Kenyan MP & former minister Hon. Esther Murugi Mathenge, 61, is a fighting force for the people of Nyeri. Having spent two terms in office, she’s been able to implement real change in her constituency, proving that women in decision-making roles benefit the wider community. It’s quite a feat for the mother of two, who was the only female politician in her county when she started in office.
Esther is also part of the Kenya Women Parliamentary Association (KEWOPA), a membership organization supported by VSO to address issues facing women in politics and build up their capacity to participate. Here, she talks candidly about her achievements, and the need to move beyond policy in order to empower women.
Over seven years ago, Hon. Esther Murugi Mathenge was working with a woman and girl’s organisation in Nyeri where she saw firsthand the hardships that women in the county were facing.
Many spent hours walking to fetch clean water for their families, and then found they hadn’t enough to irrigate their crops. Mothers and their children seemed to be dealing with additional health issues and struggled to access hospitals.
She says, “I felt that if I were elected by the people of Nyeri, I would ensure that health facilities were done within walking distance of their communities. Once I was elected, I was able to do that. I built 11 in my constituency. I also addressed the water issue. It made a lot of difference to them.”
As well as this, Esther used her two terms in office to improve education prospects for girls, so that they have the confidence to strive for opportunities beyond ‘wife’ or ‘mother’. However, her biggest achievement is the establishment of the Cash Transfer for the Elderly programme, a scheme which has been rolled out across Kenya.
She explains, “When I first started as minister, I spoke to older women who felt that their government had forgotten them. Many had never worked so they didn’t have a pension or anyone to look after them."
"This scheme evaluates over-65s who haven’t been employed or who don’t have children to support them, and who are in poverty. They are given cash every month to buy food and medicine, and they get free hospital treatments. I can see people looking healthier and happier. That’s your aim as a politician. I've not seen a male politician think of them.”
A Man’s World
Becoming a woman in power has not been an easy journey.
At both the national and regional level, female activists have to endure verbal and even physical abuse whilst they are campaigning.
It’s enough to put off any woman, says Esther. “Unfortunately, Kenyan politics is still seen as a man’s world and you are a trespasser. You need people to project you. You learn to have a thick skin. I can assure you that becoming a minister was not easy. I was a lone ranger.”
Campaigning is also an expensive process. Lacking financial clout behind them, many marginalised women are further excluded. Kenya has come a long way in setting standards for female participation in political and public life. Since 2006, there has been a 30% quota for female employees and parliamentarians that remains unmet. Whilst many areas are falling short, there is still a drive to reach that target.
Esther explains, “I can see some improvements. The jobs are there for women, but they don’t always know they are there or that they can go for them. In Kenya we have some of the most well educated women in East Africa. We need to empower them so that they don’t feel intimidated.”
It’s time for the next stage of engagement, says Esther, “Quotas don’t always bring the best people. Also, it means that sometimes people don’t take you seriously.
“Now, it’s not about implementing a policy. It’s about educating the voter. At the moment, KEWOPA members are starting their campaign for 2017 elections. I tell them to go to the ground level and talk to people now – 2016 will be too late.
“Voters need to see the difference between voting for a woman and voting for a man. If you really want to support women you need to educate the voter, show that you are addressing the issues that affect them. Otherwise they will vote for the man who was there before the woman candidate."
“You can then evaluate those women in senior positions by their performance; what they have achieved for the society that they represent. You can have a lot of numbers of women, but the change might be zero. You may have just two or three who bring drastic change.”
KEWOPA have also just launched a mentoring scheme, identifying aspiring counsellors and leaders in other organisations who can all learn from each other.
Esther says, “As a mentor, I can tell them that they shouldn’t expect to be given anything on a silver plate. They have to fight for it. They have to want it. They have to believe it and they have to be passionate about it."
“I have done a few tangible things that I am proud of. So I think that if I’m not elected come 2017, whoever comes will have to match and do better than I have done.”