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Women in leadership and media’s ‘iron lady’ stereotype

Kenya’s first Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, an ardent socialist better known as the doyen of opposition politics in Kenya, was born in a patriarchal society. Power was in the hands of men. But that is an ignorant assumption of modern gender politics heavily influenced by anti-African thought.

In his definitive autobiography “Not Yet Uhuru”, Odinga writes about women’s important roles in public affairs. Luo clans were named after women in recognition of their role as mothers of children and thus the founders of the clans.

“They were the custodians not only of children but also of the granary and theirs was the responsibility to conserve food for times of drought and famine,” Odinga writes.

To be in charge of children and food is to be entrusted with power over life itself and the community’s continuity.

“Older women who became wealthy as a result of their diligence were consulted on many questions and in some instances there were women chairmen of elders’ councils.

“We were taught that a good statesman would not give precipitate judgment, but would defer his decision; when an elder said ‘I must consult the pillow before I make a judgment’ it was understood that he would discuss it with the women.”

Odinga’s book is published in 1967, over 50 years ago. He is recalling his childhood in a pristine stateless and classless African society untainted by mzungus early in the past century.

Today, Kenyan politics is all male. The country is a phallocracy. Not only do men dominate the positions of power; even the vernacular of political discourse is male. Wanaume ni kumenyana. Pesa si ya mama yako. Siasa ni ya wanaume.

The media, itself quite phallocratic, has entrenched male power. On any day, the main newsmakers are men. Well, if the top politicians in this country are all male, with just two female governors out of 47, it is unrealistic to expect journalists to pay lots of attention to the few women on top.

That is understandable. But what is unacceptable is the fact that media assessment of the performance of women in politics is benchmarked on men.

At one time the media described Martha Karua as the only man in former President Mwai Kibaki’s Cabinet.

The only women in public life the media bothers to cover a lot are those they describe as “iron lady.” You will have in that group Karua, her political nemesis Governor Anne Waiguru of Kirinyaga, perhaps Governor Charity Ngilu of Kitui, Malindi MP Aisha Jumwa and Nairobi Woman Rep Esther Passaris.

The narrative here is that for women to make a mark in politics, it is really never about whether they deliver services to the electorate. Rather, it is about them rivalling the men in aggressiveness and drama.

Some of the most prominent newsmakers in Kenya are not necessarily the ones who deliver.

The Media Landscape Report published by Tifa in July ranked President Uhuru Kenyatta as the most covered newsmaker at 20 per cent between October 2018 and June this year. He is the head of state, so no issue there.

The only woman among the top 17 was Sports minister Amina Mohammed, appearing sixth on the list with just three per cent coverage.

Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko was top with 28 per cent among governors most covered, followed by Kiambu’s Ferdinand Waititu. Of the top 11, there was only one woman, Kirinyaga’s Anne Waiguru, appearing fifth with just five per cent coverage.

The media needs to shift focus. Women in politics do not have to be the “iron lady”. This stereotype frustrates many women who think about leadership differently, that is, service delivery and not drama.

In April, Citizen TV covered the late Bomet Governor Joyce Laboso and her work in the South Rift County. Well, Laboso wasn’t some “iron lady” in the media sense. She earned her mandate as the leader of her people.

“It is not about being a woman. I am selling myself as a leader. What is it that a leader does?” she told Lilian Muli.

That is the point, really. Jaramogi would applaud. And that is what the media should tell the country about women in leadership.

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