* By Doris Mugambi - Program Associate, Innovation in Leadership
“In politics men will always attack you below the belt, this is a game they have mastered well.” These were the words of Hon. Millie Odhiambo, Member of Parliament Mbita Constituency and a seasoned female politician at our recently concluded community leaders workshop. The reality is that any woman trying to enter the political space or attempting to climb up the political ladder will have to overcome the obstacles that are set before them. The challenges range from being attacked for simply being a woman, being the victim of unfounded rumors and worse still being portrayed as incompetent while your achievements are more often than not attributed to, and mistakenly so, your male counterparts who may have played an insignificant role in facilitating the success of your achievements. This reality can be disheartening and discouraging.
In the session, Hon. Millie also narrated candid and horrifying experiences that women in politics face highlighting the far-reaching and negative impact that the 'masculinization' of the political sphere plays in prohibiting women from active and meaningful participation in the political space. Key among these challenges is Gender based violence. True, the fact is that politics is dirty game, but the fact is that female politicians are more likely to be victims of electoral violence and slander than their male counter parts. The worrying thing is the blame shifts from the offenders who are mostly men to the women who are the victims.
This trend has resulted in creating a culture that in effect rewards perpetrators with freedom and leaves the women as victims of these despicable acts. Statistics show that there is a very high number of women willing and very interested in running for political positions. But these numbers fall drastically as we approach the electoral period because of violence against women that stretches from intimidation and character assassination to physical and sexual assaults. What’s more is that yes these acts are recognized as criminal in nature and are punishable by law, but that this same law is often bent in favor of the perpetrators of violence. This has left women exposed to ridicule by general public and worse still the loss of elections and denial of the opportunity to lead. The violent nature of politics therefore can discourage the participation by women in the sphere resulting in the underrepresentation of women in political realm.
Violence against women is not the preserve of developing countries alone, it is in fact a trend that is replicated in many countries across the world and is recognized as one of the leading causes of underrepresentation of women in leadership.
But for how long will this cycle continue? What should women do, sit and watch men rule and continue undermining the rights of women? These are questions many young women asked during the workshop.
“Every woman willing to make a change and be part of the struggle to change the status quo should be firm in their political pursuits. You must develop a thick skin.” The strategy the young women were encouraged to use is to focus on the bigger picture. Yes the men have mastered the art of shifting blame and bending the law in their favor, but by the same token women need to be prepared to counter these attacks by working to maintain an unwaveringly extra-positive self-image of themselves, women should ensure that they build a credible track record, work towards a change of attitude by their constituents and most importantly gather the protection of their communities and support to end violence against women.
Hon. Millie as well as other female politicians like her have managed to stand out and have refused to bow down and bow out of the game and she encouraged the young women to enter the political sphere.