Mexico's first female president reignites hope for Kenyan women in politics

President elect Claudia Sheinbaum gestures to her supporters after winning, at Zocalo Square in Mexico City, Mexico June 3, 2024. 

Photo credit: Photo I Reuters

What you need to know:

  • Claudia Sheinbaum's made history as Mexico's first female president, defeating the opposition candidate in a landmark election where two women engineers went head-to-head for the presidency.
  • Her victory has reignited hope among Kenyan women leaders who have faced numerous barriers in their quest for greater political representation and the nation's highest office.

Claudia Sheinbaum has once again written the history books, this time as Mexico's first female president. This landmark achievement is her second significant milestone. In 2018, she became the first woman to serve as mayor of Mexico City.

In a nation grappling with high levels of gender inequality, Claudia, representing the Morena ruling party, won by a record margin, defeating opposition candidate Xóchitl Gálvez. Remarkably, both women are engineers by training. For the first time in Mexico's history, two women went head-to-head in the battle for the presidency.

She joins a select group of women who have broken the glass ceiling by occupying the highest public office: the presidency. Her victory, though distant from Kenya, has renewed hope that a similar breakthrough could happen in a country that still heavily lags behind in gender equality. But first, who is Mexico’s first female president? 

At 61, Claudia walked in outgoing President López Obrador's footsteps, proposing to continue the "Fourth Transformation," a movement aimed at eradicating neoliberalism, which she sees as the main cause of economic and social inequality in Mexico. Dubbed the "defence coordinator of the Fourth Transformation" by her predecessor, Claudia promised to build upon its foundations.

She was born and raised in Mexico City and was greatly influenced by her father, a chemical engineer and her mother, a leftist academic active in global movements. Naturally, Claudia's interest in politics took root early, with her activism and opposition to neoliberalism tracing back to her university days in the 1980s. While studying physics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, she joined a student movement that championed public education, successfully opposing reforms aimed at raising tuition fees and privatising education.

To date, she criticises neoliberalism for commodifying welfare. Running on a platform focused on public education, she assured Mexican citizens she would improve high school graduation rates by building schools, providing financial aid, and enhancing teachers' working conditions.

It was also during that time that she met her first husband, Carlos Imaz, who co-founded the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), headed by outgoing President Obrador in 1996. After completing her bachelor degree, she worked as a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico's Institute of Engineering, where she focused on energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. This culminated in her earning a doctor of philosophy in energy engineering, and authoring over 100 articles and two books on energy, the environment, and sustainable development. Her scholarly work even contributed to a 2007 Nobel Peace Prize-winning report on climate change, underscoring her credentials as a climate scientist.

She was later appointed as Environment secretary by outgoing President Obrador in 2000. Her political career took off in 2015 when she was elected mayor of Tlalpan, a town south of Mexico City. In 2018, she broke another barrier by becoming the first female head of government of Mexico City, coinciding with Obrador’s presidential victory. As mayor, she established more daycare centres, countering then-President Obrador's policy of defunding the centres. According to the feminist organisation Intersecta, violence against women in Mexico City decreased by 32 per cent during her tenure.

She achieved this by implementing reforms such as staffing prosecutor offices with more female lawyers trained in gender issues, providing a six-month stipend equivalent to the minimum wage for domestic violence victims, and allowing women to remain in their homes while the men moved out, regardless of property ownership. Claudia plans to implement these measures nationally.

Beyond gender issues, she expanded the capital's infrastructure network, constructed universities and hospitals, and established new educational and cultural centres in impoverished communities. High-impact crimes decreased by 50 per cent during her tenure.

Her predecessor, Mr Obrador, achieved significant successes, including raising Mexico’s minimum wage, expanding social programmes for people over 65, and investing in infrastructure in the poorest regions. These accomplishments have led critics to argue that Claudia is not as popular as Mr Obrador and less at ease with large crowds. Despite this, she expresses confidence in her scientific background. In an interview, she recalled spending her early days as Mexico City mayor poring over spreadsheets on her laptop.

While Mr Obrador often neglected environmental issues, Claudia, with her scientific expertise, is expected to prioritise climate policy. During her campaign, she unveiled a renewable energy strategy and committed to promoting electric vehicles and increasing the use of solar panels.

As she takes on the highest public office in Mexico, Claudia, who describes herself as a social feminist, is expected to address numerous challenges, including weakened public finances and replicate her successes at the national level as other women leaders have done before her in other countries.

Globally, we have witnessed significant strides made by women in steering vital reforms and ensuring efficient governance. Examples include Angela Merkel in Germany and Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović in Croatia, who transformed the socioeconomic landscapes of their nations.

Uniquely qualified

Isuzu Motors East Africa Limited CEO Rita Kavashe says women are uniquely qualified to address complex issues such as climate change. She argues that authoritarian leadership escalates conflict, as seen in situations like the war in Ukraine and the conflict in Gaza.

Isuzu Motors East Africa Limited CEO Rita Kavashe says women are uniquely qualified to address complex issues such as climate change, qualities the Mexican President-elect has.

Photo credit: Photo | Pool

“The world needs the unique qualities that women bring to leadership, such as collaboration, empathy, risk management, and communication. These qualities are often rooted in the fundamental aspects of daily life and home management. Women's skills in these areas are crucial for developing strong communities and homes, showing how deeply women are wired to contribute to societal development,” she told Nation.Africa.

In Africa, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia stands out as the first democratically elected female head of state on the continent. She played a crucial role in empowering female political and economic leaders and safeguarding her country in the aftermath of the civil war. Closer home, Sahle-Work Zewde became the first woman president of Ethiopia in 2018, while Samia Suluhu is the first female president of Tanzania.

Kenya, on the other hand, has never had this privilege. This is not for want of effort. Three women have attempted to become presidents so far: Charity Ngilu in 1997, Nazlin Umar in 2007, and Martha Karua in 2013. None has succeeded.

This is why many leaders have welcomed Claudia Sheinbaum’s win as a beacon of hope for gender equality in Africa’s political landscape. Tanzania’s President Suluhu took to Twitter to extend her congratulations to Claudia on her historic win and wished her the best on her upcoming journey.

Dr Githinji Gitahi, the Global Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Amref Health Africa, sees her win as a demonstration of how gender stereotypes at the grassroots can be overcome.

“For a country like Mexico, which only granted women the right to vote in 1952, to have two female presidential candidates and the winner being a woman is a major victory for the gender equity and feminist movement. Kenyan politics, too, will need to mature beyond gender stereotypes—it's not the women who have a problem to be fixed, it's our systems in society, political class, and government that need to lift the barriers for women to have an equal chance as men,” he told Nation.Africa.

Dr Githinji Gitahi, the Global Chief Executive Officer of Amref Health Africa. He says Claudia’s win reaffirms the need for male allies on the gender equity journey.

Photo credit: Kanyiri Wahito | Nation Media Group

Dr Githinji adds that Claudia’s win reaffirms the need for male allies on the gender equity journey, as the outgoing President Obrador openly and loudly supported Claudia.

Amnesty International Kenya Executive Director Irungu Houghton. He  urges Kenyans to abandon gender stereotypes.

Photo credit: Lucy Wanjiru | Nation Media Group

Amnesty International Kenya Executive Director Irungu Houghton also called upon Kenyans to abandon gender stereotypes and “prioritise candidates with leadership integrity, management experience, and a commitment to everyone's human rights, which will expand the space for women’s political inclusion.''

Dorothy Ooko, the Head of Communications and Public Affairs Africa, at Google Africa, says Claudia’s historic victory inspires hope and reminds women of their potential to break political barriers.

Photo credit: Photo | Pool

Dorothy Ooko, the Head of Communications and Public Affairs at Google Africa, says Claudia’s historic victory resonates in Kenya, inspiring hope and reminding women of their potential to break political barriers.

Martin Ochieng, Sasini Plc’s Group Managing director, was elated by Claudia’s historic win, taking the moment to call upon Kenyan politicians to catch up with the private sector in terms of gender parity.

“It's great news to see female leaders. Even though Mexico is far from Kenya, such achievements inspire leaders in Kenya. The fact that women can run against each other in elections shows advancement in other countries. There is nothing stronger than female leadership; it strengthens women leaders and demonstrates that leadership has no gender," he said.

Phyllis Wakiaga, senior adviser (Global Lead), Industry and Commerce at Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, called on Kenyan women leaders to draw inspiration and replicate Claudia’s effectiveness in nation-building.

“As women, we have the capacity to understand the diverse needs of society, ensuring that all citizens' requirements are met. Addressing areas such as education, healthcare, sustainability, gender inclusivity, and economic and political influence are key avenues through which Kenyan women leaders can achieve greatness,” Phyllis stated.

On the other hand, Executive Director of Crawn Trust Daisy Amdany says time for a woman president in Kenya is upon us, though barriers still persist.

Executive Director of Crawn Trust Daisy Amdany encourages women to put their differences aside in the next election and rally behind a strong woman candidate.

Photo credit: Lucy Wanjiru | Nation Media Group

“The challenge in Kenya is not the people but the dominant male elite controlling the political landscape. Political parties are often owned by powerful individuals, often men, who manage election processes and outcomes. They can decide to give direct nominations and reach consensus, but these are often biased. Women are frequently excluded from leadership pipelines because of this male dominance,” she says.

She, therefore, encouraged women to put their differences aside in the next election cycle and rally behind a strong woman candidate.

“Mexico had one of the most violent elections in its history, yet a woman emerged as a winner. Leadership is not given; it is taken. Women need to move away from a mindset of begging for positions,” she said.

Suba North MP Millie Odhiambo assures Kenyans that plans are underway to achieve the dream of a woman president.

Photo credit: Kennedy Amungo | Nation Media Group

However, Kenya women leaders reiterate that they are not sleeping on this opportunity. While hinting that running for president is a possibility for her, Suba North MP Millie Odhiambo assures Kenyans that plans are underway to achieve the dream.

“Even though President Ruto promised that his next deputy would be a woman, we as women leaders are strategising. Male MPs are good at advertising and branding themselves, but we, women, go about it differently. We are currently focused on finding the best candidate and strategically positioning them to run for president.”

Kirinyaga Governor Anne Waiguru adds that she draws inspiration from trailblazers like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Joyce Banda, the second woman to become president in Africa.

Kirinyaga Governor Anne Waiguru on November 28, 2023. She says she draws inspiration from trailblazers like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Joyce Banda, the second woman to become president in Africa.

Photo credit: File I Nation Media Group

“Claudia's success is a powerful reminder that consistency, perseverance and dedication can lead to revolutionary achievements in supporting women's leadership. Her triumph motivates us to champion and nurture the next generation of women leaders in Kenya and beyond,” she told Nation.Africa.

In Kirinyaga, woman representative Jane Maina’s words show that Claudia’s win is a testament that patriarchal narratives are slowly wearing out.

“Closer home, we have several women who have set the pace and contested the country’s top seat: The Martha Karuas and Charity Ngilus of this nation. I look at their run as a dream deferred, for we will definitely have a woman taking the top seat in the foreseeable future. In a full-circle way, female leadership has come of age and I am here for it,” she concludes.