Kenya Decides - the Somali Woman Hoping to Make History

4 March 2013

Ijara — As Kenyans go to the polls today, could Sophia Abdi Noor become the first ever Somali woman to be voted in to the Kenyan parliament?

Polling day has finally arrived for the Kenya's 14 million registered voters. After months of campaigning, Kenyans will cast six ballots for their preferred representatives, from the presidential level down the council level.

One of those hoping to see her campaigning efforts rewarded is Sophia Abdi Noor. In the sweltering heat of north-eastern Kenya, Sophia Abdi Noor has been hot on the campaign trail.

In the final week before polling stations opened, her convoy of campaign cars desperately tried to reach as many people as possible. At each village, people gathered in the shade of a tree while Sophia explained how she will develop this neglected part of Kenya. The women cheered and danced. The men sat quietly, nodding in agreement.

Although it sounds like any normal election campaign, this one is unique. As a woman in a conservative Somali region of northern Kenya, it might be assumed that Sophia Abdi Noor should not stand a chance of winning.

Women have not been leaders here. But Abdi Noor is changing this. The only woman in a field of six parliamentary candidates, she is the clear favourite to win the Ijara constituency. If she does win, Sophia Abdi Noor will be the first Somali woman to be elected to the Kenyan parliament.

Changing attitudes

Increasing the number of women in Kenyan politics has been difficult. The new constitution requires that women hold at least one-third of elected positions, but this part of the constitution has not yet been implemented.

Daisy Amdani, chairman of the NGO Women's Political Alliance, puts this down to a lack of political will amongst the male-dominated political establishment. "By watering down legislation they seek to retain power", she explains.

In recent years there has been an increasing focus on the involvement of women in Kenyan politics, but Amdani does not feel that all the lobbying of government has achieved much. She is pessimistic about the upcoming election and describes it as a "tutorial from which we are going to learn a lot of lessons".

However, obstinate politicians are not the main obstacle to increasing female representation in Kenya. Abdi Noor is an example of this.

Although she did not contest the last election, she became an MP after she was given a seat as a Nominated MP. These are MPs who are appointed by their parties, rather than elected. Six of the twelve Nominated MPs were women. It is clear, therefore, that Kenyan politicians are not entirely opposed to women being involved in politics.

Instead, the main problem is at a local level and cultural attitudes. Of the 210 MPs elected at the last election only 16 were women. Amdani explains that there are two reasons for this. Firstly, many women are reluctant to put themselves forward for election. Secondly, most people would still rather vote for a man.

Running on issues

Together with the NGO Action Aid, the Women's Political Alliance has been trying to change this. Amdani explains that many communities believe they will be cursed if they are led by a woman.

There is also a fear in some communities that the authority of men is being challenged. By holding community forums all over Kenya, they have attempted to demonstrate that women can lead and that the communities can benefit from this. In particular, they have used these forums to allow female candidates to say what they would do if elected.

Amdani says that getting women to run issue-based campaigns "as opposed to the money campaigns of men" is integral to convincing people to vote for women. This is where the second part of Amdani's strategy comes in.

They have created the National Women's Charter, a policy document detailing which issues are important to women in Kenya, and have been holding training courses for women who want to enter politics. By providing training on items such as how to create a manifesto and run a campaign-focused on policy, they are giving more women the confidence to contest elections and are improving their chances of being successful.

The emphasis on policy and not personality has proven effective and back in Ijara. Sophia Abdi Noor says that is the reason for her strong position.

Abdi Noor has worked in development for over 30 years, having set up an NGO in Ijara in the late 1980s, and she is using her knowledge of development to convince people that she has the best policies to help them.

Standing next to an empty water tank in the small village of Gababa, she explained to the crowd that relying on government development programmes will not work. She then outlined her ideas for forming international development partnerships, which bypass central government.

This will help bring things such as healthcare, education and importantly water to the region. The details of the various development projects were then discussed.

The detail and authority with which Abdi Noor discusses her development policies is paying off. Mohammud Osman is one of the Gababa residents who came to see her talk. When asked who he will vote for, he replies quickly, "Sophia". When asked why he says, again without pausing, "because of her development record. We think she can do better than the others".

As her speech ended, a water truck pulled up and started to fill the empty tank. People rushed back to their houses to fetch water canisters.

Abdi Noor said proudly that she paid for the fuel to bring the truck to Gababa. Running an issues-based campaign is helping her win in one of the most unlikely parts of Kenya, but some of the usual tricks of Kenyan politics are probably proving just as effective here and across the country.

Jesper Cullen is a freelance writer focusing on economic and business news. He is currently based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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