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A woman casts her ballot during the Jubilee Party (JP) primary elections, inside a polling centre in Nairobi, Kenya April 26, 2017. (REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya)A

Organizing for action

Women in Kenya band together in bid to thwart violence ahead of upcoming elections

June 5, 2017

As many Kenyans are anxious about possible eruption of violence in the elections coming up in August, women are stepping up, organizing, and taking all actions possible to prevent violent outbursts from occurring. As Okore Sheaffer, the Vice Chair of the newly established Ukweli Party (meaning the Truth Party in Swahili) declares, “Women are rising up like no other times in Kenya.”

Mama Samaka, a community leader in the slums of Kibera in Nairobi best articulates Kenyan’s fear by saying “during election people become enemies.” The point of her anxiety along with many other Kenyans goes back to the violence of the 2007 election that led to the deaths of 1,300, and displaced more than half a million people.

Mama Samaka, who sells dried fish in the slums and is the main breadwinner in a family that includes an unemployed husband and three sons, is worried. “Our children don’t have anything to do. They can be tricked with 100 or 50 shilling (About 50 cents to one dollar in U.S. currency) to do some damage.” She is referring to the violence that many fear the main two candidates will mobilize and unleash to impact election results. “We are tired of hunger, poverty and school fees. We want the government to be fair to the people. Now we are suffering and they don’t’ even care,” Mama Samaka continues.

To thwart politicians from unleashing violence in the streets of the Kibera slum, Mama Samaka ran for the community-elected Shofco Urban Network to organize residents and galvanize them against any sort of violence at the street level. “I bring people together so they don’t’ fight,” she explains. She is joined by many other women in the slums who worry about hunger if violence gets out of hand again.

“The men can always fetch food for themselves if riots happen, but women worry that they and their children will go hungry if riots erupt and they have to hide in their homes, so they are organizing to prevent instability from happening,” says Alpa, a community organizer at Shining Hope for Community (SHOFCO), a local organization that provides water, education and health services to people at the Kabera slums. Last time riots erupted, tear gas was spread in school, women had to close their work and that often meant hunger for those living in the slums.

Mama Samaka is not the only woman who is organizing to prevent violence this time around. She is joined by more educated, middle-class women, who are part of the Ukweli Party, which is known for being “driven by young people and run by mostly women.” The Ukweli Party was founded in response to many challenges seen in the 68 political parties in Kenya. “All current parties are run by old people. They don’t know how to communicate with women or the youth,” says Sheaffer.

Mama Samaka,a community leader in the slums of Kibera in Nairobi. (Zainab Salbi)

These are not the only challenges, though. Sheaffer, a woman in her early 30s who makes a point of her red lipstick and her afro hair — a characteristic that many don’t’ expect from women politicians — highlights another major party goal: “You do not have to vote by your tribe. No more tribe but a person,” she explains as she enumerates other party objectives including integrity, justice, equity and citizen accountability.

Though women are actively stepping up and speaking out against corruption and violence, it is not that easy to be a woman entering the political fray in Kenya. “Women are afraid to join politics because politics is very violent and patriarchal in our country,” Sheaffer explains as she talks of her own political journey. One of the first things she recalls having heard when she actively became part of a political party is someone telling her, “I hope you are ready for sexual advances because political prostitution is the way of thriving.”

Others have doubted her ability to be a successful politician due to the fact that she’s a single woman. “When I tell them I am not married and don’t have kids, they say if you can’t keep one man, how can you talk to all of us as your constituencies.” Sheaffer explains. So far, neither Sheaffer, nor any of the women that I met across Nairobi, are stepping back or giving up on their role to ensure a calm election. “Giving up is not an option. I am worried but I am more helpful because I see more women organizing, pushing, taking action. Women are waking up. Women are rising. This makes me believe there is still hope in this country,” Sheaffer remarks.

Eunice Akoth with Zainab Salbi during her recent visit to Nairobi. (Zainab Salbi)

Back in the slums of Kibera, 13-year-old Eunice Akoth, who has performed onstage at the Women in the World New York Summit, comments on the current political tension in Kenya by saying, “I see the future full of female leaders. We have lots of male leaders now but they don’t come and visit us. They are all about corruption. But women worry if they don’t have food. They care about the people and don’t want to see hunger.” Akoth adds, “You don’t have to change all the women in the country. All you need is to change one and you will make all the difference.

No one knows what will happen in the upcoming Kenyan election and the Ukweli Party is definitely not in the lead for any major candidate. But one thing that’s certain: The women of Kenya are doing all they can do to ensure a peaceful election — at least at the street level.

Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit