Mount Elgon in Western Kenya is one of the most marginalised regions in the country. It is so marginalised that it is the only area where not even an inch of tarmac road has been constructed.
The area is characterised by violent conflicts over land, as well as retrogressive cultural practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and early child marriages. The education of the girl child was, until recently, frowned upon and the very idea of a female child serving her father a meal was considered disrespectful and an abomination.
It is from these harsh conditions that Jennifer Masis has risen, against great odds, to be a formidable force in the fight for women’s empowerment.
Born in 1970 into the Sabot community – a strongly patriarchal society who live in part of Western Kenya and the Rift valley – Jennifer Masis has experienced the full brunt of women’s marginalisation.
“I grew up very much aware that women’s place in society is to be seen and not heard. We could never even sit before men, let alone speak,” she says.
“A boy child would be given every opportunity to grow and develop, whereas a girl could be married at 12 years, so that she can provide cattle which could be sold to raise his school fees,” she further explains.
Female genital mutilation, she says, was a norm. It was expected and believed to be a mark of growth and a ritual that would set a girl apart from those who were yet to undergo the practice. “Women who had never undergone FGM were considered children and could not get married,” she explains.
Fortunately her father enabled her to go to school, though her presence there was seen by many in the community as an embarrassment to her family and a shame to her family, as girls were not supposed to go to school.
Despite not being able to attend school consistently for various reasons, among them the death of her mother while she was about to sit for an exam that would determine whether and where she would attend college, she excelled and was able to later join Moi University to study for a Bachelors degree in Community Development.
It was at this institution that she developed a passion for community work and after graduating in 1994, she became very vocal in encouraging her community to give the girl child an opportunity to go to school.
“It wasn’t easy but it had to be done. Women were very supportive because they could see that education had improved my life and made me a different person. Having undergone FGM myself, I used that experience to denounce it, to say that it is education that sets us apart and refines us and not FGM,” she continues.
As her profile grew as a women’s rights crusader, elders from her community approached her as they felt she had what it took to lead. This planted the seed of politics in her.
“It was the first time I seriously thought of pursuing politics, I was strongly encouraged by the elders’ support of me because that meant that my entire family, including the in-laws, would follow suit and they did,” she says.
“I immersed myself into the world of politics and in 2002 ran for a parliamentary seat in Kwanza Constituency.”
It is an experience that the mother of five will never forget. “In spite of the great support I enjoyed from key players, my family, elders and supporters, the road to the election date was marred with threats and intimidation”, she explains.
“I was subjected to all manner of abuses. I was even told that 14 youths would be sent to rape me”. I kept going and even won the party nomination. “I was running on a Kenya African National Union ticket.”
While everything seemed to work in her favour little did she know that this was the beginning of the end.
“I received a phone call after the executive of the party decided that they were not interested in women’s leadership and that the number two of the party would take the party nomination. He would take my place,” Massis explained.
“I was very surprised but stood my ground until I received another phone call from one of the most powerful politicians, who didn’t mince his words. He said that not only was he not interested in women in leadership, but with me being young at 32, I had an entire future to pursue my dream.”
The certificate was given to somebody else even though it rightfully belonged to her. She took the matter to court but already the electoral commission had completed its work of receiving papers from aspirants, thereby excluding her.
Although she was down, she was not out and in 2004 she was at the Bomas Talks on a new constitution as a delegate.
Having experienced the harsh terrain of the country’s politics, she saw this as an opportunity to help set up structures that would make easier for women to enter politics and not face discrimination and be intimidated by political parties.
As chair of the Transitional and Consequential Committee, she was in a position to give insights to the Talks based on her experience.
Meanwhile, she continued with her work of denouncing FGM as well as working with women’s organisations such as the Rural Women Peace link and the Caucus for Women Leadership to build the capacity of women.
“My key message has always been the significance of education for the girl child. In my community, it has always been extremely difficult for the girl child to access information. I wanted to see that change which led me to begin an organisation called Tears of Women Organisation”, she continues.
“The name encompasses the pain and difficulties I have been through and I don’t want another young girl to have to try so hard and to endure so much in order to have a decent life.