The world marked the International Women’s Day on March 8, 2017. What a beautiful time to look internally, reflect on the incredible journey by women over the past fifty years and recommit to do justice for women who have suffered discrimination in virtually all spheres of life. It is time to “Be Bold for Change".
Looking back at the past five decades, we cannot help but be immensely proud of the progress made by women on the socio-economic and political fronts. Today, Kenya has a total of 86 women members of Parliament.
These include 47 women representatives, 16 elected members of the National Assembly, five nominated members of the National Assembly and 18 nominated senators. One of the elected Members of Parliament is also the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly.
Comparing the numbers with previous years, there is little doubt that women have made great strides in their march to positions of leadership in a country with deeply conservative cultures that sometimes frown on women in leadership.
However, at 86 members, women representation accounts for only 19 per cent of the National Assembly and 27 per cent of the Senate, well below the constitutional two-thirds gender principle.
The National Assembly has a total of 349 members out of which 290 are elected from the constituencies, 47 women are elected from the counties and 12 are nominated to represent special interests.
The Senate, on the other hand, has 67 members out of which 47 are elected from the counties, 16 women nominated by the political parties, two members who represent the youth and two other members who represent people with disabilities.
It is notable that women did not fare very well in other top elective positions. Not a single woman was elected governor or senator in any of Kenya’s 47 counties, which is a shame considering the crucial role played by the county governments in the new constitutional dispensation. The political environment remains toxic, paternalistic, misogynistic and violent. Women, even the most daring, dread plunging into a field that treats them like rank outsiders.
A year ago, an online campaign started in Embu County. The campaign focused on disparaging and watering down the achievements of a woman leader who is running for governor in the county. Among other things, online posters insisted on referring to her by her husband’s name.
The husband happens to come from another part of the country. The idea was to portray her as an outsider who does not deserve to run for a position in Embu County by invoking a name that could alienate her from the voters.
Never mind that the politician was not only born and raised in the county but has been serving as a Member of Parliament representing one of the constituencies. The same tactic is being employed in Bomet County with a female gubernatorial aspirant being told she does not qualify to run because her husband hails from another region.
The said woman is not only serving her second term as a Member of Parliament in the same area but is also the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly. Put simply, gender stereotypes are holding women back in far more significant ways than we imagine.
To break these stereotypes, we need to stop viewing women from the traditional prism of stay-at-home caregivers, who lose their identity upon marriage, and start viewing them as leaders, for that is what they are.
Kenya has had many examples of outstanding women like Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Mathaai, Grace Onyango, who served as first Kisumu Mayor, later elected a member of Parliament, Mary Okello, who founded Makini group of schools; Lupita Nyong’o, the first Kenyan woman to win an Oscar; Fatuma Ahmed, the first woman to ascend to the post of Brigadier in the Kenyan Defence Forces; Irene Koki Mutungi, the first African Captain on Boeing B787, and many others who have left a mark in their respective fields.
It is unfortunate, therefore, that men continue to use crude tactics to knock women out of competitive leadership positions. As a result, the public has been denied effective and compassionate leadership that many women leaders are known to possess.
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As Kenya approaches another general election, Kenyans must rethink their choices. For more than five decades, this country has been ruled by men. Men have disproportionately dominated the Presidency, the Cabinet, Legislature, the Judiciary and civil service.
What we have got in return is plunder of public resources, perennial hunger, collapsing healthcare system, loss of forest cover, slow development and a nation that is deeply divided along ethnic lines.
In the search for alternative leadership, voters must seriously consider women who have proven themselves for substantive leadership posts. By doing so, we shall do ourselves a favour by bringing into the mainstream a key segment of our population that has suffered discrimination while also fulfilling the constitutional two-thirds gender principle.
Women do have a role to step up, to challenge stereotypes and to offer themselves for positions without being apologetic. But men have an even greater role as fathers, brothers, husbands and role models to support women empowerment.