Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


Women Struggle to Break Glass Ceiling in Kenya


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, explaining Iowa to an international audience. Two foreign correspondents stationed in the U.S. will tell us how they're doing it.


But first, we're going to continue our conversation about the elections in Kenya, focusing now on women seeking power there. The just completed elections that we've been discussing have sparked violent protests over complaints about voting irregularities.

But they also marked the first time significant numbers of women were seeking office in Kenya. Only eight percent of parliamentary positions were held by women in Kenya, although some 269 women stood for positions this year out of more than 2500 in the running.

Swanee Hunt was the U.S. ambassador to Austria from 1993 to 1997. She currently directs the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. She's also the director of an initiative to encourage the involvement of women in peace initiatives around the world. And she joins us by phone from her office.

Ambassador, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. SWANEE HUNT (Former U.S. Ambassador to Austria; Director, Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government): Hi there. Glad to be with you.


MARTIN: It's good to talk to you again. Why do so few women hold elective positions in Kenya in contrast to, say, Rwanda, where something like 49 percent of the positions in parliament are held by women?

Ms. HUNT: Actually, Kenya is one of the lowest in the world with eight percent. And the key is quotas. And I know that Americans are allergic to quotas, but actually we find all kinds of ways to insist on fair representation, at times. The U.S. is about 67th in the world, but Kenya is much lower.

The difference is if you have a quota that demands that 25 percent or 30 percent of the seats be actually set aside, then you have a chance for women to get used to being in the parliament, to running for Congress essentially, and then the numbers can start going up as they get used to it. And as you said, Rwanda, just next door to Kenya, has 49 percent - the highest in the world.

MARTIN: What has persuaded those countries that have implemented these quotas or affirmative action techniques, or whatever you want to call them, to do so?

Ms. HUNT: Well often, it's simply the fairness argument. And it takes a prime minister or a president, who usually is feeling a lot of pressure from the women's organizations in the country, to implement the quota. But as I say, this is an idea that is so foreign to Americans and yet very common around the world. And you have to have that quota to encourage women because there are many, many obstacles to their being involved that are psychological as well as actual.

For example, there are often very high fees in order to even run as a candidate or even apply. And women say, well, I'm going to put shoes on my children's feet, or I'm going to tend to their education before I spend time on election campaign for myself. That is not a view that is very often held by men.

MARTIN: We've talked about the violence after the voting in Kenya, but there was some violence before the voting and during the sort of campaign season. Was some of these targeted at women because they are women, to your understanding?

Ms. HUNT: Well, I'm glad you asked that question. First, it's clear that you need to have women in the political arena because they do much more bridge building. But if you don't want to have that bridge building and that sense of reconciliation, then you try to keep women out.

And the greatest cost to women in Kenya who are running for office is bodyguards because there are rape campaigns against women candidates. I have a friend, Mary Okumu, who was running, who said that she and other women would wear two sets of - two pair of trousers under their skirt and they would put a knife in the second pair of trousers so that they would have time to scream and possibly resist a rape attack. And you just think about what that's like when a woman, not just makes the decision herself, but comes home and tells her husband or tells her children or her parents, guess what, I've decided to run for office. And they know that she's possibly going to be attacked.

MARTIN: Finally, I wanted to ask, I know you're friends with - you are a friend of a Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Dr. Wangari Maathai, who's a former - maybe she's still holding a seat in the Kenyan Parliament. Was there hope that this election would break the pattern that would increase the number of women in office in Kenya?

Ms. HUNT: You know, there certainly was that hope. And Wangari Maathai is an excellent person to speak of. She was the deputy minister for the environment and certainly has a stellar political career, we hope, ahead of her. And she lost her seat in this election, and she is one of the people who had been calling for a recount. She was imprisoned; she was beaten in the past for her political courage in fighting against dictatorship and oppression in Kenya. And she really is an international hero. So perhaps, she will be able to be a strong voice in this conversation.

MARTIN: Ambassador, we have just one minute left. I did want to ask before we let you go about the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was a candidate in the - expected to have been a candidate in the upcoming elections in Pakistan this week. Now, you are in touch with a number of women office holders around the world. Do you think that her assassination will have an impact on the willingness of women to run for office globally, or are there circumstances so particular to Pakistan, that, you know, perhaps it's just considered to be particular to that situation?

Ms. HUNT: Right. Well, as you know, Benazir Bhutto was a dynastic leader. She came out of her family - a political family - rather than out of the women's movement. That being said, she was a global figure, and her death is tragic. And I think that two things will happen now. There will be some women who say the price is too high, I have my children, I don't want to leave them orphaned. On the other hand, there will be many other women who will pick up the mantle and because of this assassination will say, it is - we can't stand back any longer. We must move forward.

MARTIN: Swanee Hunt is the director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. She joined us by phone from her office.

Ambassador, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. HUNT: It's good to talk with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.