Women and Politics: Addressing challenges facing women running for political office in Kenya


Women have been at the forefront of confronting challenges of inequality. While the challenges have been multi-faced, the ones relating to political and leadership spaces have had far-reaching consequences for Kenyans.

In an effort to address them, women have attempted to assume political office, but this dream has proved a landmine.

Flawed party nominations, negative socio-cultural attitudes from the electorate, and even electoral violence instigated against women have helped to obstruct this political participation. Nonetheless, women are increasingly taking the lunge into electoral politics. Some have organized themselves into coalitions or caucuses and have played catalytic roles in encouraging more women to compete in political elections.

Our historic political life for women is evidence that women have always participated in politics, though their role has been poorly documented from independence publications to current political contribution within party and at national level. Indeed, the little that has been documented has been distorted and manipulated to ensure that the women’s role is subsumed into that of men, which was underlined by pre-independence political parties which also sidelined women.

But in order for the women to realize their powers as stipulated in the Constitution of Kenya 2010, the implementation should go hand in hand with the national values and principles of governance which are; human dignity, equity, social justice, inclusiveness, equality, human rights, non-discrimination and protection of the marginalized.

More importantly, women would like to see Affirmative Action being applied in every implementation step of the new Constitution and expect the spirit of the Constitution to be respected and enshrined at national and also at county level.

Women therefore see the Constitution as a new beginning for them as is for the wider majority of marginalized Kenyans. It is seen as an opportunity for both men and women to work together and enhance the principles of democracy, create a culture where each citizen is equally valued and has rights to participate in governance, economy, leadership and other critical sectors of the society.
When it comes to gender equality, Kenya has been slow in implementing third gender rule that was to see quality in gender balance in public spaces. While in 2017 elections showed that affirmative action can produce positive results for marginalized populations including women. Despite the persistence of a challenging environment for women’s political aspirations and participation especially within political parties, ever more women came out to stand for election at all levels save for the presidency.

The current uptick in women running for political office and appointment to state and public office, while encouraging, is unlikely to close this gender gap as in the 2017 General Election, the number of women who got elected to various positions at the county and national legislatures increased significantly where three women were elected as Governors; three as Senators while women representatives elected to the August house also increased from 16 (in the 11th Parliament) to 23 and at the county level, the number of female members at the county assemblies also increased, compared to the 2013 General Election, to 98 from 84. One curious observation though remains how it happened to have a woman Governor elected but no single women Member of County Assembly got elected in that County.

Results of previous elections show a disparity between the women’s representation in the electoral lists and the number of women who actually got elected. This discrepancy between the lists and mandates, and the praxis of sidelining women by the political parties in which they should become visible and responsible in political life has caused much damage and discouraged women from engaging actively in politics.

With the female population being over 50%, and 46.6% of the 19.6 million registered voters, women’s contribution to democracy in Kenya is extremely important. Therefore, to leave no-one behind, there is need for political will and commitment to create democratic spaces that deliberately sustain women’s engagement beyond the electioneering period by all stakeholders, in order to affirm their representation at the table and make it count.

The Gender Bill was drafted in the 2010 Constitution requiring that the National Assembly and the Senate shouldn’t accommodate more than two third members of the same gender (Article 81 b). This happens when the world is rallying for gender equality in leadership roles recently; Rwanda announced that women make up half of its cabinet members ranking it number two in Africa to announce gender balance, 50% of its cabinet members are women.
Rwanda and Ethiopia stood out as the only African nations joining the most European nations that have women dominating a plus 50% of the seats. Just like Kenya’s Article 81 (b) of the 2010 Constitution, the road to increased women participation in the case of Rwanda was paved way by its 2003 Constitution where they placed a quota of 30% women in its decision making organs. Apart from normal contested elections, Rwanda reserved 24 seats in Parliament for women. For Kenya on the other hand, what is a pain in the throat is how two-third gender Bill can be implemented and realized. Despite being a signatory to many human rights bodies, Kenya is in dilemma in ensuring equitable men and women representation.

Extensive research shows that when women run for office, they perform just as well as men. Yet women remain severely under-represented in crucial political institutions in Kenya. The fundamental reason for women’s under-representation is that they face serious challenges in running for the political office. Also, the number of women presenting themselves for political office still remains low. There is a substantial gender gap in political ambition where men tend to have it, and women don’t.

According to research, women even in the highest tiers of professional accomplishment are substantially less likely than men to demonstrate ambition to seek elected office. These results hold regardless of age, partisan affiliation, income and profession. In addition, despite the historic events of the last several years such as frustration with political processes and the emergence of a more diverse group of political candidates and leaders overall levels of political ambition for women and men have remained fairly constant. For years, men continue to enjoy more comfort, confidence and freedom than women when thinking about running for office.

There are several factors linked to gender-gap in political ambition. These include but, limited to women are less likely than men to be willing to endure the rigors of a political campaign. They are less likely than men to be recruited to run for office. Women are less likely than men to have the freedom to reconcile work and family obligations with a political career. Women are less likely than men to think they are “qualified” to run for office, and that they are less likely than men to perceive a fair political environment.

The low numbers of women in politics are particularly glaring when we place them in context. There have been steady increases in the percentage of women seeking elected office. The numbers of women seeking and winning positions of political power has equally seen a dramatic surge.

Moreover, while the country has made progress on this front, cultural and political components factor into the total number of women who hold seats in any nation’s legislature. It can be attributed to the political system, electoral rules, region and culture.
Women’s numeric under-representation in politics raises grave concerns over the quality of democratic governance and political legitimacy. A central criterion in evaluating the health of democracy is the degree to which all citizens, men and women are encouraged and willing to engage the political system and run for public office.
More women in positions of political power confer a greater sense of political legitimacy to the government, simply by virtue of the fact that it better reflects the gender breakdown of the national population.

The inclusion of women in electoral and legislative processes is also intertwined with fundamental issues of political representation. Electing more women increases the likelihood that policy debate and deliberation includes women’s views and experiences.
Further, political theorists and practitioners alike often ascribe symbolic or role model benefits to a more diverse body of elected officials. In light of the importance of women’s presence in the political sphere, it is critical to understand why so few women hold public office in the country.

Somewhat surprisingly, it is not because of discrimination against women candidates. In fact, women perform as well as men when they do run for office. In terms of fundraising and vote totals, the consensus is the complete absence of overt gender bias. When women run for office regardless of the position they seek they are just as likely as their male counterparts to win their races.

Do men and women have equal interest in seeking elective office? Gender plays a substantial role in the candidate emergence process. It is noticeable that if one was to take a pool of potential office holders, women were less likely than men to consider running for office and less likely than men to take any of the steps required to mount a political campaign.

The political environment may have changed throughout the last decade, but the gender gap in political ambition remains striking. A common observation from a diverse pool of women is that the idea of running for an elective position has at least “crossed their mind.” Put somewhat differently, men are nearly more likely than women to think of themselves as potential political candidates. Notably, the gender gap in considering a candidacy persists across political party, income level, age, race, profession and region.

Women are not only less likely than men to consider a candidacy, but they are also less likely than men to take any of the steps required for launching an actual political campaign. Research reveals that men are significantly more likely than women to have investigated how to place their name on the ballot, discussed running with party or community leaders, or spoken with family members, friends and potential supporters about a possible candidacy and campaign contributions.

Additional gender differences in political ambition should be noted. When prompted to consider running for office, women and men do not express comparable levels of interest in all positions. Although there are few statistical differences at the local level, women are more likely than men to express interest in a school board position. But men are nearly twice as likely as women to express interest in any federal position; and roughly more likely to consider running at the state level. These results mirror those of researchers who find that women are more likely to focus their political involvement at the local level or in positions that match their stereotypic strengths.

The gender gap in political ambition based on a variety of measures is, therefore, roughly the same magnitude as in the past. It is, however, important to note two changes. First, although women are substantially less likely than men to engage in the concrete steps that tend to precede running for office, the gaps are somewhat smaller than they were several years ago. Some progress, therefore, seems to have occurred. Second, among the men and women who have considered running for office, women are just as likely as men to report that entering the electoral arena is “always in the back of their mind.”

The key question, therefore, is: Why are women so much less likely than men to consider running for office in the first place? Reasons for women’s lower levels of interest in office holding include aattitudes about campaigning, levels of encouragement and recruitment to become a candidate by the party, persistence of traditional family dynamics, self-perceptions of electoral viability, and perceptions of the political environment.

Together, these factors culminate in a political process that is more complicated and complex for women than men, even those who are equally matched demographically, professionally and socio-economically. Considering a candidacy is beyond the realm of possibility for many well-credentialed, politically interested women.

The perceptual differences identified translate into an additional hurdle women must overcome when behaving as strategic politicians and navigating the candidate emergence process. There may be no bias against women candidates on election day, but the aggregate percentages of women and men who perceive a biased system are remarkable; and as far as considering a candidacy is concerned, perceptions trump reality.

To address these additional hurdles few actions are needed like recruiting early and recruiting often can work to close the gender gap in political ambition. Organizations and individuals dedicated to closing the gender gap in political ambition might develop and advocate for childcare and elder assistance programs and policies. Spreading the word about women’s electoral success and fundraising prowess can work to change potential candidates’ perceptions. And those seeking to recruit and encourage women candidates must work to dispel women’s anxiety and negative views about the mechanics of a campaign.

Women are very interested in accessing resources about how to run for office. Thus, women’s organizations, political leaders and concerned individuals continue to play a major role in closing the political ambition gender gap; they can continue to reach out to their constituencies and to women across the country. They continue to identify and disseminate the kind of information women want to obtain before considering a candidacy. They can continue to create mentoring networks and forge relationships between and among politically active citizens, candidates and elected officials.

In short, they continue to work to ensure that we see real progress not only in the number of women running for and holding elective office, but also in the freedom with which all men and women consider entering the electoral arena. Indeed, many barriers to women’s interest in running for office will only be ameliorated with major cultural and political changes.

Although gender parity across the political spectrum still appears a long way off, some positive change is slowly occurring, and women have begun to compete quite seriously for elective offices at every level. It is also important to note that as an increasing number of women seek and win elective office, women in the candidate eligibility pool may be more likely to consider throwing their own hats into the arena. It may take time for the presence of women in such high levels of political power to trickle down to the candidate eligibility pool and inspire future candidacies.

As Kenya continues this long-term process of shifting expectations for women in politics, the challenge in front of the country is to continue down these paths, to continue to raise awareness about the barriers women face, and to continue to advocate for a more inclusive electoral process.

Writer is Executive Director, Africa Council on Human Security

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