NAIROBI, March 8 (IPS) – This feature is part of a series to mark International Women’s Day on March 8. Low literacy levels, a high prevalence of FGM, early marriage, forced marriage, low contraceptive use, multiple births, as well as high maternal, infant and child deaths define the life of a woman in Kenya’s vast north-eastern region.
Here, women should be seen and not heard – as life is organized around the all-powerful male-dominated clan and sub-clan system.
But as Kenya marks International Women’s Day, an opportunity every year to assess the place of women in their respective countries and societies, Mahfudha Abdullahi Hajji has shown that a male-dominated system in a highly patriarchal society is not impenetrable.
“I contested for the Member of County Assembly (MCA) post in Ademasajida Ward, Wajir County, in 2013 and 2017 on the Orange Democratic Movement, the biggest political party in Kenya, but I was rigged out because I am a woman,” she says.
Hajji says she fell victim to negotiated democracy. A political euphemism for unchallenged leadership where clans negotiate and share political positions long before a single vote is cast. On election day, the informal agreement is formalized.
In a region where women are equated with children and expected to shoot for their sons, clans are neither eager to be led by a woman nor to front a woman for political leadership. As such, processes for delivering negotiated democracy do not prioritize women’s issues, least of all their inclusion.
“The absence of women in politics means that women are also absent where resources are shared. A woman can determine budget allocations that are in line with the challenges we face. To be represented by one of us is very important,” Habiba Mohamed Situpia, a retired teacher in Wajir County, told IPS.
Abdirashid Jelle, Sultna of the Degodia Council of Elders, talks about the challenge of women not being able to make decisions about their lives, “and then their lack of participation in politics, and this is dictated by clanism. Women have always been invisible in these clans, and that means we don’t expect them to speak up where it matters.”
For politically ambitious women like Hajji, as she discovered over the past 10 years, there is no happy ending in vying for a political seat without the blessings of the leaders of the Council of Elders or the Sultnas, since they are all men.
Against this backdrop, women in Wajir County, which together with Mandera and Garissa Counties form the expansive North East region, formed the first ever female Council of Elders. The first such council in the entire region that allowed them to negotiate with the Sultnas and other religious leaders to empower women and girls.
“We first approached the Sultnas to make it very clear that the Women’s Council was not in competition or opposition to the traditional system. We talked about how the world is changing, and we needed to change with it. We said that where women are left behind, the whole society lags behind ”, explains Situpia.
In the beginning, she says, Sultnas in urban areas were more receptive compared to those in remote rural areas. Finally, the Wajir Woman Council of Elders was formed in 2020.
Kheria Kassim, one of the founders of the Wajir Council of Elders, tells IPS, “there is no opposition to us because we care about issues that hold us back. We want all our children to go to school and have the opportunity to earn a living .”
“We are saying that as daughters, wives and sisters of these Sultnas, when we are left behind, the whole society falls behind other societies where women are more empowered.”
A few months before the 2022 general elections, Kassim says Hajji was already being referred to as one ‘mheshimiwa’ – Swahili for an Honorable Member of Parliament.
“The Sultnas had finally agreed to support her. With their blessings, we all knew way before the general elections that she would win the MCA seat, and she did. Something that no woman has ever done in the entire North-East region,” she said.
Hajji is the second woman ever to be elected to a non-affirmative action political seat after renowned gender advocate Sophia Abdi made history by being elected as the Member of Parliament for Ijara, Garissa County in 2017.
Additionally, Situpia says the Women’s Council of Elders has made remarkable strides in addressing violence against women and girls, a bulwark in the heavily patriarchal society where the subjugation of women is normalized.
Even in such serious cases of rape or defilement, there is a preference for Maslaah and strong opposition to these cases being tried through formal legal processes. Maslaah is a male-dominated, male-friendly traditional system similar to a kangaroo court and will at best fine perpetrators of sexual and gender-based violence.
“Today, it is very rare to find Sultnas dealing with cases of sexual violence. We are now working closely with Wajir Central Police Station and police officers in all six sub-counties of Wajir County to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice. It is also a way of warn potential offenders that they will experience the full force of the law,” explains Kassim.
More so, a number of women have been absorbed into the male council of elders through the support of the Sultnas.
“I belong to the sub-clan of the Degodia Council of Elders in Wajir; we are two women and six men. We sit together and consult as equals. Something that was unheard of earlier,” says Safi Abdullahi Adan, a senior member of the Women Council of Elders.
She further says the Wajir Women Council of Elders has opened membership to women outside the county to include those in Mandera and Garissa, “we share the same culture and religion, the same challenges, and there is no gain for Wajir when our sisters are left behind. We don’t know how many members we have because we are growing day by day.”
As Hajji settles into a win that is largely a milestone for other women in the Northeast region, she represents a new dawn with more girls in school, more women in gainful employment and gradually increased participation in critical decision-making processes.
IPS UN agency report
Follow IPS News UN Bureau on Instagram
© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service