1 June 2018
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 parentsâ 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 wasnât just women in the crowd. Humphrey Muriuki Ngaine and the âmale championsâ of GROOTS Kenya â a grassroots movement of women-led community groups â were there, placards aloft, marching through the street. He pulls up a photo on his phone of himself waving a sign saying âEnd Violence Against Womenâ, mouth open mid-chant.
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 â so these âmale championsâ 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 hasnât been easy. She has experienced heavy intimidation on the campaign trail.
âOne of the worst things is during night coming out of the campaign [meeting], you realize people are following you up and down,â she says. âWherever you go, you notice that same black motorbike, a certain car â you get really frustrated. You really fear for yourself.â
She says itâs rare that men will give their time freely to protect candidates like herself.
âNormally, you are looking at maybe a thousand per day, per guard,â she says. âBut you have no choice. You need them.â
Thereâs 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 isnât 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 hourâs drive from Kenyaâs capital of Nairobi, the âmale championsâ, Samuel Karanga Kamiri, Stanley Mwangi and Humphrey Muriuki Ngaine have been spreading a message in their wards: women make great leaders.
âWe have men who have converted, who we have baptized, and now theyâre singing the song of female empowermentâ
Samuel is particularly adamant that âwomen can leadâ; 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. âNinety per cent are led by women. The men follow.â
âWe have men who have converted, who we have baptized, and now theyâre singing the song of female empowerment,â 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. âWeâre on the frontline for them,â says Muriuki.
Itâs not just men whose attitudes towards women leaders needs to changing. In fact, Muriuki points out, âThe biggest number of registered voters in the area are women.â
âTo get women to vote for you, you really need to have worked on addressing their needsâ, says Margaret. âMost of them canât even afford to feed their families. You canât support them with your naked hand. If you said to them, âVote for me just because I am a woman,â they will say, âWhat have you done to help me?â
She agrees that having âmale championsâ on the ground can help, but it still isnât enough.
âIf you have maybe 20 men in your wards fighting for you, you will see big improvements,â she concedes. But thereâs still a long way to go.
On occasion, Margaret has had no choice but to station guards outside her house while she sleeps. Sheâs 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?â
âImagine, as a female politician, as a woman, you have just won an election. You go home, exhausted but knowing: You won!
âAnd to get there the next day â after they have kept you from 8 am to 5pm waiting for the certificate â to find it has been awarded to another person? To a man?â Her voice shakes with anger at the memory. âIt was the worst feeling.â
âI 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?â
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.
âI 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,â she says. âWe got it because weâre a bit vibrant â a bit tough.â
Elsewhere in Africa, the benefit of having women in powerful political positions is already being seen.
âIn Rwanda, 60 per cent of elected leaders are women,â says Muriuki, âand the country is doing well. It is overtaking Kenya.â
Rwanda is often touted as a âdonor darlingâ, a miracle of economic growth and champion of womenâs rights. The countryâs president, Paul Kagame has been reported as saying, âIf oppressed women should wage war, I would readily smuggle ammunition to them, for it would be a justified war.â
Cynics say this parliament that boasts so many women â 56 per cent, the highest share in the world â is little more than a rubber stamp to keep donors happy.
Still, itâs 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 â 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.
âWomen [in Kiambu county] know what challenges a community faces,â he says. âThey can do the same for their voters.â
This story is part of a European Journalism Centre project about men engaging in campaigns for womenâs right and reporting was done in partnership with The Fuller Project for International Reporting.