Where is the ring? Why women politicians still have a long way to go

Executive Director of Siasa Place Nerima Wako (left) with Joy Muthoni a Nominated MCA in Nairobi. In 2017 while campaigning for votes, people would look at Ms Muthoni's hands and ask, are you married? 

Photo credit: Photo | Pool

What you need to know:

  • For a woman, contesting for a political seat in Kenya is almost tantamount to a crime.
  • Mary  Muthoni has contested twice for the Komarock Ward MCA seat, twice.
  • Her gender and age have proved to be the greatest impediment to attaining her political ambitions

“I had to buy a wedding ring so that people could give me votes,” recalls Nairobi’s Nominated Member of County Assembly Joy Muthoni.

Politics is a brusque, savage and unsympathetic arena where only the strongest survive. It is especially a tempestuous voyage for young people, most of them without financial muscle struggling just to make ends meet.

It is a total disaster when it is a woman whether a young childless woman, unmarried, divorced or separated. For a woman, contesting for a political seat in Kenya is almost tantamount to a crime.

This is where one is prosecuted in the public court, found guilty, judged and sentenced even without a chance to defend themselves or express their agenda.

Ms Muthoni should know all this too well. She has been through it all.

When she ventured into politics five years ago, nothing had prepared Ms Muthoni for what awaited her.

From awkward irrelevant questions, ridicule and naysayers, she really had not seen this coming.

“In 2017, when I was campaigning for votes, people would look at my hands and start asking, are you married, do you have a child? I had to spend a lot of money printing banners for people to see me with a ring,” says the legislator.

Ms Muthoni is one of the 14 young women, countrywide, who got elected or nominated as lawmakers after weathering the tides in the last general election.

Marital status

She has contested twice for the Komarock Ward MCA seat. From her vast experience, it is not a walk in the park for any woman who has attempted, or aspires to wade into the murky waters of politics.

“We always start with the smallest seat because we are judged by our age, marital status and gender. Instead of somebody asking you what your experience, profession is, what you are going to do for us?” she says.

Her gender and age have proved to be the greatest impediment to attaining her political ambitions, despite endearing herself to the public through humanitarian service.

“If you go to Komarock Ward in Nairobi, they will tell you that Joy has the best vision for our area… they will tell you there is a lady called Joy,” she says.

“I joined a political party led by a woman. She made sure that women are empowered and grow fast in that party. Within five years, I was able to cut across many issues in the grassroots, but wananchi are the same people. They will tell you, hii rika yako bado Joy, haijafika ya kuongoza tuachie yule mzee fulani mahali (You are still too young to lead Joy. Allow us to vote for that older man). So, a man won in 2017, and in 2022, I was still here vying again. Out of the blues, someone came and won. It was a man,” she recounts.

Ms Muthoni says gender discrimination is not witnessed in politics alone, but cuts across all sectors.

“You find a woman and a man have the same education level, the same experience, but they are treated differently. You will go for a job interview, both of you are professionals, with the same experience, but the man will be treated as more capable than you just because of your gender, which is wrong,” she offers.

Elective seats

Regarding the two-thirds gender rule, the legislator opines that it can only come to fruition women themselves implement it.

She reiterates that gender balance in politics can be achieved by ensuring more women win elective seats, as opposed to relying on nomination, which has so far, proved ineffective.

“Thank God we have the women caucus, across the country, trying to strengthen those in politics to pull others into politics. A man will not push for the two-thirds gender rule because at the end of the day, he is not affected in any way but women are.”

A recent report released by Siasa Place, has revealed that unfavourable political party structures, mired with power dynamics and negotiated democracies, are key obstacles hindering special interest groups (SIG), specifically women, from political participation.

The survey dubbed ‘Women and SIGs Political Participation’ shows that “women have been rigged out of party primaries or asked to step down in favour of their male counterparts, or older women in the party for future appointments.”

Discrimination was also found to be a key concern with “cases of negotiated democracy where younger candidates are coerced to step down in favour of “older” party members who have resources.

Cultural factors, where patriarchal underpinnings undermine women prospects in leadership, education where society values boy child education over girl child have also hindered women’s participation. Further, Kenya’s exorbitant political campaign, which demand substantial resources with women unable to afford to even pay for party nominations, let alone fund their political campaigns, are also key hindrances. As a result, many women give up their ambitions.

The other nightmare is violence, which has discouraged most women from political engagement.

Although the last poll was seemingly peaceful, gender-based violence against women political aspirants shifted online.

Reporting violence

“Here, their personal life details are publicly shared; slander and negative profiling - digital spaces are the only free campaign platforms,” stated the report.

Siasa Place Executive Director, Nerima Wako, while launching the report observed that there are inefficient structures in place for reporting violence and harassment cases.

She emphasized the need for “clear provisions and structures in the parties’ constitution and Election/Nomination code of conduct on how to address GBV, online violence and harassment”.

“While the state has developed legal frameworks to safeguard all from any form of violence, there are systemized patriarchal systems that operate in either a vague, non-accountable and oppressive environment that prevents addressing of EGBV/ OGBV (Online gender-based violence),” the report read.

 “Advocacy and public information on laws against online bullying, incorporation of anti-bullying guidelines in party policies. Enhancing capacity of security agencies on investigating and addressing OGBV. Political parties to sensitize members on digital literacy, including social media branding, safety and security,” it recommends.

Other interventions proposed in the report include legislative reforms where Parliament should incorporate legislation criminalizing political GBV and OGBV into existing laws.

Tunisia is the only country in Africa whose domestic law on combating violence against women, adopted in 2017, recognizes and defines political violence, and provides specific sanctions for this form of violence.

Mental health was also identified as another huge issue, which has largely been neglected in political parties.

“Everywhere else the conversation around mental health is being had, and how to manage it. However, politics is a major stressor and cause of depression and parties treat it with silence,” noted Ms Wako.

The report says psychological violence and personal attacks lead to depression and mental health challenges as politics is stress averse.

Political parties are advised to partner with organizations working on psychosocial support and mental health service providers to provide professional and confidential counselling support mechanisms.


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