Omar hails from Lamu, a conservative region near the Somali border, best known for its preserved Swahili culture and a UNESCO heritage site.
“If we’re going to address the challenges we face as Indigenous women, youth and communities, we have to fight the political battle as well,” she told CNN.
The 39-year-old is Coast County’s first female candidate for the top job. She is among a record number of women candidates in Kenya’s August 9 general election.
She says she’s running for office as a natural progression after seven years of providing ‘band-aid solutions’ for poor health care.
“Being able to really dig our teeth into the root causes of rural challenges is what definitely propelled us into politics,” says Omar.
Even though women make up nearly half of registered voters, Kenya still has the fewest elected female leaders in East Africa.
But this election could be different.
“Kenya is ready for women at all levels”
If opposition leader Raila Odinga wins, Kenya could have its first female vice president in the person of 64-year-old Martha Karua.
When she ran for president alone in 2013, Karua won less than 1% of the vote, ranking a distant sixth behind five men.
In the 25 years since a woman first ran for president in Kenya, the closest seat has come.
Karua bristles when asked if Kenya is ready for a female president like neighboring Tanzania.
“This question suggests that women should not be on the ballot because no one has ever questioned whether Kenyans are ready for another man. So this question is in itself discriminatory,” the former minister said. Kenyan Justice at CNN.
“I think Kenya is ready for women at all levels.”
Her nomination has energized the Odinga campaign and excited many women, some of whom compare her to US Vice President Kamala Harris.
During her three decades in Kenyan politics, Karua has earned a reputation as a principled politician and the nickname “the Iron Lady” – a nickname she hates.
“This name speaks to the misogyny within society. Strength is not seen as feminine, strength is seen as masculine,” Karua told CNN, noting that it was first used to describe former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who came to power in 1979.
“It speaks to the misogyny and patriarchy that rules the world,” she says.
“Systematic exclusion of women”
Although the number of women entering the political sphere in Kenya has increased over the years, only 23% of seats were held by women in the last parliament. This includes female representative positions which are exclusively reserved for them – 47 seats out of 349 are currently reserved for women for this position.
“We’re seeing more and more women coming forward, which tells us that women wanting to participate in politics has never been a problem,” says Marilyn Kamuru, a lawyer and writer on women in politics. “It continues to be a problem of systematic exclusion of women.”
This exclusion includes financial barriers to competing in notoriously expensive campaigns that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and regular violence employed against women running and even those already in office. For example, in 2019, a Kenyan MP was arrested for allegedly slapping a female colleague and insulting her.
“It chills the environment for women, it makes them think again, hold themselves back,” and consider running for lower positions or giving up on their campaigns altogether, Kamuru says.
“We’ve had some major and mind-blowing character assassinations, to the point of discrediting the work we’ve done with Safari Doctors, but we’re trying not to let that distract us,” Omar said.
She laments the propaganda used against her in the race, including taboo accusations like being an LGBT “recruiter” or a drug dealer to derail her campaign.
“There are some cultures that don’t even give women the right to keep their voter ID, so you need a man’s permission,” Amdany said. She added that negotiated situations where elders determine who can run for office also disadvantage women and are “more common than you might think.”
Despite the obstacles to accessing political office, Kenyan women persist. “As long as we remain non-negotiable players, the system must accommodate us,” Kamuru said.
A long-term campaign
While everyone CNN spoke to Lamu knew she was running for, some men felt she was punching above her weight and should have been vying for the lowest-powered parliamentary seat of women’s representative in county-wide.
But Constance Kadzo, 24, a small grocery stall owner, told CNN she was inspired to see an indigenous Swahili woman running for a top seat.
“I vote for her because she is the only woman brave enough to take on men and I know she will fight for us.”