Hivos International

Kenyan women moving into leadership after the 2017 elections

Now that the 2017 elections are behind us (or so we assume), it is important to reflect on some of the issues emerging from the polls that are dear to us. One of those being women in leadership. Last year when the debate about the 2010 Constitution’s two thirds gender rule was so heated (“not more than two-thirds of the members of elective public bodies shall be of the same gender”), we in the women’s movement reached a moment of despair. I actually wrote an article asking whether Kenya would ever be ready for women in political leadership. A few months later, and after grueling campaigns for various political seats, the picture is looking brighter. There is hope!

Governors, senators and MPs

We now have three women governors, three women senators and a record twenty-three women MPs elected by the people to represent and lead them for the next five years. These positions are mainly at the top of national and county government. At the moment of writing, the National Gender and Equality Commission has indicated that ninety-six female Members of County Assemblies (MCAs) have been elected across the country and is projecting this number to go up to a hundred.

By and large, this is a noticeable improvement over the 2013 elections, when we had sixteen women members of parliament elected and no women elected for senate or gubernatorial positions. Notwithstanding the fact that this is still far from attaining the two thirds gender principle, it is no mean feat considering the shenanigans that we have witnessed around this issue in the last parliament!

Braving a hostile political environment and patriarchy

So before I go any further, may I take this opportunity to congratulate all these women on their election and to wish them the best in executing their mandate. I am particularly proud of all the women who took the bold step to compete with men for their seats. They braved an extremely hostile political environment and entrenched patriarchal attitudes to win their respective seats. Most notable are the North Eastern and Samburu regions that have produced for the first time a female senator in Isiolo County, and two MPs in Ijara and Samburu West Constituencies. This is worth celebrating!

For women’s rights advocates and all those who care about women’s empowerment, this is quite positive. It shows that our work is bearing fruit - particularly around empowering women for leadership. This shot in the arm was also quite timely, as we had begun feeling demotivated by what we considered a lack of support for women’s leadership. This feeling of despair is what prompted women’s organisations in Kenya to launch the “ni mama” (“for women” in Kiswahili) campaign early this year in a bid to increase support to women running for office. I was among those who were very apprehensive about the campaign back then. My apprehension stemmed from previous experiences, where women aspirants were ridiculed and put down all the time.

More women running for office than ever

Looking at the statistics on the numbers of women who vied for office in 2013 and 2017, clearly, the “ni mama” call was heeded in many regions. The numbers of women running for all the positions have increased significantly from what we saw in 2013. But perhaps what is most worth highlighting is the number of women who have been elected in communities that are perceived to be very hostile to women. As mentioned earlier, Isiolo County, and similarly, Samburu West and Ijara constituencies, made history this year by electing women members of parliament for the first time ever.

There are several other counties known to subjugate women which have now also elected women to various offices. A good example is Nandi County, where a woman deputy governor was elected and six female Members of the County Assembly. This is far better than results in some counties perceived to be progressive, like Kiambu County, where only one woman was elected to the County Assembly.

Increased confidence of women voters in women candidates

A new trend has also been observed of women voters increasingly showing confidence in women aspirants and being willing to support them, not just during the campaigns, but also by voting for them. In my view, this stems from the continued advocacy and sensitization of communities on the importance of placing women in leadership. The efforts of feminists and women’s rights advocates in Kenya is slowly bearing fruit. Hivos is proud to have supported many of these feminists and organisations over the years.

Having said that, I think our attention should now turn to what the discussion about the two thirds gender rule should focus on in the twelfth parliament. One of the clear lessons we need to keep alive is how little thought was given to how the two thirds gender principle would be implemented when the 2010 Constitution was being drafted. This, together with the experiences of women legislators in the last parliament, and that of women’s rights advocates who have been working on this issue, strongly indicates that women should begin to strategise now if this discussion is to gain any traction in the incoming parliament.

We need a clear strategy for the next five years

Already, the Gender and Equality Commission has warned of an imminent constitutional crisis as a result of the failure of the House and all the County Assemblies to meet the constitutional threshold on gender representation. There is therefore need for a clear strategy. With a good strategy, we need not spend the next five years discussing how to get women into representative positions. As it is, we have much ground to cover within limited time. Our focus should soon shift towards analysing the quality of leadership that women, especially those at the helm of their counties, will be providing. We need to document it so that we can demonstrate from practical cases that women are capable and actually do offer quality leadership.

Unlike in the last term, when we did not have female governors, now we will have three who will hopefully demonstrate the leadership qualities women can bring to the table, and which we have been missing. This is very important. But equally importantly, we need to begin to prepare the ground for improved quality of women leaders so that in the next elections even more of them will occupy the political arena.