Time to bring gender parity campaign back on track 

Members of Parliament

Increased numbers of elected women, and more so, gender parity in elective posts, is a sign of a society that is tolerant and vibrant with progressive ideas

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

By the time of the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution, the struggle to improve the representation of women in elective and other public sector institutions was visible everywhere around the country.

There was genuine pressure to increase the number of women representatives in Parliament. There was genuine demand to increase their numbers in public institutions on the argument that women had had poor representation at decision-making tables.

Many were convinced that numbers matter in policy-making. And indeed the Constitution provided for the post of County Women Representatives.

There are provisions directing that no gender should occupy more than two-thirds of appointive or elective posts. This means that the National Assembly and the Senate, for instance, should not have more than two-thirds of any gender. A similar provision applies to the lower-level county assemblies, but here there is a specific provision on how to fill the gap, if any, after elections. But there is no such provision for the national parliament.

And because there is no provision, the voices to address this challenge were evident after the 2013 elections. Civil society groups and women leaders, and reformist men, spoke loudly and urged the government and political leaders to address this challenge.

Those who were at the forefront of this campaign included the former Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court, Dr Willy Mutunga. His argument was quite strong. Injustice to any segment of society is an injustice to all. His successor at the Judiciary, Justice Maraga, picked this up and indeed advised that Parliament be dissolved. It was not dissolved.

From then on, the voices demanding increased representation of women have become less loud. The voices continue to reduce even though gender parity is yet to be achieved. But there is some progress at least in the improvement of awareness of the election of women.

In the March 2013 election, voters in all counties did not elect any woman as a governor. It is later in the August 2013 elections that three women were elected as governors. The number increased to 7 in the August 2022 elections. This is a couple of strides.

There has been limited improvement in Senate. Only three women were elected as senators in 2017. Again only three were elected in 2022. At the national assembly level, the numbers have slightly increased. From 16 elected women MPs in 2013, the number now stands at 30 elected MPs. Again these are a couple of strides but not significant to celebrate.

The level of Members of the County Assembly is also not a significant improvement. From 82 women elected in 2013, the number increased to 96 in 2017 and later to 112 in 2022. These are paltry figures for a country celebrating itself as an open society that cares for justice for all.

Progressive ideas

Increased numbers of elected women, and more so, gender parity in elective posts, is a sign of a society that is tolerant and vibrant with progressive ideas. One thing that is common in society election of women is valued or considered in the same weight as men, is the vibrancy in innovative ideas. People are well off in these societies because of tolerance of new ideas. There is no limit to what one can do to achieve self-development.

On the other hand, societies that constrain the election of women for cultural reasons (not religious) and patriarchy in particular suffer one thing: poverty of ideas and poverty of food. Because you cannot tolerate women, it means you cannot open up or free your mind to new ways of thinking. How this happens is a story for another day.

But why is the gender course the way it is? Where has the gender parity voice gone? Or has everyone given up?

No one has given up. It is women leaders who have decided to take a self-interest course. Some of those who were elected or nominated to ‘represent women’ interests in either the Senate or the National Assembly dropped the women cause the moment they get the job.

They begin to distance themselves from women's issues as they pursue self-enrichment or seek to create avenues to access men of power. It is no wonder whipping MPs to vote in favour of one gender rule in Parliament has failed several times. For instance, between 2013 and 2017, some of the most vocal women MPs would be absent from Parliament at a time when their presence was required to support Bills seeking to address the one-third gender rule. And they would not feel guilty about it. They perhaps felt that they had arrived and that the gender equality Bill was a very small thing to worry about.

It is said that women leaders are their own worst enemies. A recent study on why the participation of women in politics continues to experience challenges showed that experienced women do not care to mentor younger leaders. 

They shrug off the need to support younger ones and even proceed to advise them to struggle hard as they did to get the space. 

This of course weakens the campaign to improve the representation of women in elective posts.

Legal demands 

Worse still, political parties no longer care about the representation of women. They only espouse it to satisfy legal demands but they do not genuinely care. No political party goes out of its way to provide procedures to nominate women candidates to run in areas where the party is strong. 

Some of the mainstream political parties attempted to do this in the August 2022 elections but the numbers were so low that in the end, it did not matter. The point is simple here. If Orange Democratic Party (ODM) cared about women getting to the National Assembly, the party would have allocated safe seats, about half of the seats, in the party strongholds, Nyanza region, to women candidates. 

The United Democratic Alliance (UDA) would have done the same in the Rift Valley and Central Kenya. The party did not.

Wiper party would have identified a number of safe seats for women candidates in Ukambani. This did not happen.

Nominations to the National Assembly, the Senate, and the county assemblies have become a poisoned chalice. There have been many silent voices, but which are now growing louder, on how some women leaders get to the nomination lists. Some of the voices identify ‘sex for nomination’ as one of the crooked practices that have slowly been getting embedded into party activities.

There is, however, no sufficient evidence to support these claims.

The point here then is that parties do not care. And women political leaders are urging the younger ones to fight hard on their own. 

All this points to the need for reformists to get back to the drawing board and design new strategies to bring back the gender voice. 

This is important because the election of women in large numbers sends the correct message: that society is tolerant of new ideas and the need to improve equality in all aspects of society. It serves as an indication that society has broken new ground to firm up conditions for improving the quality of ideas aimed at propelling it to prosperity. 

Thus far, we have witnessed some change but Kenya can do better. But this will happen only if women leaders do much more than they are doing to argue the case for improved representation of women. Those elected or appointed to public posts begin to run self-interest-based agendas and forget they have a journey to walk to make Kenya a better and fair society. Or is it that women are their worst enemies?

Prof Kanyinga is based at the Institute for Development Studies (IDS), University of Nairobi; [email protected] @karutikk