Kenya’s G7: Delivering on the devolution promise

Governors Gladys Wanga (Homa Bay), Anne Waiguru (Kirinyaga), Wavinya Ndeti (Machakos), Susan Kihika (Nakuru), and Cecily Mbarire (Embu) do a jig in Homa Bay town on February 26,2024 during the pre-launch of the G7 Strategy, which is aimed at inspiring more women to vie for top political leadership in the next general election. Other members of the Women Governors Caucus (G7), not captured in the photo, are Governors Wavinya Ndeti (Machakos) and Fatuma Achani (Kwale)

Photo credit: George Odiwuor | Nation Media Group

From the local to the global level, women are significantly underrepresented in political participation and leadership. As such, achieving gender parity in political leadership feels like a pipe dream, especially with the UN Women estimating that it will take 130 years to achieve gender equality in the highest position of political leadership.

The UN Women analysis of January 2023 further indicates that in 141 countries, women constitute approximately three million (35.5 percent) of elected members in local deliberative bodies. Only three countries have reached 50 percent, and an additional 22 countries have more than 40 percent of women in local government. This is despite the various global frameworks and indicators that are used for determining progress towards realising equitable societies, like the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW); the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; UN General Assembly Resolution 66/130 (2011) on Women and Political Participation; UNSCR 2122 (2013) and the African Women’s Rights Protocol; Dakar Platform for Action (1994); Beijing Platform for Action (1995); UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) on Women, Peace, and Security; and ICPD25 Nairobi Summit Commitments (2019).

At the regional level, the African Union (AU) is committed to gender equality and women’s empowerment as captured in Agenda 2063. The continent aspires to create “An Africa where development is people-driven, unleashing the potential of its women and youth” (Aspiration 6).

The AU adopted the African Union Gender Policy in 2009, and launched the African Women’s Decade 2010-2020 and the Fund for African Women, to accelerate the implementation of all commitments on gender equality and women’s empowerment on the continent. Despite these conventions, the participation of women in political leadership has remained low.

Back home, the statistics are not any promising, even though the governance systems and structures have transformed enormously since the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution.

A salient attribute of the Constitution is the recognition of gender equity in the leadership and governance of the country at various levels, including county and national leadership.

The Constitution stipulates that not more than two-thirds of members of elective public bodies shall be of the same gender. Despite this provision and the existence of numerous institutions established to ensure appropriate policies and strategies are implemented, equal representation and participation of women in leadership and decision-making institutions in the country is yet to be realised. The country has not implemented the Two-Thirds Gender Rule that would pave the way for equitable representation of women in the National Assembly.

Women who have shown interest in leadership positions face numerous challenges. These include the patriarchal culture, negative socio-cultural beliefs and practices, social stigma around women in politics, failure to implement electoral rules and some flaws in Kenya’s electoral system, male domination of influential decision-making structures in most political parties, Violence Against Women in Elections (VAWE), and inadequate financial resources.

Anne Waiguru, Governor, Kirinyaga County, and Chairperson of the Council of Governors.

Photo credit: Oxfam

Kenya’s political contests require an enormous outlay of social capital, yet the processes of economic, cultural, and political capital accumulation still favour men more than women, regardless of men’s ethnic, religious, or class divisions. There are biased gender social norms that undervalue women’s capabilities and rights in society, limiting their choices and access to opportunities through unfavourable definitions of gender roles that regulate women’s behaviour and set boundaries of what women are expected to do and be. This is a Global problem as seen in the UNDP’s 2023 Gender Social Norms Index (GSNI), which revealed that close to nine out of 10 men and women hold fundamental biases against women, and nearly half the world’s people believe that men make better political leaders than women do.

Cecily Mbarire, Governor, Embu County.

Photo credit: Oxfam

It’s undeniable that there has been progressive growth in women’s participation in leadership and governance at the county and national levels. Women today hold 201 of the 1,932 elective seats in Kenya, representing 10.6 percent of elected leaders. This figure is up from the 172 (9.1 percent) seats occupied by women after the 2017 elections, and 145 (7.7 percent) after the 2013 polls.

Outstanding in those statistics, however, was the election of the seven female governors in the 2022 general election on August 9 – the highest number since the implementation of the devolved system of government in 2013. The seven female governors are now referred to as the G7. They are Her Excellency Governor Anne Mumbi Waiguru of  Kirinyaga County who secured a second term in office after triumphing over seven opponents; Her Excellency Governor Susan Kihika of Nakuru County who beat the incumbent and five other contestants to emerge victorious; Her Excellency Governor Gladys Wanga of Homa Bay County who ascended to the top county job after flooring former Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero; Her Excellency Governor Wavinya Ndeti of Machakos County who after two unsuccessful attempts, finally won the hearts of the voters in a highly contested race that included five other candidates; Her Excellency Governor Kawira Mwangaza of Meru County who ran on an independent ticket to rise to the helm of the county leadership after flooring the then incumbent Kiraitu Murungi, as well as Senator Mithika Linturi who also sought the position; Her Excellency Governor Fatuma Achani of Kwale County who won in a tight race pitting her against a male contestant; and Her Excellency Governor Cecily Mbarire of Embu County who was declared the victor in a hotly contested run against a male candidate.    

Gladys Wanga, Governor, Homa Bay County.

Photo credit: Oxfam

This was a no mean fete, especially in a country with prescribed gender roles, patriarchal attitudes, and structural barriers that create a disenabling environment for women to lead.

As citizens with progressive minds celebrated the achievement, a sizable percentage of Kenyans with deeply rooted retrogressive cultural and religious beliefs seemed unamused. The naysayers have since been predicting doom for the elected women governors. However, amidst the unending challenges that the Governors continue to encounter in the forms of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and the spread of misinformation to assassinate their characters, amongst other challenges, they have soldiered on and continue to serve Kenyans undeterred. Recent polls conducted by Infotrak rate them amongst the best performing of the 47 Governors; a fact endorsed by His Excellence President William Ruto through his remarks at the just concluded 2nd Homa Bay County International Investment Conference. The Head of State urged citizens to vote in women as governors when given a chance, due to their exemplary performance.

Fatuma Achani, Governor, Kwale County.

Photo credit: Oxfam

The success this far has not come easy for the women Governors, who, in the second year of their terms, have continued to experience targeted attacks from different fronts, largely instigated by the mere fact that they are women and are seen as undeserving of this role.

In recognition of this and other significant barriers that women in political leadership face, including being held to higher standards than their male counterparts, higher expectations from the people they serve, voter hesitation and lack of institutional support; in March 2023, Oxfam held a meeting with the Council of Governors and the female governors to explore how best to support them in delivering on their mandate as women leaders. This is in line with Oxfam’s Transformative Leadership for Women’s Rights Programme, which strives for social, cultural, economic, and political transformation for equality and the realisation of human rights for all, regardless of gender, sexuality, or other forms of identity – a transformed leadership that mobilises and respects all people, and facilitates the space for the led to become leaders.

Wavinya Ndeti, Governor, Machakos County.

Photo credit: Oxfam

It is in the meeting that the idea of a strategy for the women Governors was conceptualised. The strategy was seen as an approach that offered strategic and system-strengthening support to the governors in their quest to lead their respective counties in a transformative way.

The Governors have enjoyed the goodwill of development partners who are all keen on supporting this country to achieve gender parity in political participation and representation as enshrined in the Constitution of Kenya and Sustainable Development Goal number five (5) on gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls. However, sometimes the support was never informed by the needs of the citizens from the respective counties that the governors led, neither was it informed by the governor priorities, but the donors’. The support was also unstructured and uncoordinated, which created room for duplication of efforts as the development partners did not have oversight on the investments by different partners and the governments in the target counties.

Kawira Mwangaza, Governor, Meru County.

Photo credit: Oxfam

The Women Governors Caucus Strategy, dubbed the “G7 Strategy”, is anchored on foundational pillars of Socio-Economic Development, Good Governance, Accountability and Access to Justice, Political Strategy, and Institutional Strengthening. Itseeks to empower and support women leaders in demonstrating efficient, transformational, and strategic governance within the devolved structures; amplify the collective voice of women on national and gender issues; create a women leaders networking platform across various sectors, and facilitate mentorship between seasoned leaders and emerging women and girls. The strategy seeks to unlock and deliver on the elusive devolution promise aimed at achieving more equitable development that ensures opportunity for all Kenyans.

Susan Kihika, Governor, Nakuru County.

Photo credit: Oxfam

The female Governors, leveraging on the G7 Strategy, want to demonstrate to Kenyans that this promise is achievable albeit 13 years late since it was instituted. The strategy will ensure structured and coordinated support from different stakeholders to the seven counties, and more importantly, one that responds to the needs of the citizens based on their priorities.

It is anchored on the feminist principle of power-sharing, which seeks to address the gap of under-representation of women in leadership in Kenya. It prioritises mentorship opportunities for young women aspiring for political leadership; and whom the seven governors are keen to start moulding into tomorrow’s leadership within their respective counties. It addresses the individual needs of the governors as women leaders, to enhance their leadership skills and support them in navigating the challenging systems and structures that are not gender-responsive. More importantly, it strengthens the voice and agency of the women governors who have joined forces to work and support each other instead of pursuing politics of division. It is a platform to unite women in leadership positions in different sectors and spheres of the country.

The G7 Strategy has been created after extensive consultations with women leaders at the grassroots level, civil society organisations, UN agencies (including UN Women), Oxfam in Kenya, International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), ActionAid Kenya, and J-PAL, as organisations that have been influential in advocating for the gender equality agenda.

Also involved in the consultative dialogues were media and research institutions like Infotrak, Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK), and Kenya Correspondents Association. These organisations continue to shape the narratives of women in leadership in the country.

Women that are trailblazers in different fronts and have broken barriers to ascend to leadership were also involved. They include the Chief Justice Hon Justice Martha Koome; Deputy Speaker of the Kenya National Assembly Hon Gladys Boss Shollei; CoG Chair H.E Anne Waiguru; H.E Gladys Wanga; H.E Cecily Mbarire; H.E Fatuma Achani; Hon Charity Ngilu; Director-General of the United Nations Office, Nairobi, Ms Zainab Hawa Bangura; the UN Women Country Representative Anna Mutavati; Hon Beatrice Elachi; Sen Catherine Mumma, and Kenya Women Parliamentary Association (KEWOPA) Chair, Hon Leah Sankaire. These women leaders emphasised the need to work together to foster inclusivity, gender equity, and effective leadership.

March 7, 2024 will remain a historic moment for Kenya as the G7 unveils this long-awaited strategy; a strategy that is a testament to the power of women’s solidarity and collective organising in a patriarchal society that continues to undermine them; a strategy that models to Kenyans what transformative leadership is and seeks to challenge the status quo on women leadership; a strategy that is the vessel to increasing the participation and representation of women in political leadership; a strategy that is a demonstration of the power of women's solidarity and collective organising in a patriarchal society; a strategy that is the game changer to the political architecture of this country and the region; a strategy that will deliver to Kenyans the unfulfilled promise of devolution.

The launch of the strategy is just but the beginning of a short, intense, and transformational journey towards the achievement of the vision of the participation and representation of more women in political leadership in Kenya in the 2027 general elections.