Garissa — In 1997, Sophia Abdi Nur became the first woman in Kenya's North Eastern Province to vie for a political seat when she ran for parliament representing Ijara district.
Nur lost that race, but she continued her work for women's rights and did not give up her political aspirations. In 2008, Nur became the first woman member of parliament from the region after the Orange Democratic Party nominated her for one of 12 parliamentary seats selected by political parties.
As she campaigns for the Ijara parliamentary seat for a second time ahead of the March 4th general elections, Nur said she is optimistic that some of the challenges that contributed to her failed first attempt have been resolved.
Nur spoke to Sabahi about the challenges women face seeking leadership roles in Kenya, her motivation, and her vision for the Ijara constituency and North Eastern Province.
Sabahi: Why did you venture into the male-dominated world of politics?
Nur: I joined politics because I wanted to elevate the region's issues to the national level and to advocate for women's issues. Some of the policies that were crucial to the development of the region needed political will.
I contested for the Ijara constituency seat in 1997. I came second behind Idle Mohamed, with 2,400 votes compared to his 2,500.
I believe the election was rigged because two ballot boxes disappeared when two electoral commission officials died in a road accident on election day. I would have won if the contents of the two boxes had been counted because they were from what I considered my strongholds.
After that experience, I took a break from active politics for 10 years because of family commitments and the organisation I was running to help girls escape female circumcision.
Sabahi: How do you compare your current campaign experience with your 1997 run?
Nur: In 1997, my campaign team had to contend with a highly patriarchal community, which was part of the reason for my defeat. Some of my opponents enflamed religious and cultural stereotypes that a woman was not fit to be a leader. I could not campaign openly because it was unprecedented, so I let the men in my campaign team do most of the mobilisation.
My conservative Somali community discouraged women from contesting elective posts in the province. But now, the new constitution allows us to openly seek votes and I believe that recent civic education has sunk into the community because I personally campaign from village to village.
I am competing for the Ijara parliamentary seat against five male aspirants. All of them are campaigning on issues and are not using my gender to disparage me.
Sabahi: How do you rate your chances of becoming the first woman from North Eastern Province to be directly elected to parliament?
Nur: I am optimistic that I will prevail.
I am banking on my development record for the community as part of WomanKind Kenya. I helped with the construction of 15 intermediate and secondary schools, and more than 12 water projects. I also funded women's groups for entrepreneurs and helped scholarship programmes for over 300 girls.
The community appreciates what I have done for them outside political leadership and they believe I can do more if given a chance.
Sabahi: What is your vision for the people of Ijara constituency and North Eastern Province in general?
Nur: I will continue striving to uplift people's lives, improve the region's infrastructure to spur economic development, health care, education and resolve its history of human rights violations.
I will prioritise food security to abate the frequent deaths of humans and livestock due to drought. To this effect, I will initiate more irrigation-fed agriculture.
Sabahi: How do you plan on achieving your goals for the region?
Nur: I will require co-operation from everyone. I have been seeking the support of all members of parliament from the region so that we are able to speak with one voice. I will be easily accessible and be more on the ground.
I will also make use of the devolved fund wisely and be accountable for the Constituencies Development Fund. I will also seek grants for development and encourage entrepreneurship to address high unemployment.
Sabahi: What inspires you?
Nur: The bad situation of the people who require help to stand on their own. The general food insecurity in the region keeps me going. Until the perennial food scarcity is solved, I will not rest. I know how it feels to go hungry for days and I am inspired by former South African President Nelson Mandela's selfless leadership.
Sabahi: What does the future hold for women's participation in politics?
Nur: The new constitution has opened doors for women. Besides setting aside special seats for women in the 47 counties in the country, it also gives room for women to seek other elective posts.
We are not wholly celebrating at the moment, but it is a first step towards achieving representation for women in a once male-dominated field, especially in North Eastern Province.
This constitution is challenging the custom that placed men above women in the pecking order and stifled any chances of women competing fairly in the educational, social, economic and political spheres.
The main remaining obstacle is the financial aspect that gives most men an edge. Gradually it will get better, however. Women in the region are monitoring my progress and God willing, if I am elected, it will encourage many women to come out.
Background information on Sophia Abdi Nur
Sophia Abdi Nur was born in 1966 in Garissa and attended Modogashe Primary School and North Eastern Province Girls Secondary School in Garissa District. In 1980, she enrolled at Igoji Teacher Training College in Meru, Eastern Province, and upon completion started her teaching career at Young Muslims Primary School, Garissa Boys Town High School and Hyuga Girls Primary School.
Nur pursued a degree in development studies at Kimmage Development Studies Centre in Ireland and a master's in management and organisational development from United States International University, Kenya.
She quit teaching in 1992 and plunged into community development. Nur started WomanKind Kenya, a nongovernmental organisation involved in various development activities aimed at promoting education for girls, women's empowerment, campaigns against harmful traditional practices like female circumcision and other human rights issues.