“They Never Killed My Spirit”

Kenyan Parliamentary Candidate Flora Terah Talks Gender Equality

Kenyan parliamentary candidate and women’s advocte Flora Terah spoke at Concordia on March 2. Photo Erin Sparks

The fight for Kenyan women to earn a place in the country’s politics has been uphill, and one that parliamentary hopeful Flora Terah has paid for dearly.

It has been almost one year since the murder of her 19-year-old son Te in Nairobi, in what was believed to be an act of intimidation from the presiding government.

Terah was tortured and publicly humiliated for attempting to run for parliament in the Meru region of Kenya for the country’s last elections in 2007, but—as she writes in her book They Never Killed My Spirit, But They Killed My Only Child—that is not stopping her work towards a free Kenya for all its citizens.

She spoke in the Hall Building as part of Concordia’s Women’s Month’s “Empowering Women” speaker series on March 3, presented by Volunteers in Action.

After her speech, Terah talked with The Link about what’s happening nearly five years after that election, and how her story helped change the course of Kenya’s fate.

In regards to public discourse of women and sexuality in Kenya, what has changed since 2007?

“We’ve realized that there’s no way of addressing reproductive health without addressing sexuality. For the last 10 years now, we’ve been coming into primary schools; we’ve asked the Minister of Education to bring it as a lesson in primary schools so the girls and the boys can understand reproductive health, how their bodies are growing.

I was born in a very patriarchal society, in Meru. The community doesn’t believe in women speaking, let alone sitting down and negotiating. There is not one tribe in Kenya that does not practice harmful cultural practices.

Some practice female genital cutting, some practice child marriage, others practice wife-sharing, and all these practices were entrenched in our constitution as customary laws. There was no way for female leaders to challenge customary laws.

It was hard for me to see genital cutting for what it was, because I didn’t know the harm in it, separate from the celebration of our culture. The women who get it done cannot talk about it, and if you don’t know what it is, you cannot talk about it. […]

I’m really getting annoyed, knowing I come from a community that advocates the worst oppression of women. To address the issue, you have to talk about what people do not want to talk about, you have to attack the community.

Genital cutting is a huge contributor to the spread of HIV and AIDS, because you’re circumcising 16 girls using the same weapon.”

How can citizens make change in Kenya with a disinterested government leading?

“We need to start from the family foundations if we really want our country to change. Then we can get to the next level. We can’t leave everything to the politicians, because they only talk about what suits them.

We’ve celebrated the first year of our constitution, but they already want to change it. It does not please them to have elections in August because many of them have not paid their income tax, and they need more money from the government to pay their tax, because they know half of them aren’t coming back.

The constitution’s clause that elections are held every five years means the election should be held Aug. 13 of this year, but they’re already taking that to parliament to amend it.

We are under their mercy. If 222 members of parliament act against almost 38 million Kenyans, what can we do? Kenyans are the majority, but unless we have a coup, or go the Egypt way, [electing new lawmakers] is the only way they will understand.

But even if they push the election to December of next year, we are going to do away with all this wrong. Enough is enough.”

Do you expect a rise in the nine per cent of women members of parliament in the upcoming election?

“We are 21 members of parliament. I say ‘we’ because I identify myself with them because most of them are very willing to change, but the number is so small they can’t change anything.

The joy is that the new constitution gives women power. We’re going to get more women running as senators, running as governors and running as members of parliament. What we’re looking at is how to get 118 women into parliament. We’re looking for quality women who cannot be compromised.

One thing is, we don’t know how to get the 118, and time is running out. We’re trying to get a consensus for bringing more women into leadership.”

What actions can people take from far away against these injustices?

“When we were fighting, the political class had their kids abroad in Europe and North America in prestigious universities. The McGill Centre for Human Rights wrote them and said, ‘If you do not cease fire then you must take your kids back home so they can be part and parcel of those who are dying.’ Because they are the people instigating the violence, and their kids are abroad, they’re disconnected. And that stopped the violence.

So with such steps and petitions that women are being attacked, children are being killed, people listen.

When the international community sits and watches us die, we are going to kill one another. Look at what happened in Rwanda, they just looked at Rwanda as they slaughtered one another. There was no intervention.

But the international community came in for Kenya, and they came in at the right time.”