Kenyan women march towards political equality

More women than ever before will take seats in the next parliament, but equal representation is a still a long way off.

Women make up less than half of Kenya's electorate [AFP]

Nairobi, Kenya – When the dust settles on this country’s watershed election, one fact will remain clear: there will be more women in Kenya’s parliament than there has ever been in this country’s history.

At least 47 women will take their places as the nation’s lawmakers, thanks to a rule within the country’s new constitution, which creates the position of “Women’s Representative” – one for each of Kenya’s 47 counties.

“In terms of numbers, this election may be disappointing but it a step forward. The constitution has only been there for two years,” Wangari Kinoti, women’s rights co-ordinator at ActionAid International Team Kenya, told Al Jazeera.
“Women are demotivated from running because of threats, question on their marital status and sexuality.”

Constitution of Kenya (2010)

Part Two – Composition and Membership of Parliament

97 (1) The National Assembly consists of:
(a) Two hundred and ninety members, each elected by the registered voters of single member constituencies;

(b) Forty-seven women, each elected by the registered voters of the counties, each county constituting a single member constituency;

(c) Twelve members nominated by parliamentary political parties according to their proportion of members of the National Assembly in accordance with Article 90, to represent special interests including the youth, persons with disabilities and workers; and

(d) The Speaker, who is an ex officio member.

Kinoti said “the ground isn’t even” for women standing for public office.

“I know of a candidate in Garissa County, where her political rivals were using religion to try and dissuade people from voting for her. ‘A woman running for a man’s seat is haram (sinful),” they say. ‘People who vote for her will go to hell.’”  

In the election which has gripped this country for much of the past few months, eight women contested governor positions, and 19 women sought seats in the country’s senate. Some 165 women battled it out among the men for parliament’s 290 regular constituency seats, while 155 women sought one of the “Women’s Representative” positions.  

These numbers may be encouraging, but the growth of women’s representation here has been slow.

History – and herstory

Grace Monica Onyango was the first woman to be elected mayor in Kenya. In 1965, she was elected to run Kisumu Town, on the shores of Lake Victoria. She received the permission of party leader Jaramogi Oginga Odinga – father of 2013 presidential aspirant Raila Odinga – to stand for parliament, winning the Kisumu constituency in 1969.

In 1997, Wangari Maathai, later a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Charity Ngilu, later a cabinet minister, became the first women to stand for president.

Unfounded rumours that Maathai had dropped out of the presidential race were printed in newspapers on the eve of that election, and she received few votes. Ngilu came in fifth. She lost her bid for the Kitui senatorship this week.

In the ninth parliament, from 2002 to 2007, just 18 women took seats in the nation’s hallowed chamber. In the nation’s tenth parliament, which closed its doors before this election campaign in January, the number of women swelled to 22, 16 of whom were elected, and six who were appointed. With 224 members, women made up just ten percent of parliament, a token two percent increase from the previous house.

Many political parties in Kenya are based on a system of patronage, said analysts, and many electable women candidates get knocked out at party primaries. The more entrenched women become in their political parties, the greater their chance of being elected.

“Women aren’t the majority of registered voters,” ActionAid’s Kinoti told Al Jazeera. “In fact, they make up less than half the electorate”.

“We shouldn’t limit the discussion to the arena of elective politics. By [women] participating in governance through auditing the performance of the assemblies, keeping track of funds, creating pressure from outside as a serious constituency, ultimately, we will see more women being elected.”

One woman who has lived and breathed these challenges is Florence Machayo.

In 1997, she and a group of friends formed the Education Centre for Women in Democracy, which worked to encourage women to go out and seek office.

“We were educating women that they are leaders and that they should seek elective positions,” she told Al Jazeera. “However, no-one put themselves forward – so we offered ourselves for these elective positions.”

She contested in the Western Province town of Lugari, against KANU’s Cyrus Jironjo – and lost. In 2013, 74-year-old Machayo stood as the TNA’s candidate for women’s representative in Kakamega County – a stronghold of the rival CORD coalition. She came in a distant third.

“In Western, that attitude needs to change,” she said. “We had only one woman running for a parliamentary seat. And for the Womens Representative seat in Kakamega, only six women put themselves forward.”

Former Justice Minister Martha Karua stood for Kenya’s presidency in 2013, garnering more than 36,000 votes.

Speaking recently at the the launch of a Kenya Federation of Women Lawyers report into gender-based discrimination, she said: “In positions where the battle is between a man and woman, choose a woman deliberately. And where there are only women, pick any woman. You can never go wrong with a woman.”

What needs to be done?

The reputation of voter education has taken a battering in Kenya in recent days. Uncertainty over how to cast ballots led to huge queues on polling day itself, and the numbers of rejected ballots that followed raised questions over the effectiveness of multi-million dollar campaigns to teach voters about the procedures necessary.

“The civic education wasn’t working because it wasn’t in their [tribal] language, despite English and Kiswahili being the national languages,” Ngwatilo Mawlyoo, a poet, told Al Jazeera.

Good times and bad for women
in 2013 elections
•    Alice Ng’ang’a, in her second attempt, won the Thika Town seat on a TNA ticket
•    Lawyer Alice Wahome clinched the Kandara seat also on a TNA ticket.  
•    Against the odds – in particular President Mwai Kibaki’s apparent endorsement of a rival – Ms Mary Wambui  clinched the Othaya seat. Kibaki’s reportedly preferred candidate, Mugambi Gichuki, was third.  
•    Both Special Programmes minister Esther Murugi (Nyeri Town) and assistant minister Cecily Mbarire (Runyenjes) defended their seats and won on a TNA ticket.
•    In northern Kenya, Sophia Abdi of the URP lost out to Yusuf Haji for the Ijara parliamentary seat. She was the only woman in the county contesting an elective seat other than the constitutionally reserved 47.  
•    In Makueni, Kitui and Machakos counties, a 19 women were in the race for National Assembly seats. This is a record number.  
•    In the 2007 election, the Rift Valley delivered the highest number of women MPs – eight in one region. However, two of those, Peris Simam and assistant minister Beatrice Kones, were defeated during 2013 party  primaries.  
•    Of the others, cabinet ministers Sally Kosgei and Prof Margaret Kamar lost their re-election bids, while Water minister Charity Ngilu lost out to assistant defence minister David Musila for the Kitui Senate seat.
•    Assistant minister Wavinya Ndeti lost, by a large margin, to former government spokesman Alfred Mutua for the Machakos governorship. 

Mawlyoo is a performer, actress and musician, who has travelled the country, exploring issues of identity as part of a project named This Kenyan Life.

“Even women would say ‘hatuwezi uongezi na wamawake’ [“Women can’t be our MPs”]. I heard that in Nyeri, Kisii, Moyale and Maua. It wasn’t clear what the women’s representative seat was for.

“When I was in Moyale, [it was] three weeks to the election and civic education hadn’t started. There’s very little voter education. You can’t change the conversation in the last month.”

Machayo agreed.

“For women’s representative, the biggest hurdle was to run in all 12 constituencies [of the county]. I didn’t have time for all,” she said. “Political parties haven’t supported women in terms of financing.

“We spent more time explaining about the set-up than actually campaigning.”

Presidential candidates across the board endorsed affirmative action to place women in at least 33 per cent of leadership positions in parliament, local authorities and government departments such as the Foreign Office.

But this idea, stemming from the constitutional reforms of 2010, has yet to be made a reality.

“We have to increase the woman’s voice,” said Machayo. “The one-third position is not being fulfilled in the ministries or in the parastatals [state-owned corporations or agencies]. I was also expecting the running mates of governors to be women. Sadly this wasn’t the case.”

“Women are still afraid of politics; they’d rather go into business.”

While most high-profile running mates were men, one campaign did buck that trend. In the somewhat unlikely event of education academic Professor James ole Kiyiapi being elected president, Kenya would have had its first woman deputy president, Winnie Kaburu Kinyua.

Kinyua is a businesswoman with a masters degree in gender development and is a former chair of economic empowerment group, the National Council of Women of Kenya. She also co-founded the National Association of Self Employed Women of Kenya (NASWOK), an organisation that brings together women in small and medium-sized businesses.

“We come together to pool our funds as group and borrow among ourselves or even borrow from a bank. So far, we have opened offices in Thika, Muranga, Meru, Taita and in Western Kenya,” she told blogger Njoki Chege.


Kenya, like most human societies, remains largely patriarchal. But women here say that they have not been held back by traditional gender roles, as much as they have by lack of economic opportunity.

“Political parties must finance women in the future,” said Machayo. “This is a major stumbling block.”

Tribal divides also play their role.

Poet Mawlyoo told Al Jazeera she had been speaking to a women’s representative candidate in the northern town of Marsabit.

“She said: ‘Here, we don’t talk about Raila or Uhuru. It’s ethnicity, it’s everything.”

“In Maua, the area is very vulnerable. The number of children going through primary school to high school is very low. Once these numbers improve, these children will be better voters than their parents.”

Machayo, who remains determined to fight for women’s political participation, despite her own electoral disappointment, said that women had been free to campaign in this election.

“We don’t have that problem here [in Western Province],” she said, laughing. “What you’ll find is that the husbands will query the lateness of the hour she’ll come back home. That’s the only complaint I hear so far.”

The march towards equal representation for Kenyan women clearly has some way to go. But it is a journey that the women of this country know needs the backing of the entire nation if they are to reach their destination.

“We must give more education to women so that they can seek these elective posts,” said Machayo. “Men should also not be left behind in this education.”

ActionAid’s Kinoti put it more simply:

“It is up to all of us – men and women – to promote equality.”

Follow James Brownsell on Twitter: @JamesBrownsell

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Source: Al Jazeera