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Two steps forward, one backward Featured

Written by Joyce Chimbi

Unclear laws a barrier to women's political leadership

It all started with political party nominations when male dominated political parties made a farce of the expanded political space.

The battle for party nomination tickets floored scores of strong and capable women as male dominated party politics took centre stage.Unlike before where only three seats were contested for Senate,  Governor and Women Representative seats.

As it has been in the successive post-colonial General Elections, this year’s polls were not any different with regards to representation of women in elective positions. Women’s performance in elective  politics has continued to take a nose-dive despite the new Constitution of Kenya 2010 having progressive provisions of women’s representation.

This can be traced back to the first parliament which was all-male. In the second general election in 1969, Nyanza Province made history by electing the first woman Member of Parliament, Grace Onyango, for Kisumu Town Constituency.

Onyango’s election was the beginning of long painful journey of women representation in parliament. From 1979 to 1988, Dr Phoebe Asiyo was elected the parliamentary representative of Karachuonyo Constituency. She was again elected in 1992.

In 1984, Grace Ogot was elected  as GEM MP and subsequently appointed as an assistant minister by the then President Daniel arap Moi. She was again elected in 1988. Since then, in the intervening years, the region did not elect a woman to parliament. The impasse was recently broken by the election of Millie Odhiambo as National Assembly representative for Mbita.

Unfortunately, the low representation of women in politics is similar across the country with only the Rift Valley and Central provinces being receptive to women’s leadership. However, the number of women  MPs remain disturbingly low.

“The socio-economic and political context still favours men, as does the process of accumulating resources needed to win a critical mass within the political context,” explains Grace Gakii, a social scientist and  gender expert.


Patriarchy and the Single Member District (or the Single Winner Voting), an electoral system that only returns one office holder in a district and or constituency, has made politics too combative for women.

However, even within the current electoral system that has been hailed as more sensitive to challenges facing women in politics, there are still fewer gains with the political terrain is largely skewed in  favour of men.

“The reason why women are not performing well can be attributed to the challenges they face. In Africa, leadership is viewed as masculine and culture has endorsed it,” explains Vincent Kimosop, Executive Director of International Legislative Affairs.

Kimosop blames women’s dismal performance on weak financial muscle.

In an attempt to narrow the gap between male and female leaders, the Constitution created a provision whose intent is to make  political positions more accessible to women.

However, says Kimosop: “The affirmative action seats worked against women who competed against men. The electorate was being asked why they were  electing women while they (women) already had their seats.”

According Kimosop there was insufficient civic education to sensitise people on what the Constitution says regarding affirmative action seats. Even though promulgation of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 was hailed as the dawn of a new political era for women eyeing elective positions, this has not been the case.

“Women were misguided in believing that the political space, under the law, had expanded in their favour. While the law is key, ballot 2013 shows that we still have a long way to go,” Gakii expounds  quoting some of the Articles as 27(3), 27(6), 81(b), 177(b) and 197.

Article 27 (3) states that ‘women and men have the right to equal treatment, including the right to equal opportunities in political, economic, cultural and social spheres’.

The article further states that ‘the  state shall take legislative and other measures including affirmative action programmes and policies to redress any disadvantage suffered by individuals or groups  because of past discrimination’.

Article 81 (b) is even more specific and it unequivocally states that ‘not more than two thirds of members of elective public bodies shall be of the same gender’. “The two midwives of Kenya’s constitution  — Committee of Experts and the Parliamentary Select Committee on Constitutional Review — merely postponed the dilemma of women’s representation instead of spelling out how to effect these provisions,” notes Akoko Akech, a Programme Officer at Society for International Development (SID).

Akech further notes that “by implicitly endorsing the single member  district constituencies, drafters of the Constitution significantly constrained Kenya’s options on mechanism or formula’s for effecting the  rovisions on gender equity”.


Although the Kenyan Constitution is the most progressive within the East African Community (EAC), the country lags behind when it comes to representation of women in politics. Kenya is 15 percentile  behind EAC’s regional average of 20 per cent women representation as National Assembly representative.

This is significantly low compared to Rwanda’s 56 per cent, Tanzania’s 36 per cent, Uganda’s 35 per cent, and Burundi’s 30 per cent.

According to Akech, there are two main reasons for women’s exclusion from higher elective offices. These are Kenya’s patriarchal culture and electoral system.

He notes that another problem is  that the country’s political contests tend to require an enormous outlay of social capital.

“Yet, the processes of economic,  cultural and political capital accumulation still favour men more than women, irrespective of ethnic, religious and class divides,” notes Akech.

Nonetheless, the irony is that women are key players in politics, more so as voters.

“During the campaigns, the candidates had wonderful things that they said they will do for women when elected to power, this was of course to consolidate the women vote,” notes Gakii.

She adds: “It is generally accepted that women are a swing vote but it appears women are unable to consolidate their power as an electorate to ensure that more of their own get into positions of power.”

The walk towards equal representation will take a little longer than what the women had expected after the Supreme Court failed to determine how the country will be able to achieve the two third gender  rule progressively at 2015.


This article was originally published in the Kenyan Woman Issue 37: Status of Women icon Download the PDF

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