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Time for Kenyan women to fight for leadership

By Rev. Wachianga Kenneth and Chrispin Onyango

While it is quite encouraging that the elections taking place across Africa this year present an opportunity for a rising tide of women to take political office, a lot is yet to be done to empower many women for such posts.

An encouraging precedent is to see that for the first time in history Africa has produced two women presidents. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the 24th and current President of Liberia. She served as Minister of Finance under President William Tolbert from 1979 until the 1980 coup d'état, after which she left Liberia. Joyce Hilda Banda née Mtila is a Malawian politician who has been the President of Malawi since 7 April 2012. She took over from President Bingu wa Mutharika who died from cardiac arrest.

In recent weeks we have also seen women in Senegal voted in parliament. Female representation has swelled from 22 to 43 percent. Parliamentary elections were held in Senegal on July 1, 2012. Sixty-four women now have seats in this West African country’s 150-member National Assembly. This is due to a law on gender parity in Senegal. In Africa there are still some barriers that make women not to be voted in as members of parliament. Those barriers are many and varied. Some of the most prominent are economic dependency, limited access to education and information, discriminatory cultural and social attitudes, and negative stereotypes, the burden of domestic responsibilities. Some potential leaders have also turned away from vying for political posts due to intimidation, harassment and violence. Cultural and traditional values have made women underprivileged members of society, with very little public power and with a derisory role in decision-making processes.

Even the current composition of political decision-makers in any African region provides evidence that women still face numerous obstacles in articulating and shaping their own interests. Though we have gradually seen more women jumb over hurdles to take leadership, the stress is being shifted from a quantitative to a qualitative participation of women in politics and decision-making processes. The truth is that men still dominate the political arena, formulate the rules of the game and define the standards for its evaluation. In Kenya, we have women like ‘the iron lady’ Martha Karua, Charity Ngilu, Beth Mugo, Elizabeth Ongoro and few others occupying seats in parliament. This is a great achievement, but there is now the need to improve and enhance women’s effectiveness in political positions.  Actions must be taken to strengthen their impact in decision-making forums, such as government cabinets, local, provincial and state assemblies, political parties, the judiciary, labor organizations, NGOs and others. There is much to gain from increasing women’s leadership. History shows that economic and social development has always led to a weakening of traditional anti-female prejudices, decreased fertility rates, increased urbanization, greater education for all, and attitudinal changes in perceptions regarding the appropriate role of women. All these factors are bound to increase women’s political resources and diminish (if not remove altogether) the traditional barriers to their political activity. In countries where development has reached adequately high levels, women stand next to men on the same level in almost all fields and are equal to men in political and social spheres. The Rwandese example Women in Rwanda now top the world rankings of women in national parliaments, with 49 per cent of representation compared to a world average of 15.1 per cent. This year the country commemorates the genocide of 1994, when Rwandan women suffered death, humiliation, persecution and sexual abuse during a 100-day massacre that left more than 800,000 people dead. As the country undergoes a period of reconstruction, women are taking an active role. They not only head about a third of all households, but have also taken up many jobs that were formerly the preserve of men, as in construction and mechanics. Women's representation in national parliaments across sub-Saharan Africa equals the world average of about 15 per cent. Despite being one of the poorest regions in the world, the level of women's representation in parliament in sub-Saharan Africa is higher than in many wealthier countries, according to UNIFEM in its Progress of the World's Women 2002 report. In the US, France and Japan for instance, women hold slightly more than 10 per cent of parliamentary seats. Globally, women’s representation in parliaments stands at 18.2 percent – the highest it has ever been, but still not high enough. Today only 22 countries have achieved a critical mass of 30 percent or higher women representation in their national parliaments, mainly as a result of constitutional quotas written into law and requiring that a certain percentage of political positions be occupied by women. Of that number, six are African countries: Burundi, Mozambique, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. These countries succeeded because they recognized the importance of equity between women and men in decision-making and they instituted changes in their electoral and parliamentary processes.

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