KISII, Kenya Mar 31 – Despite the increasing presence of women aspiring for elective leadership positions in most parts of the country, gender-based cultural victimization and discrimination continue to undercut women’s struggles.
Abagusii Community in the Nyanza region has never elected a woman to the National Assembly, apart from the Constitutional affirmative action where the Women Representative slot is protected by law. A pick on engagement efforts by Miss Rachel Otundo could change the dreadful narrative.
Besides her work as a private land economist, the 54-year-old woman is much into politics pushing for change and the narrative in this community that women can’t be elected because they are women and not ideologies.
Miss Otundo declared her interest for the top seat in Kisii County after losing the member of parliament seat three times saying she has learnt from her down fall and now shooting up to the top seat will be the best thing for her.
So far she is among eleven people who have shown interest to run for the gubernatorial position with 20% women and now the strongest candidate in the gubernatorial seat.
In Rachel’s view, there is deep-rooted retrogressive seclusion of women who have expressed the desire to take the leadership responsibility. Women in this community face innumerable challenges due to community, social, and cultural norms and beliefs that political leadership and control is tough and ‘designed for men.’ Rachel remains astonished that, “In the 21st century, my community still harbor outdated beliefs that women belong to the kitchen, household chores and taking care of their families, while men should take elective positions and make decisions.”
Born and raised in Ibeno village, in Kisii county she braved a humble background and male-dominated culture and acquaintance is marred with critical and traumatic political difficulties.
However, her resolve to break the gender restrains and bondage remains persistently unshaken in her pursuit to change the narrative of women discrimination. She is determined to get a societal transformation that shall have responsive political structures, accommodative of women who can enhance the people’s livelihoods.
‘’Many years ago, when I was a young girl, prevailing poor infrastructure and socio-political deprivation on women, children and youth in my village challenged me to fight for decision-making space,” Otundo notes. “In other communities, it is encouraging that they have now embraced women leadership and the women leadership and delivery on promises is enviable. I am focusing on providing reliable alternative political leadership and this is the dream I am working on.”
Being a single mother, Miss Otundo found it more challenging, getting mockery from the community. Generally, in the Abagusii community, it is perceived that women who are not married should not be trusted or to the least hold dialogue on anything concerning leadership. Although many are supporting this negative notion, there is a slow but momentous change in beliefs. Despite her social status, Rachel has worn a thick skin to counter all this discriminative setup.
One of the experiences she encountered at the age of 13 when she was at Ibeno primary school with her younger brother, the brother was involved in a fight with other children in school and she did not spare him but disciplined accordingly not favouring him as a brother.
Miss Otundo has participated in passive politics since the early 90s, but in 2007, took a resolute decision to resign from a worthwhile government service to contest for the Member of Parliament seat in the Nyaribari Chache constituency. This time, she was the only woman competing against a number of men. “This was a warm- up, in 2013 during a by-election I still presented myself to vie for the Member of Parliament position in Nyaribari Chache constituency, but I still lost,” she noted.
According to advisory from her supporters who have not embraced women leadership, she required endorsement from men in leadership and formidable parties before vying for any seat. Peter Morara, her strong supporter said she doesn’t regret giving his fully support to Miss Otundo because he believes in her leadership and her ideologies for the people of Kisii.
“I have worked with Miss Otundo for 15 years now and when listening to her speaking, she is a kind of a leader who should be given a chance to govern us,” he said, “She is a kind of a person who does not back down when she is up for something, she tries till she gets it and that is the energy we want.”
Miss Otundo said that with the blow in the same year, she competed for the Speaker’s position in the Kisii County Assembly but this time men in leadership right from the Governor elect, Senator and the Women Representative ganged up against her.
“Even, women members at the assembly never supported me as a fellow woman. Instead they had been financially manipulated to vote for my competitor who was a man. Partly, lack of resources to mobilize for my support worked against me and that’s how I lost, ” Miss Otundo alleges.
In spite of four defeats, Miss Otundo says she has learned a lot and motivated to go for the gubernatorial seat in Kisii county in 2022. Through continued community service and support programs, Rachel believes that she has further established herself and reaffirmed that women can be great leaders and they should be elected to lead for a better inclusive society.
“Failures have awakened the deep spirits in me that I should stand against all the challenges that may appear insurmountable and be elected on merit. Similarly, my community should know that time has come for change and reliable change on inclusivity should be shaped by women,” indicated Miss Otundo.
She says she has learnt that women in politics should use all means available including civic education, capitalizing on weaknesses dominated by men while fighting for space and standing to be counted.
To address the women capacity and empowerment breach, Miss Otundo has opened a foundation where she empowers women political aspirants in the Gusii community encouraging them to work as a team with a theme of ‘Women for change ‘. “I have recruited and teamed up with about 60 women interested in elective politics to support, empower and help ourselves change the perspective of the political dynamics in our community, “she noted.
Matilda Sarange one of the aspirant under this training says that ‘’the mentorship program by our founder has changed how I perceived politics.”’ She mentions that her long term experience in politics has left her dedicating her time to mentor upcoming political women by unfolding challenges likely to be faced and finding solutions. “We meet ones in a month to empower ourselves as women, lay strategies for resource mobilization to boost each other in the upcoming General elections.’’ Articulated Sarange.
Sarange says, since she joined the foundation, she has acquired knowledge and skills to better her approach in the coming general election as she has interest in vying for the Member of the County Assembly seat, in Kisii County. A position she believes that she will clinch only if there remains constant collaboration, motivation and civic education.
Unfortunately, the group monthly meetings have suffered a major setback due to Ministry of Health Restrictions and dwindling incomes. “Due to COVID-19, we altered the monthly meetings we resolved to hold them virtualy and that way it has become cheaper and easier in conducting our engagements, though close contacts and face to face meeting could serve us better,’’ she noted.
Richard Tong’i, Member of parliament for Nyaribari Chache constituency who was elected after defeating 13 candidates in 2017 general election, said Miss Otundo is a very powerful lady and no other woman from this region has reached her height.
“She is a very consistence lady who has filled herself In a pool of men and she has shown that women from this community can be great political leaders,” said Tong’i.
Erick Ongeri, a political analyst says women aspirants for elective seats are a disadvantaged lot in Gusiiland especially due the prevailing patriarchy where the culture denies them an opportunity. On the other hand, Dismus Mokua feels that voting in Gusii is liberal and voting someone to office depends on personality and track records of their success.
According to Dr. Jackline Nyaanga, a Medical Doctor at Kisii University, also a champion for women rights in the Gusii region, ‘’a political journey is always messy whereby women rights are disrespected and devalued by their male competitors. The social culture set up has not created a favorable environment for women but it scares them away from the elective competition due to unfair and acts of violence that women.” However, she noted that ‘’Women in this community have made tremendous strides on governance politically but still there remains a huge gap and attitude change from the clans and the entire community.’’
Political women are damagingly judged by the society, their close family that question choices and divulge into their personal lives and character. All such condemnation strangely thrives and is upheld weighed on a fair scale by the community.