Myth or reality? Why women do not vote for their own

Women parliamentarians dance Inua Mama Nakuru

Women parliamentarians dance in Nakuru town on December 17, 2020. The two-thirds gender rule remains a nightmare.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • That women do not vote for fellow women has always been a hot debate, attracting divided opinion among experts.
  • Different reasons have been cited for the prevailing perception. But have times really changed?


Despite generations of women striving for better representation in politics, female candidates do not necessarily get a bump from women voters.

Women make up 51 per cent of the population. Kenya has had at least three women, including  Kitui governor Charity Ngilu, former environmentalist Wangari Maathai and Narc Kenya leader Martha Karua, vie for the presidency in past elections; they, however, perform dismally. This begs the questions: Do women vote for their ilk? Is it just a myth?

That women do not vote for fellow women has always been a hot debate, attracting divided opinion among experts.

Internalised sexism

Crispin Afifu, a gender and governance policy expert, says the key reason for this tendency as observed over the years is a phenomenon known as internalised sexism, which is learned through socialisation that creates biases that favour men.

This, he notes, makes women mistrust fellow women. “This is mainly manifested in situations where one has to choose between a man and a woman. By default, the man happens to be a pair of safe hands,” he says.

He, however, observes that Kenya is progressively undoing this practice.

Mr Afifu observes that due to increased civic education, hanging perspective on public leadership and more women vying for political leadership, there is a possibility of achieving gender parity when women vote for their own with the support of feminist males.

“Currently, more enlightened women are organising and mobilising fellow women leaders. However, this is not always the case with those women with strong cultural roots and orientation,” he notes.

Mistrust

Muhammed Khan, an Imam, observes that mistrust and entrenched cultural beliefs that women should not participate in leadership plays a huge role.

“The notion among some communities that women should stay at home has greatly contributed to women failing to vote for their fellow women. There is also the aspect of jealousy when it comes to women. Some are unhappy when their fellow women rise in positions of power,” says Mr Khan, who is also a He for She activist.

Policy and governance expert Prof Winnie Mitullah, however, opines that women not voting for other women is an assumption that is not backed by sufficient research.

She believes female voters are just like any other voter, influenced by cumulative factors including ethnicity, competency and political parties’ affiliation.

“Most people would argue that women should vote for women. However, I believe that women vote for candidates, and are not only influenced by the candidate’s gender.

“For example, Martha Karua’s previous presidential bid was not successful, despite her being a woman. This shows that women consider a number of factors when voting,” Prof Mitullah says.

Agenda and visibility

Eva Komba, also a gender and governance expert, however, notes that the decision of women on whether to support one of their own or not depends on the agenda, visibility and strategy on the side of the aspirant.

“It is more about gender vote now. A more aware and politically invested society will prioritise a leader who is likely to prioritise responding to their needs and priorities. Times have really changed, it is not about women not voting for their fellow women, but how you package your priorities,” says Ms Komba.

To increase chances of women voting for their fellow women, she advises the candidates to have manifestos and campaign messaging that resonate with everyone.

Pauline Kamau, a businesswoman in Kiambu, terms women the major enemies for their fellow women candidates running for political office.

“Women are usually jealous of each other. They have that notion that if they help a fellow woman to rise, she will be instrumental in pulling them down. Women also do not believe in themselves, which makes them find it easier to support men rather than women,” says Ms Kamau.

Family decisions

Domtila Chesang, a gender activist in West Pokot fighting against female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage, observes that in their area, it is husbands that decide who their wives vote for.

“The husbands keep the wives’ identity cards. They have the power to decide whether they will vote or not. They cannot question their husband’s decision since they are not empowered. Majority were married when they were pupils.

“They did not finish their studies and so they are unaware of their rights. Furthermore, they are cut out of communication or means of sensitisation owing to the fact that they don’t own phones or radios,” says Ms Chesang’.

Emmanuel Kiprotich, a youth from Narok, notes that women in some communities still hold to the culture that only men can be leaders, greatly advantaging women seeking leadership positions.

Need for awareness

Mr Kiprotich says there is a need for regular awareness drives to end gender stereotyping. Until then, he notes, we will still have less women voted into Parliament and other leadership positions.

Zeinab Mejja, a Mombasa-based photographer and writer, says people generally vote for the most visible candidate.

She opines that women are also more likely to vote for candidates they see on billboards or on TV doing interviews, adding that more often than not, male candidates are the most visible.

Ms Mejja says female candidates often shy away from media and are not aggressive during campaigns, making women vote for men, whom they see often.

“There is also a belief that women legislators would not have much influence even when elected. Most women do not want to vote for women who would have a difficult time articulating and championing their communities’ issues because they would be operating in a male-dominated legislature,” she says.

She observes that inherent patriarchal beliefs amongst women that their counterparts should not be too ambitious, as another challenge facing women’s quest for political leadership.

“Instead of running for office, women feel that they are just caregivers and their vision of who should be a leader is always a man and that makes it hard for women to vote for each other,” she notes.

Patriarchy

Swakei Olepunyua, 29, a human resources officer in Narok County, says in the Maasai community where he comes from, women have an inherent belief that men are default leaders.

“Women in my community have been subjugated for such a long time that they do not view themselves or fellow women as capable leaders. I also think women look down on each other and are often in competition,” Mr Olepunyua says.

Jackson Momanyi, a 31-year-old businessman in Kisii, also reveals that in his community, men are regarded as default leaders, especially in politics. This, he says, stems from the women’s cultural beliefs that they belong in the kitchen, not in Parliament.

“Based on this, it is going to take some time for women from my community to change these cultural biases. Although women can be resourceful leaders, even fellow women would not entrust political seats to them,” he says.

Mr Momanyi observes that a lot of sensitisation needs to be done so that women can see each other as not only caregivers and nurtures but also leaders.

He attributes failure by most political parties to field women as flagbearers during party primaries as another reason for the low number of women parliamentarians.

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