Elections: The Leading Ladies of Kenya Need Us to Circle Around Them Now

As the US House was passing the VIolence Against Women Act, women candidates in Kenya are fighting for their political lives so they may uphold the new Kenyan laws that prohibit violence and discrimination against women.  The Women's P2P Network is supporting the Leading Ladies of Kenya, 20 women political candidates traveling the country in a truck and a sound system, promising voters that they will support equality and fight violence and discrimination.  Now, in the last leg of the race before Monday's election, women candidates are being told by coalition leaders to STEP ASIDE in favor of weaker, male candidates, and are being forced out of the race for lack of funds.  We are asking for emergency support to help them cross the finish line. 

Background

The Leading Ladies Circle of Kenya, actually began in 2009 when Lindy Wafula, who directs a non-profit, felt compelled to run for office. “I met women in a village in the south coast of Mombasa.  While having a town hall meeting one woman named Mama  Christina asked me, 'Mama Lindy, what will happen now that  our husbands are sexually molesting our daughters?  When we ask them why they do this they beat us up and tell us not to tell anyone?’  I saw there was no other way of protecting the rights of women except by making laws that would protect our interests and prosecute those who violate women's rights."

Lindy got creamed in the 2010 election that resulted in just 9% women’s representation.  Lindy attributed her loss to women who supported her selling their votes and lack of funds.

This time, armed with a new Constitution that illegalizes violence against women, gives women property rights, and guarantees women 30% political representation (though it now appears as though they will barely reach 10%), Lindy founded the Women’s Academy for East Africa.  She set about training 100 women to run for office, hoping they would stump collectively, even as political opponents.  She explained, “We share everything.  We share childcare, banking, our work in the markets.  Why can we not share when it comes to power?”

Only a handful of the original 100 made it into the race.  Many could not afford the $1000 entry fee.  Others were knocked off in the primary due to lack of funds.  “It is different for women.  We do not have land inherited from our families that we can sell.”  There were also reports of “irregularities” where primary ballots were not delivered to districts where the majority of the voters were women and likely to support women candidates.

The Leading Ladies

The Leading Ladies Caravan launched in January, in a ribbon cutting ceremony that was attended by Kenya’s Vice President. Campaigning by caravan has allowed the Leading Ladies to meet directly with their constituents – more than half of whom are women working in the markets.  Together, they have been traveling, holding house meetings, sharing radio time, and time giving speeches to large crowds from the truck.  Their messages share a common theme of supporting equality, and encouraging women to vote for women, a challenge in a country where votes are easily sold and people are accustomed to equating authority with men.

Harassment, Violence, Lack of Funds

"Was attacked today with supporters of one of my opponents throwing stones at my team along jogoo road. What a pity that those who are sensing defeat are busy to use crude tactics of violence I call on all my supporters to be calm." Friends of Linda Wafula Facebook PostBut the campaign trail has been anything but a bed of roses.  The women have regularly faced harassment, threats, and dwindling funds.  While social media tools, such as group texting capability, were allocated by the coalitions, the women have been frequently passed over.  Lindy regularly receives SMS messages from women reporting violence and threats. “Just last week, drunken thugs, who were hired by my opponent, boarded the caravan after a rally and threw stones at my crowd of supporters.”

Lindy’s opponent is the former mayor of Nairobi, is a known party insider, and “does not want to let go of power.” But, she says, of their race taking place in the poorest district in Nairobi, “he does not speak for the people.”

Step Aside, Ladies

Now, in the last leg of the race, they are confronting the greatest obstacle women face around the world: lack of funds.  To make it worse, while Lindy is beating her opponent by more than 20 points, she has been told by coalition leaders to STEP ASIDE to “consolidate votes,” and they are offering her no further funds for the campaign.  “What would that say to the women of Kenya if I step aside?  That we are not strong enough to compete against men?  What would happen to my credibility? What would happen to the women?”

Why We Should Stand With Them

I first met Lindy a year and a half ago, when we were both participants of a the GWLN women's leadeadership program.  Both of our organizations delivered TED Talks at TEDx Women.  In Lindy's TED Talk, after mesmerizing the audience with her personal story and her work training at-risk women to be auto mechanics, Lindy announced her candidacy for Kenya’s Parliament in Makadara county.

As she stood alone on the stage, knowing the battle that was ahead of her, I committed to standing with her.  Women who run for public office anywhere in the  world appear to us mortals to be brave and unstoppable, but no matter how brave, capable, and resilient these women are, they absolutely, positively, can not do it alone.

In the last leg of the race, the Women’s P2P Network is doing everything we can to build a community around them.  After the election, the Leading Ladies plan to continue their caravan, to keep women's issues on the public agenda.  Women's P2P Network will be creating effective media tools that we can build upon to support women’s campaigns around the world, including creating access for illiterate women, such as voice-to-text applications and integration with community radio.  But first, we have to fund them so they can cross the finish line. 

This summer, I had the privilege of attending a Caucus for Emily’s List, a US organization devoted to getting women elected.  I was BLOWN AWAY by the incredible machine they have created, recognizing that a mass group effort is required to overcome the obstacles women face when running for office, including lack of funds, bullying, and harassment.   After a full day of strategy talks, fundraising pitches, and a parade of speeches from elite Democratic women’s leadership, it was clear to me that we had figured out the most important thing: that we are in this together need each other to succeed.  In 2012, US women were elected into office in record numbers.

We hope our work with the Leading Ladies of Kenya will be the beginning of a community of women from all backgrounds and all parts of the world, that support women courageous enough to run for political office and stand with them as they fight to end violence against women, discrimination, supporting values of equality, community, and economic freedom.  Please join us in having their backs.

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