It’s a constitutional fiat that one gender must not constitute more than two-thirds of elective or appointive positions. That innocuous phrasing reflects two key pillars of Kenya’s patriarchal and misogynistic culture. The first is male amnesia and privilege — the blind spot that the Constitution couldn’t even explicitly name the female gender as the basis for the new norm.
The second is that a one-third share for women in public office is presented as a triumph — a great plateau of achievement. That’s why today I am moved to address the dearth of women in Kenyan politics. As former American President Barack Obama stated during his visit to Kenya, it’s plainly stupid — and self-defeating — for a team to play at half strength.
Let’s state the obvious. It’s unarguable that women have played key roles in the construction and development of the most advanced democracies. I will be even clearer — women are a primary reason why advanced democracies have been so successful. This causal connection can’t be gainsaid. We don’t even have to be emotional about this argument because it’s based on pure economic logic. Societies that give all citizens — regardless of gender — equal opportunities do better than those that keep women down. I am not here referring to feudal or undemocratic wealthy states like Saudi Arabia, which live on oil, or other resources that require little intellect to commercialise. Oil can be extracted and sold without any labour of the intellect.
One of the most enduring social cleavages is that of gender. It’s equalled in its resilience by race, ethnicity, tribalism, religion, social status, and nationality. But I put gender on a par with race and ethnicity and above the other identities. But unlike race and ethnicity, which are less proximate, gender lives with us.
The female gender lives in the household as mum, wife, daughter, grandmother, aunt, and sister. It’s inescapable. Yet — and this is huge — most men are generally misogynists and patriarchs in spite of the women and girls — blood relatives — in their lives. Race and tribe, on the hand, lives not in your house but usually in a different part of town — it’s not in your face. Which brings me to Kenya. The constitution-making period — spanning roughly two decades from the 1990s — forced Kenyans to publicly confront the question of gender for the first time. That’s why the gains made in the 2010 Constitution, while still inadequate, were an important milestone. Today, Kenya has more women in public life than at any other moment. But stiff resistance remains with many high male politicians agitating for a reversal of the gains made. We have news for them — the number and impact of women in public life will only increase. Women and girls make up more than 50 per cent of the population. I can assure this — we will not rest until women occupy at least half of all appointive and elective positions.
Go home and die
I remember the heady days of the anti-apartheid movement. I was in South Africa to observe the first all-race democratic elections. In one polling station I visited, a black woman at an advanced age was brought in by a wheelbarrow because she couldn’t walk. My guess is that she was in her 90s. She wasn’t literate courtesy of apartheid. In the booth, she asked us to point out which of the pictures of the candidates was ANC’s Nelson Mandela. We gladly obliged. She then privately cast her ballot. She emerged from the voting booth and declared — in full view of the press — that she could now go home and die. In her story, gender and race came together. She termed the vote for the ANC the first free act of her entire life.
Kenya isn’t apartheid South Africa. But it’s damn close — especially on gender. Most women voters and women candidates can empathise with the South African woman. They have been locked out of the political process, or herded like sheep to support male tribal barons. Men see women as voters — not as leaders. This view pervades the entire spectrum of Kenyan society. It knows no generations. Depressingly, most women have drank the Kool-Aid out of false consciousness. That’s why we need senior women in politics and in public life to stand up. It was disappointing that when the matter of gender made it to the Supreme Court, the judges — including female ones — took a regressive and backward view.
They wouldn’t support former CJ Willy Mutunga. Lastly, let me say we need more fearless women role models in politics and in public life. Narc-Kenya leader Martha Karua, a person I have long admired, now stands out as Kenya’s most senior female politician. Her triumph in the Kirinyaga gubernatorial contest would go a long way in giving Kenya its first female governor. Let’s see if she sparks a gender revolution.
- The writer is SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of KHRC. @makaumutua.