by Anne Mugo
On the 9th of August 2022, Kenyans went to the polls in perhaps what could be described as our most peaceful, progressive, transparent and mundane general elections yet. Our elections are often complicated, laced with ethnic undertones, sporadic incidences of violence, chaos, voter bribery and rigging and all the other things that foreign media likes to shine a light on. This year, however, the story is much more nuanced and certainly more reflective of all the work Kenyans have done to be able to democratically choose their leaders in an environment that fosters trust in electoral processes, and in the spirit of this article, in women’s leadership. To describe our elections as mundane is a good thing, as it means we are no longer an electorate that views wins or losses to be equitable to life or death and as such can engage and debate on the basis of issues that concern us and wiggle our way out of dangerous ethnic, male dominated and often misogynistic politics. Granted, we still have a long way to go.
When I first considered writing this article, way before we knew the shape of our next government, I looked forward to writing about our first female deputy president. Martha Karua, a former justice minister, lawyer and trailblazing human rights defender, was on the ticket to be deputy president alongside Raila Odinga, a veteran politician whose contribution to our much-improved electoral processes cannot be overlooked. They however lost the election to our new President, William Ruto, whose track record on gender, sexual reproductive health and rights and LGBTQ inclusion is certainly undesirable, meaning our work as advocates is needed now more than ever. I choose to focus on the impact Martha created by running for the high office elective seat and what it means for women and girls who will come after her. If there is anything to learn from this election, it’s that the gains from all the work done to educate, advocate, finance and lobby for gender equality in the political space are rarely instant or painless.
For the first time, we have 7 women elected as Governors to lead 7 out of 47 devolved county governments. While this is a significantly low number, it marks more than a doubled increase from only 3 female Governors five years back. Additionally, women have also made significant progress in both the Kenyan Senate and as National Assembly representatives. According to the National Gender and Equality Commission (NGEC), this election saw a 30% increase in women representation in parliament in comparison to those elected in 2017. Even in the phase of this progress, the number of women in our legislative and executive institutions remain too low for a country whose women make up 51 % of the population.12 years after we adopted our new constitution, we are yet to observe the constitutional provision that requires us to take steps to ensure that not more than two-thirds of members of all elective and appointive positions in parliament and other constitutional offices are of the same gender. It is however worthy to note that this year, more women ran for elective posts at all level than ever before. The progress is worth celebrating, even as we remain cognizant of the fact these numbers are indicative of how much more work needs to be done before we can achieve equality in political representation.
I am well aware of the limitations of representation politics. Not all women elected and appointed in political office have shown to work or govern in the interest of other women and gender minorities. In fact, it can be argued that some of the women elected campaigned and won alongside parties that have shown little interest in dismantling systems of gender and class oppression while others have been accused of bad governance, supporting problematic policies and holding positions that have perpetuated discrimination for women and gender diverse persons before. However, I am learning not to view women as superior moral agents or to expect perfection in a country that is anything but. This is not me excusing bad governance and mediocrity from women leaders, but rather to hold their counterparts to the same standards and recognize that representation in itself is important but not perfect.
It has been interesting to see evidence that affirmative action does work. Kenya’s constitution provides for an assured women representative seat in parliament in each of the 47 county governments. This provision has proven to be an entry point for so many women who would have otherwise not joined politics. Additionally, this year we have seen women leaders who were serving as women representatives earlier going ahead to run against their male counterparts and win in other elective positions, including single constituency parliament positions and as county governors. It is evident that the women representative seat is not only building the capacities of women to take up political leadership, but also showing the electorate that women exist as leaders for all, not just women. It is sad that women have to first hold down space and deal with all kinds of misogynistic barriers as people wait to see and believe in them as leaders, but this progress has never come easy. So, in a country whose patriarchal roots run deep, I applaud representation, even with all its shortcomings.
In the face of all these milestones, women leaders both winners and losers had to contend with a lot of sexist remarks and tropes while on the campaign trail, during and after the elections. For Martha, whenever her coalition party did not perform as expected in any region, the blame and erasure of her contribution came swiftly. Social media was awash with backlash in term of insults, sexist remarks and targeted attacks at her, all inclined to suggest why a woman should not have been selected on a presidential ticket in the first place. For elected women governors and representatives, it was not uncommon to see discourse that they were only there as token while their husbands or other men were the ones who would do the actual governing. One female Muslim governor was particularly targeted, with opponents saying her male deputy governor would be the leader and as such the electorate should not have elected her. For the electorate, the feedback was that women do not support fellow women, a shallow take that not only perpetuates the idea that women are to blame when fellow women lose in elections but one that also ignores all socio-economic and structural barriers that limits women’s agency in decision making. In some incidences, congratulation messages were drafted in sexist formats, refusing to see the winners away from the ‘beauty and brains’ standards and even going as far as stating that counties with majority women leaders would crumble. After all, who can expect a group of women to work well together.
Kenya’s current president, William Ruto, ran on a campaign of economic recovery and equal opportunities for the poor, laced with religious undertones that could very easily turn into religious fundamentalism if unchecked. For those of us who work in gender equity, inclusion and sexual reproductive health rights advocacy, there is much to be wary of. We very well know that religious leaders and their supporters are not very receptive of women’s bodily autonomy, as well as policies that guarantee access to reproductive services for women and gender diverse persons. The president is himself on record making homophobic remarks against the LGBTQ community in the country. His coalition party however pledged to set aside Ksh 100 billion to co-fund strategic programmes for HIV, TB, Malaria and reproductive health. How this plays out remains to be seen, but its clear that so much work remains to foster gender equity, women’s agency and investment in inclusive political and health systems. I celebrate the women who continue to make waves, and call for continued solidarity in our advocacy for a more equal and just Kenya.
Written by Anne Mugo @MugoAngelah
Peer reviewed by: Lucy Wanjiku Njenga, Martha Tholanah, Esther Aoko, Jane Shepherd