Newsmaker: First Maasai Woman Takes Seat in Kenya's Parliament

The election also proved victorious for Peris Tobiko, who became the first woman to join Parliament from the Maasai community.
I believe if women are empowered economically, men will be the ones calling for affirmative action.

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After the Verdict: Charting a New Course in Kenya

 

KAJIADO, KENYA – Peris Tobiko is a 42-year-old mother of four who made history in March when she became the first Maasai woman elected to Kenya’s Parliament.

 

Despite significant challenges, Tobiko defeated four men in the race to represent the Kajiado East constituency in Kenya’s Rift Valley province. She says her win in the March 4 elections marks a milestone for her and other women in the Maasai community, a nomadic herding people who live primarily in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. The Maasai represent the majority of the population in the Kajiado East constituency.

 

As a result of the patriarchal nature of the Maasai, Tobiko says she had a tumultuous journey to the National Assembly, which makes up Kenya’s Parliament along with the Senate. During Tobiko’s campaign, Maasai elders publicly declared that they would curse anyone who voted for her, she says. Her opponents also urged community members not to vote for her, saying it defied their culture to elect women as leaders.

 

Still, Tobiko received 23,381 votes, while her closest opponent, Kakuta Maimai, won 22,460 votes, according to Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission. There were three other male contenders in the race for the seat.

  

Tobiko was the only Maasai woman to win a seat in Kenya’s general elections. Even outside the conservative Maasai community, few women won seats.

 

The general elections filled 290 open seats in Kenya’s National Assembly, as well as 47 senatorial seats, 47 gubernatorial seats and 1,450 county representative seats. Men won all open senatorial and gubernatorial seats.

 

The 2010 Kenya Constitution mandated that the National Assembly reserve 47 special seats for women, one for each county. Only 16 women won additional seats in the National Assembly this year, says Jane Godia, the editor of African Woman and Child Feature Service, an organization that promotes gender equity and social justice in Africa through media.

 

Godia says Kenyan communities need to change their attitudes toward women, as many people have not embraced women as leaders.

 

Tobiko, who grew up in Mashuru village in Kajiado county, says she has encountered such attitudes her entire life.

 

She says her community does not value the education of girls, and families marry off their daughters as soon as they reach puberty. Her father wanted to educate all his children but occasionally succumbed to community pressure.

 

Twice, Tobiko's father attempted to pull her out of school and marry her to older men, she says. Both times, she avoided the marriage.

 

“My elder sisters were pulled out of school and married off, but I was lucky that teachers intervened in my case,” Tobiko says. “I was performing well, so teachers wanted to keep me in school.”

 

When her father could not pay her school fees in high school, her headmistress introduced her to the Jomo Kenyatta Foundation, an organization that publishes educational books and provides scholarships. The foundation sponsored Tobiko until she graduated and headed to university.

 

She developed her political ambitions at the University of Nairobi. She studied political science at the undergraduate level before pursuing a master’s degree in international relations.

 

Immediately after graduating, Tobiko worked for the government, first as a district officer and later as a benefits manager at the National Social Security Fund, the agency that oversees pensions.

 

Tobiko made her first run for Parliament in 2007 to represent the Kajiado East constituency. She did not win the seat but says that the votes she garnered strengthened her resolve to seek political office.

 

“I think the idea of a woman leader was still new to my people,” she says of her 2007 loss. “But the votes I got gave me the confidence to try again.”

 

She returned to the public sector as the chairwoman of Tanathi Water Services Board, a government entity that provides clean water to the community, and maintained her contact with voters.

 

She initiated development projects in Kajiado, including a project that drilled boreholes to provide water for residents of the semiarid area. She says these initiatives gave her an edge over her opponents during the recent election.

 

The majority of Tobiko’s supporters were youth and women, she says.

 

Some men opposed her vehemently. She says she received numerous death threats, which she reported to the police, but they made no arrests.

 

But other men supported her. Richard Pasha, a young Maasai man from her constituency, says he voted for Tobiko because he wanted change.

 

“We’ve never had a woman MP,” Pasha says. “I want to see whether she will bring change in our community. She has leadership qualities, and I also like her policies.”

 

Following her historic win, Tobiko says she will focus her policies on empowering women and youth. She says economic empowerment will enable women to compete with men politically, so she plans to start income-generation projects for women and to introduce adult education.

 

Most of the women she grew up with, who left school to be married, are in the same circumstances they were in 30 years ago, she says.

 

“They are still walking for kilometers in search of water and firewood, and they do not own anything, including their own bodies,” she says. “I plan to empower them economically, build health facilities and improve security.”

 

As she empowers her female constituents, Tobiko says she hopes that more women will break into public office – and not just to capture the seats reserved for women in Parliament.

 

“Women have been boxed to a corner,” she says. “When they offer themselves for leadership, men tell them to run for that special seat, as though they do not qualify for other positions. I believe if women are empowered economically, men will be the ones calling for affirmative action.”

 

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