such as landownership, women gained access to political leadership in the New Constitution by way of a new rule that says that no more than any gender can occupy more than 2/3rds of elected or appointed office and new Women Representative seats in each county.  In light of these positive changes, Cathy has found a window of opportunity to run for county Women Representative in her home of Nyeri County.  This time around she is not only trusted more in her community, but also has a more mature understanding of how to operate her campaign in the context of a the new constitution which encourages women like Cathy to participate in governance.  Cathy’s commitment to engaging other women in leadership and community engagement is evident through the robust Nakuru County Women’s Network and the Nairobi County Women’s Forum , which she regularly mobilizes through civic engagement on issues affecting girls and women in governance. Her grassroots relationships are sure to become a cornerstone of support for her candidacy.

Here are some quick notes from Cathy’s formal video interview (to be posted soon):

1.) Agriculture
      a. Food Security
            i. Need to increase food production in Nyeri County.
            ii. Improvement of coffee, tea and Dairy sectors.
            iii. Improved market access for agricultural produce.
            iv. Farmers training on new farming techniques.
            v. Policies that address food security in the region.
            vi. Poverty alleviation
2.) Environment/Climate Change is endangering lifestyles
             i. Need to address climate change and environmental degradation sustainably.
             ii. Plant more trees.
             iii. Green businesses.
3.) Education
             i. Employing measures that uplift education standards for both genders.

4.) Women's Empowerment
             i. Through Agriculture, Trainings, Improved health and trade.
             ii. Representing women at the National Assembly.

5.) Enterprise Development
            i. Enhance development of small and Micro enterprises.

6.) Creation of Employment opportunities for the local Youths
           i. Through design and implementation of job creation strategies such as addition and trade.
           Industrialization, ICT, Value
7.) Enhance Good Governance
          i. Through accountability, transparency, Integrity and Gender mainstreaming.

1.) Perceptions as a young, single candidate
         i. Gaining acceptance on the ground
2.) Encouraging women to vote for other women
3.) Finding resources for running a campaign
         i. “Vote Buying” is common
4.) Historically, the nomination process by parties has not been“Free & Fair”

1.)  Build a network of other women running for office
         i. There is power in numbers
2.)  Encourage women to support other women…even if in other provinces
3.)  Start Now!!!  Don’t wait to run for office.
3.)  Work with men in your campaign and networks.
5.)  Address real issues affecting your constituents.

August 17, 2011

WEEK 1 in Kenya

When I came to Kenya a week ago, I never imagined that my kinship to the 2012 elections and the women candidates running would grow as quickly as it has.  With every new phone conversation, coffee meeting, or impromptu introduction, I become more intrigued by the election process in Kenya and the prospects for women, youth and disability candidates’ inclusion in the government under the new constitution.

My vocabulary is quickly expanding---Merry-Go-Rounds(a common way to pool resources to fund initiatives/projects), Flashing(in reference to how people in Kenya give each other their cell phone numbers), and the intriguing concept of Devolution.  Devolution, or the move from only federal government to one in which 47 new county governments in Kenya will play equally important roles as the parliament, has become the everyday conversation in the news and on the streets.  Not only will Kenya expand the number of elected seats it needs to fill in 2011, but will also be expected to meet the mandates of a  new Constitution.

What is unique about the new Kenyan constitution is the special emphasis that it places on ensuring that no gender occupies more than 2/3rds of county or parliamentary seats.  Stipulations in the Constitution create special seats for women, youth and disability candidates.  From the perspective of a young American, this is quite astounding.  These special positions, along with the 2/3rds gender limit, are mobilizing many more women candidates to consider running for office.  

With great opportunity, also comes great challenge.  Even with designated seats, women face deceptively difficult cultural and social barriers to getting elected to office in Kenya.  In conversation with both men and women, currently elected and potential candidates, I have learned that winning a seat in parliament or in one of the many new seats created at the county level will take party participation, money and resources, passion for issues that will mobilize voters, and the resilience to weather through the turbulence of the “rough and tumble” campaigns that have in the past rigged candidates out of nominations, inflicted physical violence, and resulted in the “buying of votes”.

Although the above aforementioned challenges are unique, they are not so different from the ones that withhold women in the United States from choosing to run for office.  As caregivers and mothers, we often leave the “dirty” world of politics to the men.  As I have heard repeated many times this week and in other forums, “elected women care about issues and elected men care about power and money.”  If more women were involved in governance in a place in Kenya, perhaps more rural villages would have clean drinking water (the number one priority of rural women), and the halls of Parliament held more accountable to the promises its leaders make to people it is intended to serve.

Over the next five weeks, my journey continues.  More formal video interviews with my initial group of women candidates, a training for young women leaders, as well as a criss-crossing journey across Kenya to visit and photograph the candidates in their  the diverse constituencies.  

August 4, 2011

Running Start: Planting the Seeds of Inspiration for the Next Generation of Women Political Leaders

Running Start is the perfect name for an organization that empowers girls and young women with the confidence, leadership, and political skills they need to have a “head start” as they become change makers, candidates for office, and eventually elected representatives.  Although I have followed and participated in the work of Running Start since its founding in 2007, I had the unique opportunity to document their Young Women’s Political Leadership Program several weeks ago. 
Unlike the perceptions one may may infer when they think of a “political training”, the Young Women’s Political Leadership Program was dynamic, engaging, real and inspirational---in fact the diverse gathering of participants were all under the age of 20.  Although the girls expressed the maturity, communications skills and focus of individuals far beyond their age in years, their choruses of conversation and attachment to mobile phones were reminders of their youthfulness. 

The girls were not afraid of stating their political ambitions----perhaps reflecting a changing societal attitude towards women’s leadership in elected bodies in the United States.  They were confident of their skills and seemed to embrace the training challenges with audacity. I watched as the girls competitively role-played candidates and donors to raise money, and participated in mock elections with the seriousness of actual candidates----real budgets, consultants, and time constraints.  During their on-camera media trainings, the young leaders faced tough critiques of their interviewing skills as they answered questions from guest communications experts.

I am optimistic that their energy and commitment to following their passion will spread to you as you check out the above photo slideshow.

If you are a young women or a mentor to a young women interested in politics, I encourage you to learn more about Running Start at