• Irungu Houghton

Why is it still acceptable for men to abuse and attack women leaders?



We have not even recovered from Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko’s unwarranted public attacks on Nairobi’s Women Representative Esther Passaris a fortnight ago. News of Wajir East MP Rashid Kassim physically assaulting Wajir Women Representative Fatuma Gedi in Parliament this week must alarm us further. Predictably, the moments will divide the country neatly into three groups; those for and against and the silent majority who don’t care enough to express an opinion. The question I am left with is, why is it still acceptable for men to abuse and attack women leaders and what fuels this?


Governor Sonko’s loaded phrase “I am not Passaris’s husband to always pick her phone calls” was both misplaced and sexist. Both Passaris and Sonko are formidable political leaders. In the 2017 elections, they secured 871,794 and 865,124 votes respectively. They are among the top three elected Governors and Women Representatives. They are in many ways, equals. The comment spoke volumes about the Governor’s regard for the Women Representative but also other women citizens who I presume, their calls he also would not pick, unless they were married to him.


Chapter Six obligates State Officers to maintain honour and dignity by promoting public confidence in their offices. Millions of Nairobians depend on Sonko’s captaincy and his partnership with all Nairobi leaders to deliver devolved development and role-model leadership for the generations to come. This was glaringly missing in the Madaraka moment and in the comments from his supporters that followed. What may have gone wrong?


Of all the crises facing Kenya, one of the most important is the changing roles and relationships between men and women. This crisis fundamentally affects our sense of entitlement, privilege and power. Like all good crises, we have not yet discovered a way of turning it into an opportunity for all. Men are now particularly challenged by the fact that they must be accountable and even have their budgets approved by women like Hon. Gedi.


Over the last five years, women have been slowly advancing into visible and substantive elected and appointed offices. Actively supported by Women in Real Estate, the Architectural Association of Kenya elected its first women President in 2017 and its second one this year, in a field still dominated by men. The national President, Treasurer and Secretary as well as two other AAK chapter Presidencies are now held by women.


Fifty years of domination by male leaders have been broken for the first time in professional and business associations like the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, Kenya Medical Association and the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Kenya. In 2017, the people of Bomet, Kitui and Kirinyaga elected women Governors to manage the affairs of their County Governments. We have achieved near gender parity among magistrates and over forty per cent of our Principal Secretaries are women. These changes are significant. The first woman judge, ambassador and parastatal head were only appointed in the 1980s and it took almost thirty years of independence before the first woman chose to run for the Presidency in 1992.


If women are beginning to taste the power, privilege and responsibility of public office, I also sense confusion and fear among men. The consistent obstacles placed in the way of the two-thirds bill, intrusive attacks on women leaders’ private lives and the abuse and violence against independent women are some of the signs they are still struggling to adapt. It is not by coincidence that sexual and physical violence spikes when women reach their forties. This is the decade when most women find their confidence and financial independence.


We must see these developments in the context of a growing movement of courageous women who are asserting that they, and only they, have a right to control their own sexuality and finances as well as, transact business and govern. Further, that this right is neither a privilege granted by men but a consequence of a society that collectively declared in 2010 it wanted all its citizens to be equal under the law.


I have no doubt that Sonko and Passaris can find a way of disagreeing and completing their disagreements while upholding the dignity of both of their offices. Gedi on the other hand, I hope will press criminal charges against Kassim. The sooner we all wake up to the fact that our society is fundamentally on a course towards gender equality, the quicker we will adapt and progress together.

First published Saturday Standard, June 15, 2019. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group

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