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Zedekia Sidha

August 7th, 2023

Despite increased representation Kenyan politicians still face gender barriers

2 comments | 2 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Zedekia Sidha

August 7th, 2023

Despite increased representation Kenyan politicians still face gender barriers

2 comments | 2 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Kenya has made great strides to remove formal barriers to women’s participation in politics. But informal structures and a lack of professional opportunities are still holding them back, writes Zedekia Sidha.

In the last decade, Kenya has experienced a big rise in the number of female legislators. From none at the time of independence to 22 per cent and 31 per cent in the National Assembly and Senate following the most recent elections in 2022. But, with women’s rights advocates and policymakers focused on formal systems and laws, the informal structures that undermine women’s voices have been forgotten. More women are in local and national policy dialogue forums, but they don’t have power in the policy making processes and progress on gender discrimination issues such as domestic violence, female genital mutilation and reproductive health have stalled.

In a bid to improve gender equality, many governments have chosen to use quota systems to increase female representation. Gender quotas are currently in place in 132 countries. They come in three main forms:
– Reserved seats, which designate certain seats for women only, such as the position of county women representative in Kenya.
– Party quotas, which involve the voluntary designation by political parties of a percentage of electoral seats to female candidates only.
– And legislative quotas where a proportion of the assembly is allocated by constitutional amendments or other law reforms.

Gender quota reforms are credited with increasing the percentage of women in parliaments around the world from 11 per cent in 1991 to 26.5 per cent in 2021. The fight for increased numerical representation of women is hinged on the assumption that women have unique policy objectives which are best understood and represented by themselves such as reproductive health. An increase in the numerical representation of women is expected to generate societal acceptance of women’s leadership, thus increasing the number of women in decision-making forums. Away from the raw numbers, it is harder to judge if this increase in representation has led to the implementation of policies that transform gender power relations in our societies.

The Kenyan case

Following the creation of a new constitution in 2010 a provision requires that no more than two-thirds of all elective and appointive positions can be held by one gender.

The following election in 2013 saw the highest number of women joining electoral politics in Kenya’s history. Women now hold 23 per cent of positions, an increase from the last election period but still short of the 30 per cent threshold set by the 2010 constitution. Despite this being a constitutional requirement, there is a loophole in the law that leaves it to the discretion of the country’s parliament.

The 2010 constitutional reforms also created a devolved system of government with two levels of government at the national and regional level. Unlike in the case of the national assembly, explicit provisions were made on what should be done if the threshold for each gender is not met. In this case, political parties in the regional assembly are required to nominate more women to fill the gap. As a result of this policy decision, 34 per cent of Members of County Assemblies (MCAs) in Kenya are women. Women’s rights defenders have hugely celebrated this landmark.

Once at the table

Discussions with women leaders and female MCAs from Kenya’s fifteen counties revealed that devolution is yet to change women’s well-being. Even once they are at the decision-making tables, women face several barriers to legislative effectiveness unknown to their male counterparts.

Assembly committee chairpersons hold significant influence over what issues come to the legislature and how such matters are processed. Despite the increase in women MCAs, it is still rare for women to hold committee chair positions. In the rare circumstances where they are chairpersons, they are usually chairs of less prestigious and poorly funded committees such as gender, youth, and children affairs. Other essential positions in the county assemblies include the leader of the opposition, the chief whip, the assembly speaker, and the deputy, and are dominated by men.

Once they have been elected, women are losing out on legislative leadership positions. Committees and other leadership positions in national assemblies are typically awarded to party loyalists who helped the party during the general elections. Because 87 per cent of the female MCAs are nominated, they lack this political credit. The second group that gets such positions are those who provide funds to the party. Here too, women lose out due to their weaker financial situation. Seniority also makes it easier for legislators to be elected to a leadership position. Nominated MCAs tend to be first-timers and, thus, freshmen in the assembly. Finally, committee selection is made based on professional and academic backgrounds. Women’s academic achievement, especially in rural Kenya, is far lower than their male colleagues, again causing them to lose out.

Gender quotas have done a great job of increasing the number of women in the legislature. However, there should be greater emphasis on applying a gender quota system that allows women to come to parliament through elections other than nomination. The party quota system, for instance, compels political parties to nominate women as third candidates in their election strongholds. Once elected, there needs to be greater recognition of the patriarchal institutions and systems that make it difficult for women and undermine their effectiveness in the legislature to truly fight against gender inequality.

The blog is based on the author’s chapter in the recently published book State Politics and Public Policy in Eastern Africa: A Comparative Perspective


Photo credit: Wikicommons used with permission CC BY-SA 2.0

About the author

Zedekia Sidha

Zedekia Sidha

Zedekia Sidha, PhD is an evaluation, gender, and policy sciences expert. He has over 18 years of experience in international development. He currently teaches Public Policy, National Security, and Strategy at National Defence University in Kenya.

Posted In: Gender | Politics | Public Authority

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