On March 4, 2013 Kenya elected the first Maasai woman to parliament. Peris Pesi Tobiko, a 42-year-old mother of four was elected as a member of Parliament Kajiado East constituency.
Early marriage vs education.
Tobiko grew up in the village of Mashuru in Kajiado county. She revealed that her community does not value the education of girls and that families try to marry off their daughters at a young age. Her father wanted to educate all his children, but gave in to public pressure when he attempted to pull her out of school and marry her off to an older man.
“My elder sisters were pulled out of school and married off, but I was lucky that teachers intervened in my case,” said Tobiko. “I was performing well, so teachers wanted to keep me in school.”
When high school fees became too expensive Tobiko earned a scholarship from the Jomo Kenyatta Foundation, an organization that publishes educational books and provides scholarships.
At the University of Nairobi, she studied political science at the undergraduate level before pursuing a master’s degree in international relations.
The road to Parliament.
Immediately after graduating, Tobiko worked for the government, first as a district officer and later as a benefits manager at the National Social Security Fund, the agency that oversees pensions.
Tobiko made her first run for Parliament in 2007 to represent the Kajiado East constituency. She did not win the seat but said that the votes she garnered strengthened her resolve to seek political office.
“I think the idea of a woman leader was still new to my people,” she said of her 2007 loss. “But the votes I got gave me the confidence to try again.”
Upon returning to the public sector as chairwoman of Tanathi Water Services Board – a government entity that provides clean water to the community, she was able to maintain contact with voters.
Tobiko initiated development projects in Kajiado, including a project that drilled boreholes to provide water for residents of the semi-arid area, and said these initiatives gave her an edge over her opponents during the recent election.
The power of youth and women.
The majority of Tobiko’s supporters are youth and women.
Richard Pasha, a young Maasai man from her constituency, said he voted for Tobiko because he wanted change.
“We’ve never had a woman MP,” Pasha said. “I want to see whether she will bring change in our community. She has leadership qualities, and I also like her policies.”
Following her historic win, Tobiko said she will focus her policies on empowering women and youth. “Economic empowerment will enable women to compete with men politically.” Her plans are to start income-generating projects for women and introduce adult education.
“Women have been boxed to a corner,” she said. “When they offer themselves for leadership, men tell them to run for that special seat, as though they do not qualify for other positions. I believe if women are empowered economically, men will be the ones calling for affirmative action.”
Tobiko has received numerous death threats which were reported but no arrests have been made.