Can men help break Kenyan womens’ exclusion?

The women-led movement of GROOTS Kenya is supporting women candidates – including by providing them with bodyguards and volunteer support in the form of Humphrey Muriuki Ngaine and his ‘male champions’.

One Monday in February, there was a murder in Limuru County, Kenya.

Irene, a women from a grassroots movement for female empowerment had been arguing with her husband.

After she left to get some space, her husband came looking for her. Failing to find Irene at her parents’ house, he attacked and killed her mother.

The crime was all over the news and sparked a demonstration demanding an end to violence against women. But it wasn’t just women in the crowd. Humphrey Muriuki Ngaine and the ‘male champions’ of GROOTS Kenya – a grassroots movement of women-led community groups – were there, placards aloft, marching through the street. He pulls up a photo on his phone of himself waving a sign saying ‘End Violence Against Women’, mouth open mid-chant.

Humphrey Muriuki Ngaine and his fellow ‘male champions’ of GROOTS Kenya.
Humphrey Muriuki Ngaine and his fellow ‘male champions’ of GROOTS Kenya. Photo: Hannah O’Neill

The men see their work as vital, and it is. Violence against women remains a huge problem in Kenya, as elsewhere. They think one way to tackle it and to increase respect for women is to get more of them into positions of political power.

But women are consistently pushed out of politics in the country, regardless of how hard they fight to be involved – so these ‘male champions’ are playing an important role in helping them assist this structural discrimination.

Take Margaret Mwago, for example, a Member of the County Assembly (MCA) for Kiambu County. She has experienced election violence, harassment and intimidation firsthand. Elected in Kiuu ward in 2013, she has worked in an elected position for the last five years.

But it hasn’t been easy. She has experienced heavy intimidation on the campaign trail.

‘One of the worst things is during night coming out of the campaign [meeting], you realize people are following you up and down,’ she says. ‘Wherever you go, you notice that same black motorbike, a certain car – you get really frustrated. You really fear for yourself.’

She says it’s rare that men will give their time freely to protect candidates like herself.

‘Normally, you are looking at maybe a thousand per day, per guard,’ she says. ‘But you have no choice. You need them.’

There’s also the verbal abuse, from opponents accusing female candidates of incompetence, to spreading rumours that they are prostitutes.

Political meetings, where gossip is exchanged and strategy hashed out, are often held in clubs or bars late at night. The timing isn’t a coincidence.

Aside from the physical danger the women are vulnerable to, they are expected to be at home looking after their families. So Muriuki and the other men attend the nighttime meetings, and report back to the women they are supporting on whatever is discussed.

Based in Limuru Town, about an hour’s drive from Kenya’s capital of Nairobi, the ‘male champions’, Samuel Karanga Kamiri, Stanley Mwangi and Humphrey Muriuki Ngaine have been spreading a message in their wards: women make great leaders.

‘We have men who have converted, who we have baptized, and now they’re singing the song of female empowerment’

Samuel is particularly adamant that ‘women can lead’; so much so that, while talking to him, he leans forward in his chair, jabbing the table to drive his point home. Aside from working for Kamirithu Vision Academy in Kiambu County, he is involved in a number of female-led community projects. ‘Ninety per cent are led by women. The men follow.’

‘We have men who have converted, who we have baptized, and now they’re singing the song of female empowerment,’ says Muriuki.

Muriuki is at the centre of this network of men that spreads from Limuru, throughout the 11 other counties of Kiambu. It is a movement to change attitudes towards women, and to get more of them into leadership roles and high-ranking political positions.

The men are volunteers, supporting female candidates and providing security at campaign rallies. ‘We’re on the frontline for them,’ says Muriuki.

It’s not just men whose attitudes towards women leaders needs to changing. In fact, Muriuki points out, ‘The biggest number of registered voters in the area are women.’

‘To get women to vote for you, you really need to have worked on addressing their needs’, says Margaret. ‘Most of them can’t even afford to feed their families. You can’t support them with your naked hand. If you said to them, ‘Vote for me just because I am a woman,’ they will say, ‘What have you done to help me?’

She agrees that having ‘male champions’ on the ground can help, but it still isn’t enough.

‘If you have maybe 20 men in your wards fighting for you, you will see big improvements,’ she concedes. But there’s still a long way to go.

On occasion, Margaret has had no choice but to station guards outside her house while she sleeps. She’s had opponents planning to bomb her home, thugs lying in wait after nighttime campaign meetings. But there is one incident that sticks out as the worst moment in her political career.

She recalls having won an election, only to turn up the next morning to find her opponent had been handed the victory.

My question was, why are we repeating the nomination when I won?’

‘Imagine, as a female politician, as a woman, you have just won an election. You go home, exhausted but knowing: You won!

‘And to get there the next day – after they have kept you from 8 am to 5pm waiting for the certificate – to find it has been awarded to another person? To a man?’ Her voice shakes with anger at the memory. ‘It was the worst feeling.’

‘I took him to court, I sued him, and his certificate was recalled. But we were told to go and repeat the nomination. My question was, why are we repeating the nomination when I won?’

Beyond the violence and corruption, there are other power moves at play. Even the women who have managed to get positions in local elections see their authority being undermined constantly by their male counterparts.

She says that of all the 29 women nominated, for the county assembly only three managed to secure seats as vice-chairpersons.

‘I got vice chairman [sic] of Public Accounts Committee, another one got it for health, and another got it for education. But no one else got anything,’ she says. ‘We got it because we’re a bit vibrant – a bit tough.’

Elsewhere in Africa, the benefit of having women in powerful political positions is already being seen.

‘In Rwanda, 60 per cent of elected leaders are women,’ says Muriuki, ‘and the country is doing well. It is overtaking Kenya.’

Rwanda is often touted as a ‘donor darling’, a miracle of economic growth and champion of women’s rights. The country’s president, Paul Kagame has been reported as saying, ‘If oppressed women should wage war, I would readily smuggle ammunition to them, for it would be a justified war.’

Cynics say this parliament that boasts so many women – 56 per cent, the highest share in the world – is little more than a rubber stamp to keep donors happy.

Still, it’s evidently changing how Africans elsewhere are looking at their own institutions. In Kiambu county, these men at least are looking to women as legitimate players on the political field – and this is something new. Something positive. A crucial beginning.

Stanley knows women bring a unique perspective to political life. He has seen the single mothers in his ward support their families on scant resources.

‘Women [in Kiambu county] know what challenges a community faces,’ he says. ‘They can do the same for their voters.’

This story is part of a European Journalism Centre project about men engaging in campaigns for women’s right and reporting was done in partnership with The Fuller Project for International Reporting.