Who’d be a woman politician? Shattering glass ceilings is not for the faint of heart

Friday February 15 2019

Kenyan women politicians.

Kenyan women politicians. As Kenya mulls over a possible referendum to create five positions to share power, we somehow know in the back of our minds, that none of them will go to women. PHOTO | NMG 

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Student politics in our universities is a replica of our national politics.

When it comes to heavy debates, the competitive candidates are printing hundreds of fliers, forming voting blocs (causing some institutions to forbid the formation of clubs linked to tribe because they were breeding tribal hate speech), attending functions and making promises they will forget as soon as they are sworn in, building relationships, and fundraising.

Tell the truth, they should receive a credit in political science. After that sort of experience, no one ever comes out the same. It will either build you in the political arena or completely break you.

From as early as primary school, voting for a class representative has become just as engaging and competitive these days.

Students no more than 10 years old know what their manifesto for the class or school is. These primary campaigners know what they will bring to the table, including extra snacks at lunch. Promises that will not be kept, but the grandiose nature of them is hilarious when you listen to these young people make such statements.

They have even gone to the extent of making and printing fliers to be shared around the school and asking friends to vote while handing out sweets as an incentive…


University politics is all about whether you are male or female, because the terrain is completely different for the different genders.

Meeting a young woman who vied for president in university is like finding a diamond in the rough. They are thin on the ground. But why?

From my days in student leadership – I studied abroad and led the International Students Organisation as president – I remember very few events, but mainly two, including a culture week we had to organise. It was one of the largest events of the year, where up to 200 students would be in attendance and we would ask international students to make a dish from their respective countries.

Up to 40 countries would participate, setting up booths, and proudly wearing their traditional clothes.

The other thing I remember is running for that position. I was going up against a European. I knew full well that the institution was predominantly white, and my bloc vote being African, there were too few of the latter to carry me to victory. I needed another bloc, and a growing student body was the Asians.

The school had an English Learning Institute they had just opened that several of the Asians attended, but they tended to stick to themselves.

I had to break that bubble and that meant getting to attend their events, knowing their culture and becoming a part of them. And it worked.

In Kenya the picture is murky; it’s about more than identifying with your voters. There are incredible amounts of money involved and all sorts of politicking. For young women to first openly say they will go for a presidential seat, or chair, they need to be not just made of iron, but titanium.

They are attacked online, physically abused in some cases, insults are hurled at them, and in political leadership it is common for women to feel they are being undressed in public.

To add insult to injury, their own family members will frequently question their sanity and try their level best to persuade them to get out of student politics.

But there are seats that “belong” to young women in student politics; many end up striving for the deputy seat, which becomes an automatic goal because it is easier. That way your ticket is not necessarily dependent on you, but the person you follow, the chair.

As debate rages on the national level over whether the post of women’s representative should be removed, one fact is clear: It has made it difficult for women to manoeuvre around other seats than that particular one.

“Don’t you have your own seat? Ile yawanawake?” Going for any other will be met with questions as to why your sense of direction is flawed. This very seat was created for women like you, so aim there.

As Kenya mulls over a possible referendum to create five positions to share power, we somehow know in the back of our minds, that none of them will go to women.

So for those yelling from the rooftops that women representative positions should be scrapped and women compete just like everyone else, well, we all know that it is not the reality.

But all in all, to shatter any ceiling is not for the fainthearted.

Nerima Wako-Ojiwa is executive director of Siasa Place. Twitter: @NerimaW