By Tabitha Nderitu, Womens Feature Service
Her first attempt to win a seat to the Kenyan parliament in 2007 resulted in a comprehensive defeat. This may have had something to do with the fact that her political message was singularly focused on women’s empowerment in an environment that genuflects to patriarchal ways.
Unfortunately for the photogenic Ann Njogu, lawyer and executive director of the women’s advocacy group Center for Rights Education and Awareness, her public demeanour unwittingly became her Achilles heel. Endowed with a natural talent for oratory, a strong streak of personal courage and a talent for upsetting the ruling political class, she has been termed as publicity-hungry by her detractors.
Although Njogu may not have won the election to Parliament as yet, this firebrand Kenyan politician refuses to take a back seat. Recently, she was back in the limelight. This time hers was one of the leading voices of a very unusual initiative by women to get Kenya’s top political leadership to take notice of their discontent at the growing environment of political instability.
Last month, a coalition of 10 women’s groups, called G-10, announced that thousands of women in the country, irrespective of their social strata and location, would go on a weeklong sex strike, ostensibly to press the local leadership to bring in requisite changes in the political landscape.
These women representatives, along with an emotional Njogu, claimed that the move, if successfully implemented, could force President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga to cease their warring, which had led to widespread violence in the past.
After the controversial results of the presidential elections were announced in late December 2007, Kenya witnessed a spate of violence that killed some 1,000 people early last year. Even the peace deal signed in late February 2008, which brought together Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU) and Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), failed to create a feeling of goodwill within the ranks of the hastily stitched up Grand Coalition Government (GCG). As a consequence, the government has remained divided along party lines and this has led to a palpable paralysis in governance.
Rukia Subow, Chairperson, Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organisation, (MYWO), an exclusive women’s outfit with the largest membership of rural women in Kenya, gave her take on the situation: “When two bulls fight, it is the grass that suffers. The grass here refers to the women and children of Kenya. … hunger, poverty, gang-related murders and unemployment afflict the common person. But instead of developing the country, we see our leaders concentrating on useless feuds.” She added, “Women are suffering in camps for the internally displaced, perpetrators of sexual violation during the polls have not been charged. But those who are supposed to be helping us are busy bickering among themselves.”
During the seven days, the lobby group drew up a performance contract, which clearly defined the kind of leadership expected of both the President and Prime Minister. The document was then sent to the two leaders for their signatures which, the G-10 argued, would convey the goodwill and commitment the two men have for the people. This, however, did not happen – no signatures were forthcoming. What is more, the influential consorts of both the leaders, despite the hope that they would give the initiative their wholehearted support, responded with a studied silence. Incidentally, while the 220-seat Parliament has around 17 women, only one of them – who is, incidentally, separated from her husband – publicly sided with the G-10.
The G-10 initiative was also met by more vocal criticism. “Now our women are being told that they can use their bodies for political goals. The ubiquitous red districts continue business as usual but the other side abstains. But at the bottom, what is the difference? Sex is being bargained for. Whether for money or for activism, it does not matter. Both types are sex workers. One camp can call a press conference. The other side prefers to work in the dark,” wrote Gitua Warigi, a columnist with the local ‘Sunday Nation’, the country’s leading newspaper.
Meanwhile, there have also been reports in the media that a Kenyan male, James Kimondo, has sued the activists for calling for the seven-day sex ban, saying that their move had resulted in stress, mental anguish, backaches and lack of sleep. Kimondo’s lawsuit filed claims for the absence of conjugal ties and the fact that his marriage was adversely affected. He claimed damages from the G-10 for an undisclosed sum.
But despite the welter of criticism that came its way, the mood within the G-10 is buoyant. “The boycott was very successful. It was a protest against the poor leadership and to demand that the two principals (President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga) take charge of the country,” said Patricia Nyakundi, Executive Director, Federation of Kenya Lawyers, acronymed FIDA in the French dialect.
Njogu spoke more philosophically. “We achieved results beyond our expectations or imagination. For the first time in the tumultuous history of Kenya, we took the debate of national governance to the vicinity of the bedroom regardless of the social setting. And whether people agreed with the option we chose or not, the point remains that we succeeded in raising the country’s awareness for the need to hold our leaders accountable. That’s what patriotism is about.”
It’s a pity that these women have been on the receiving end of a lot of flak. Had it been an election year, their message might very well have resonated with the electorate.