By Joyce Chimbi
Low literacy levels, a high prevalence of outlawed Female Genital Mutilation, early marriages, forced marriages, low contraceptive usage, 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 are to 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, a once-in-a-year opportunity to assess the place of women in their respective countries and communities, Mahfudha Abdullahi Hajji has shown that a male-dominated system in a highly patriarchal society is not impenetrable.
“I vied for the Member of County Assembly (MCA) position 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 ballot is cast. On the day of the general election, the informal agreement is formalized.
In a region where women are equated to children and are expected to defer to their sons, clans are neither eager to be led by a woman nor front a woman for political leadership. As such, processes to deliver 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 set budgetary allocations that are in line with the challenges facing us. Being represented by one of us is very important,” Habiba Mohamed Situpia, a retired teacher in Wajir County, tells IPS.
Abdirashid Jelle, the Sultna of Degodia Council of Elders, speaks of 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 this means we do not expect them to talk where it matters.”
For politically ambitious women like Hajji, as she found out in the last 10 years, there is no happy ending in contesting for a political seat without blessings from leaders of the Council of Elders or Sultnas, as they are all male.
Against this backdrop, women in Wajir County, which alongside Mandera and Garissa Counties constitute the expansive North Eastern region, formed the first-ever Women Council of Elders. The first such council in the entire region to enable them to negotiate with the Sultnas and other religious leaders toward the empowerment of 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 spoke about how the world is changing, and we needed to change with it. We said that where women are left behind, the entire community lags behind,” Situpia explains.
In the beginning, she says, Sultnas in urban areas were more receptive compared to those in remote rural areas. In the end, the Wajir Woman Council of Elders was formed in 2020.
Kheria Kassim, one of the founding members of Wajir Council of Elders, tells IPS, “there is no resistance towards us because we concern ourselves with issues that hold us back. We want all our children to go to school and have an opportunity to make a living.”
“We are saying that as daughters, wives, and sisters of these Sultnas when we are left behind, the entire community falls behind other communities where women are more empowered.”
A few months before the 2022 general elections, Kassim says Hajji was already been referred to as a ‘mheshimiwa’ – Swahili for an honourable 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 whole of North Eastern region,” she says.
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 Ijara MP, Garissa County, in 2017.
Additionally, Situpia says the Women’s Council of Elders has made notable steps towards addressing Violence against Women and Girls, rampart in the strongly patriarchal community where the subjugation of women is normalized.
Even in such serious cases of rape or defilement, there is a preference for Maslaah and strong resistance to these cases being heard through formal judicial processes. Maslaah is a male-dominated, male-friendly traditional system akin to a kangaroo court and will, at best, confer a small fine to perpetrators of sexual and gender-based violence.
“Today, it is very rare to find Sultnas dealing with sexual violence cases. We now work closely with Wajir Central police station and police officers in all six sub-counties in Wajir County to ensure that offenders are taken to court. It is also a way to warn potential offenders that they will experience the full force of the law,” Kassim expounds.
More so, a number of women have been absorbed into the male Council of Elders through the endorsement 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 before,” says Safi Abdullahi Adan, a senior member of the Women Council of Elders.
She further says that the Wajir Women Council of Elders has opened membership to women outside of the County to include those in Mandera and Garissa, “we share the same culture and religion, same challenges, and there is no winning for Wajir when our sisters are left behind. We do not know how many members we have because we are growing day by day.”
As Hajji settles down in a win that is very much a milestone for other women in the North Eastern region, she represents a new dawn of more girls in school, more women in gainful employment and progressively, increased participation in critical decision-making processes.
IPS UN Bureau Report