Women’s Sit­u­a­tion Room: Unique ap­proach to re­duc­ing elec­toral vi­o­lence

How an in­no­va­tive real-time in­ter­ven­tion in Kenya used women’s strengths to pro­tect vot­ers and help keep the peace be­fore and af­ter vot­ing day

Africa Renewal - - Contents - By Jane Go­dia

Vi­o­lence dur­ing an elec­tion cy­cle is an all-too-fre­quent phe­nom­e­non in most African coun­tries where it may be trig­gered by po­lit­i­cal or eth­nic ten­sions, or flawed elec­toral pro­cesses. Trag­i­cally, those most af­fected by the vi­o­lence are women and girls. As gov­ern­ments grap­ple with the prob­lem, women in Africa have in­vented a new mech­a­nism to help re­duce vi­o­lence dur­ing elec­tions – the Women’s Sit­u­a­tion Room ( WSR).

The WSR is a peace-build­ing project that em­pow­ers women to be the lead­ing force for demo­cratic and peace­ful elec­tions. The con­cept was first in­tro­duced by Yvette Ches­son-Wureh, the co­or­di­na­tor for the Liberia-based Angie Brooks In­ter­na­tional Cen­tre, an NGO on women’s em­pow­er­ment.

“The [WSR] is a real-time and pro­gres­sive process that works with com­mu­ni­ties in ad­vo­cat­ing, me­di­at­ing and in­ter­ven­ing in vi­o­lent and tense sit­u­a­tions dur­ing elec­tions in coun­tries where it’s sit­u­ated,” says Ms. Ches­son-Wureh.

The process was first used dur­ing the 2011 elec­tions in Liberia and has since been suc­cess­fully repli­cated in Kenya, Sene­gal and Sierra Leone. There are also plans to use it in this year’s elec­tions in Burk­ina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Nige­ria and Togo. Ac­cord­ing to WSR or­ga­niz­ers, sit­u­a­tions could dif­fer in in­di­vid­ual coun­tries, so the con­cept is adapt­able to suit lo­cal con­di­tions.

As a re­sult of its demon­strated ef­fec­tive­ness in pre­vent­ing and mit­i­gat­ing elec­tion-re­lated vi­o­lence in Liberia, the WSR was adopted as a best prac­tice in Africa at the Africa Union sum­mit in Jan­uary 2012.

The sit­u­a­tion room at work

Since the ad­vent of multi-party pol­i­tics in 1991, vi­o­lence has marred Kenyan elec­tions. How­ever, the 2007 post- elec­tion vi­o­lence was the worst the coun­try has ever seen. It af­fected all but two of the coun­try’s eight prov­inces. More than 1,500 peo­ple died in the vi­o­lence and an­other 600,000 were forced to flee, ac­cord­ing to the Com­mis­sion of In­quiry into Post-Elec­tion Vi­o­lence, which was set up by the gov­ern­ment to in­ves­ti­gate the causes of vi­o­lence and the con­duct of se­cu­rity agen­cies and to come up with rec­om­men­da­tions. The post- elec­tion vi­o­lence prompted ac­tivists to pro­pose sev­eral ini­tia­tives that would en­sure a peace­ful elec­toral process dur­ing the run-up to the March 2013 elec­tions. Be­cause of its track record in other African coun­tries as an ef­fec­tive tool in pre­vent­ing and min­imis­ing elec­toral vi­o­lence, the WSR was among the se­lected ini­tia­tives.

With tech­ni­cal sup­port from the Angie Brooks In­ter­na­tional Cen­tre and fund­ing from UN Women and the UNDP, WSR Kenya was born. The struc­ture was sim­ple – con­sist­ing of a sec­re­tariat, elec­tion ob­servers, a call cen­tre, a team of em­i­nent women lead­ers and a pool of ex­perts. Op­er­at­ing from its of­fices in the cap­i­tal Nairobi, the sec­re­tariat or­ga­nized the day-to-day ac­tiv­i­ties of the WSR and rolled out strate­gies that were im­ple­mented be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter the 2013 elec­tions.

It re­cruited and trained 500 women and youths as spe­cial elec­tion ob­servers in ar­eas that were iden­ti­fied as po­ten­tial hotspots for vi­o­lence, which in­cluded Nairobi, Naivasha and Mom­basa. Us­ing a toll-free, well-pub­li­cized tele­phone num­ber, the elec­tion ob­servers re­ported to the Sit­u­a­tion Room all in­ci­dents of vi­o­lence or threats to peace that were hap­pen­ing across the coun­try.

In­side the Sit­u­a­tion Room, a team of Kenyan lead­ers and em­i­nent per­sons from other African coun­tries sat in one cor­ner. In an­other room, tele­phone op­er­a­tors took calls from elec­tion ob­servers de­ployed across the coun­try to mon­i­tor the hotspots. The op­er­a­tors recorded the time of the call and its na­ture, and then passed on the in­for­ma­tion to tech­ni­cal ex­perts in law, me­dia and po­lit­i­cal science.

The three tech­ni­cal ex­perts then ver­i­fied and an­a­lyzed the in­for­ma­tion be­fore pass­ing it on to a team of Kenyan women lead­ers who had in­flu­ence with

1,500 peo­ple died in the 2007 post-elec­tion vi­o­lence in Kenya

600,000 peo­ple were forced to flee in the 2007 post-elec­tion vi­o­lence

lo­cal politi­cians. The em­i­nent women were Phoebe Asiyo, Zip­po­rah Kit­tony, Betty Maina, Wan­jiku Kabira, Ra­hab Muhiu, Tegla Loroupe and Jane Kiano. They were sup­ported by their coun­ter­parts drawn from the re­gion, in­clud­ing Gertrude Mon­gella, a for­mer Tan­za­nian min­is­ter and ex­pert on gen­der is­sues, Miria Matembe ( Uganda), El­iz­a­beth Lwanga ( Uganda), Tur­rie Ak­ereleIs­mail ( Nige­ria) and Ms. Ches­sonWureh. The only man in the team was Kiprono Kit­tony, a prom­i­nent me­dia owner in Kenya who helped mo­bi­lize me­dia sup­port. Ad­di­tion­ally, there were high-pro­file rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Kenya Po­lice Ser­vice and the In­de­pen­dent Elec­toral and Bound­aries Com­mis­sion (IEBC), the body charged with man­ag­ing elec­tions in Kenya.

Af­ter re­ceiv­ing sit­u­a­tion re­ports of real or po­ten­tial trou­ble on the ground, the em­i­nent per­sons used their sta­tus and in­flu­ence with po­lice au­thor­i­ties, the elec­toral body or po­lit­i­cal lead­ers to re­duce brew­ing ten­sions or acts of vi­o­lence from get­ting out of con­trol. They also con­ducted be­hind-the-scenes diplo­macy, ar­bi­trated and me­di­ated be­tween ri­val groups and po­lit­i­cal par­ties. Mean­while, in the Sit­u­a­tion Room it­self, vis­i­tors wrote peace mes­sages and signed their names to a piece of white cloth sym­bol­iz­ing their sup­port for peace­ful polls.

Real-time so­lu­tions

At the end of the ob­ser­va­tion process, the WSR had recorded more than 1,200 re­ports that were re­ceived and re­solved in real time. The in­ci­dence cat­e­gories in­cluded vot­ing com­plaints, gen­der-based vi­o­lence, elec­toral of­fences and ob­struc­tion of ob­servers. There were also cases of spon­ta­neous vi­o­lence fol­low­ing the an­nounce­ment of re­sults.

At one point, there was ten­sion na­tion­wide when the IEBC de­layed an­nounc­ing the elec­tion re­sults. The WSR, through the team of em­i­nent per­sons, suc­cess­fully reached out to the elec­toral com­mis­sion to fast-track the process. The team also pre­vailed upon the two lead­ing pres­i­den­tial con­tenders to ap­peal to their sup­port­ers to re­frain from vi­o­lence. In the end, the im­por­tance of WSR’s work was ac­knowl­edged by var­i­ous stake­hold­ers in the Kenyan elec­tion.

“Women are usu­ally the vic­tims of the elec­tion vi­o­lence and are rarely in­volved in ob­serv­ing or mit­i­gat­ing the vi­o­lence. In terms of real-time ob­ser­va­tions, [WSR] was very suc­cess­ful,” said Deb­o­rah Okumu, the ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Cau­cus for Women’s Lead­er­ship, a na­tional net­work that works to em­power women lead­ers. “There were top notch in­ter­ven­tions from the team of em­i­nent per­sons who were able to calm down sit­u­a­tions.”

Among the high pro­file per­son­al­i­ties, diplo­mats and elec­tion ob­servers who vis­ited the Sit­u­a­tion Room of­fice were Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the chair­per­son of the African Union Com­mis­sion, and for­mer Mozam­bi­can Pres­i­dent Joaquim Chissano, the head of the AU Ob­server Mission.

Lessons learned

Ac­cord­ing to Ms. Ches­son-Wureh, the Women’s Sit­u­a­tion Room suc­ceeded in train­ing and de­ploy­ing more than 500 elec­tion ob­servers to hotspots. They re­solved re­ported elec­toral vi­o­lence in­ci­dents or threats in real time, and held fruit­ful meet­ings with the ma­jor po­lit­i­cal play­ers in­clud­ing then Prime Min­is­ter Raila Odinga and me­dia stake­hold­ers on the need for peace­ful elec­tion­eer­ing. How­ever, the or­ga­niz­ers con­ceded that there was need for more time to train vol­un­teers on the peace process, par­tic­u­larly the peer-to-peer dia­logue against vi­o­lence among youth.

Daisy Am­dany, the co-con­vener of the Na­tional Women Steer­ing Com­mit­tee, a con­sor­tium of women’s ad­vo­cacy groups, said she felt that the set-up of the WSR in Kenya was good for women but it should have been brought in ear­lier than a month be­fore the elec­tions.

“It was a good plat­form to en­force women’s rights and give women a voice be­cause it was able to get the at­ten­tion of the po­lice and the elec­tions body,” said Ms. Am­dany, adding, “It can be use­ful if put in place once again for the 2017 gen­eral elec­tion.”


Women lead­ers and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Kenya’s elec­toral body, the po­lice and the UN sit at the Women’s Sit­u­a­tion Room in Nairobi, Kenya that used diplo­macy to help re­duce elec­toral vi­o­lence dur­ing Kenya’s last gen­eral elec­tions.

Joseph Ma­thenge

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