50.50: Analysis

Kenya’s election is being lauded as ‘historic’ for women – that’s not true

Kenya’s election result falls far short of its own quota on women’s representation

Rael Ombuor
23 August 2022, 11.29am
Susan Kihika (L2) reacts with her husband, Samuel Mburu (L), daughter, Tiffany Kiarie (R2) and supporter, Hawa Ibrahim when she was declared Nakuru County Governor Elect
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James Wakibia/SOPA Images via ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Live News

Kenya’s general election, held on 9 August, is being lauded as a “historic” breakthrough that has brought more women to power than ever before. This is true – up to a point.

Voters elected 29 women MPs (out of 290), up from 23 in the last general election in 2017, and seven county governors (out of 47), up from three in 2017. Five other women MPs were nominated to represent social interest groups. This is on top of the 47 country representative seats that are automatically reserved for women by order of the country’s 2010 constitution.

In some areas, female candidates did particularly well. For example, in Nakuru, a large town in the Rift Valley, they won eight positions including governor (Susan Kihika), senator (Tabitha Karanja) and women representative (Liza Chelule).

Kenya’s parliament, the National Assembly, is now 21% female.

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But that still leaves the East African country significantly short of the ‘gender principle’ embedded in the constitution, which requires the state to take legislative and other measures to ensure that no more than two-thirds of the government, whether elected or appointed, are of the same gender. A 2020 court case attempted to dissolve Parliament for not meeting the two-thirds gender rule.

Although there were more women candidates in this month’s elections than ever before, structural barriers still severely limit women’s political representation in Kenya.

Take the experience of Ruth Mumbi, who was running for election for the first time, for a seat on the county assembly for Kiamaiko ward in Nairobi. Kiamaiko is one of the capital’s densely populated informal settlements, which are estimated to occupy just 5% of its residential area but contain 55-60% of its population.

Mumbi only made the decision to stand at the last minute. At first, she simply cheered for the women whose campaign vans travelled through her neighbourhood. She voiced support on Facebook for ex-justice minister and vice presidential candidate Martha Karua, who was the running mate of ex-prime minister and leader of the opposition Raila Odinga.

But then it occurred to her that most of the candidates for her local council were men.

Human rights, gender and class

Mumbi is the kind of ordinary person that elite candidates sell themselves as representing. She says she grew up watching women suffer gender-based violence, knew girls who had been subjected to female genital mutilation and had friends who nearly died from botched abortions. In addition, both her brother and her brother-in-law were killed by police.

Mumbi’s life has made her politics radically progressive. She is a human rights activist who campaigns at the intersection of class and gender. In an openDemocracy live discussion in 2020, she argued that the criminalisation of abortion in Kenya is a class issue.

She says she wants to address the main problems that affect those living in Kiamaiko, which the usual politicians ignore: “It is poverty. There are no jobs. There is no access to contraceptives for women and when we get pregnant, we are too poor to keep the baby or to terminate it properly. They [the police] kill us instead.”

Mumbi’s election campaign was based on “a platform of social justice” and “policies that will curb extrajudicial killings and promote sexual and reproductive health rights for teenagers and women”. She also wants teenage mothers to be able to continue their education, by having special schools that can support girls with children.

In the end, Mumbi came sixth out of 13 candidates, trailing her male opponents. The result was not down to her politics or the extent to which she is representative of ordinary Kenyans, but a combination of gendered oppression and lack of money.

Mumbi’s campaign team had little funding and relied mostly on women volunteers, who put up her posters. “These are women who have gone through some of the issues that I want changed,” she explains.

But the fear of violence against women was a limitation: “We stopped campaigning at 6pm because our security was not guaranteed, while our [male] competitors walked from door to door, even during the night.”

The Kenya Human Rights Commission warned last year that sexual and gender-based violence had become “one of the main components of election-related political violence in Kenya” and that the authorities needed to take measures ahead of the general election. “These measures must address the root causes of the violence – including the prevalence of misogyny and patriarchy within the political sphere,” it said.

‘Largely patriarchal’

Kenya’s political system remains overwhelmingly male despite attempts to improve women's representation (such as the constitution’s groundbreaking gender quota) and the country still lags behind other African countries such as Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.

Wilkister Aduma, who worked for a presidential campaign in the 2017 election, says that political spaces in Kenya are “largely patriarchal” and that she resigned as executive director of one political party “because of the sexist remarks I got from the rest of the leadership”. She has since founded Run for Office, an initiative that encourages and supports young women seeking elective office.

Kenyan women remain dissatisfied with the status quo. “If what is in the constitution is not implemented, what is its purpose?” asks Caroline Gaita, executive director of parliamentary monitoring organisation Mzalendo, which advocates for open and inclusive parliaments across the continent.

Nonetheless, both Aduma and Mumbi say that the 2022 election has left them inspired, especially by Martha Karua. “The future looks like Martha Karua. The future looks like more and more women going for top positions,” says Aduma.

Odinga, Karua’s teammate, has not conceded defeat to William Ruto, who was declared the new president with 50.5% of the vote to Odinga’s 48.8%. The result was controversial, with four of the seven electoral commissioners refusing to back it, and Odinga has now challenged the outcome at the country’s Supreme Court.

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Kenya’s reproductive health bill is under attack from internationally connected conservative lobby groups. Mumbi explains what’s at stake.

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