International Women's Day is likely to receive a muted celebration in Kenya this year, occurring just four days after Kenyans go to the polls to elect a new President and amid concerns about post-election violence of the sort that killed more than a thousand people in 2007.
The issue of women's rights is very much a part of this election, however, and should not be forgotten. Women I work with are especially worried about security, to the extent that some do not even feel safe enough to go to the polling station to vote.
Sauti Ya Wanawake (Voice for Women) is working in the coastal region of Kenya to educate women about the electoral process and provide advice on staying safe on the day. As a non-partisan organisation, we are calling on all parties to hold peaceful campaigns and for the authorities to ensure sufficient police presence at the polling stations so that women and men feel safe when voting. In the days prior to the election, we will be holding events throughout the region encouraging women to vote.
Many of the women we work with are not even aware of how the electoral system works. Some need reassurance that they have a secret ballot and do not have to vote for the candidates recommended by the (male) elders of the community. Many poor and marginalised women who initially joined us in village meetings are now more confident about articulating their concerns and taking a stand against gender-based violence in their communities. My experience is that giving women the chance to express themselves is the surest route to empowerment.
As the election approaches we have been championing some of those women who have decided to stand for office. Women like Rukia Abasi, who has spent ten years working in the community as a member of Sauti and is now hoping to become a Ward Representative. Rukia passionately believes that women have a democratic right to engage in politics, and it is our hope that many more women will follow her example.
The new Kenyan constitution obliges the state to ensure that neither gender occupies more than two thirds of elected or appointed bodies. However, there have been delays in implementing this requirement, and it is unlikely to be met in the upcoming election. Implementation of such quotas is not a problem unique to Kenya. Ensuring the political will to carry through such reforms requires not only an informed electorate, but the right monitoring by international institutions.
Sauti has worked with several partners including ActionAid and the International Rescue Committee, and is now receiving support from a VSO volunteer who is helping the organisation expand and bring the concerns of our 4,000-strong membership to a wider audience. As well as assisting grassroots movements like ours around the world, VSO is campaigning for women's voices to be heard at the highest level.
This year will see negotiations around the post-2015 development framework intensifying and VSO is calling for a strengthened goal on women's empowerment, with solid targets and indicators to measure women's representation and influence in public and political life. This will help create the space for more women like Rukia to stand for office and bring about the changes we need to achieve equality.
There's some irony to Kenya holding an election during International Women's Week in which many women will feel afraid to vote, and where women's participation will not receive the positive support mandated in our constitution. Our efforts here to ensure women are not scared off from exercising their democratic rights must be matched by resolve at the international level that women's participation remains at the top of the development agenda.