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How to raise number of women MPs

By Ken Opalo | February 27th 2021

File, Standard

One of the key institutions targeted by the proposed BBI constitutional amendments is Parliament. The framers of the 2010 Constitution wisely raised the bar for women representation in politics and charged us to ensure no less than a third of women comprise officers in state institutions.

Unfortunately for us, the framers vastly underestimated the structural misogyny that is part of the woodwork of our male-dominated political system. For over a decade, legislators have slow-walked the much-needed legislative actualisation of the call to ensure at least a third of Bunge is female.

The proposed BBI amendments seek to address this failure but do so in the worst possible fashion. Instead of tackling the difficult problem of guaranteeing substantive women political representation head on, the proposed changes create an open-ended commitment to ensure at least a third of legislators will be women.

Despite creating 70 more constituencies (for a total of 360), the BBI process does not provide an actionable plan to ensure no more than 240 of MPs in the new National Assembly will be men. Should fewer than 120 women get elected, the remaining balance will be nominated.

In the worst-case scenario, we could end up with as many as 540 MPs, with 120 of them being nominated women!

As a matter of principle, we should endeavour to elect as many of our legislators as possible. Parliament is strongest when MPs have control over their political destinies and are directly accountable to voters. Filling the institution with nominated MPs, male or female, would give too much power to the ethnic chiefs that run our political parties. Such a reality would leave us with a weaker Parliament than what we have. What should be done? There is still time to avoid the looming sub-optimal outcome. First, we should applaud the choice of having perfect gender balance among 94 elected senators.

Second, we should think of a similarly fixed solution to the problem of women under-representation in the National Assembly. Here I would propose two options. First, we should consider gender quotas within the current limit of 360 constituencies.

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Research shows that experience with a female MP increases the odds of electing one in the future.  With that in mind, we should divide the new 360 constituencies into 3 groups chosen by lottery (per county), then limit a select third of constituencies to only women candidates over three electoral cycles (constituencies not part of the chosen third would still be open to women candidates).

Over 15 years, each constituency would have had an elected woman MP for at least one term. Is five years per constituency a long time for male candidates to wait? No. Had we started this in 2013, we would be gearing up for the last cycle in 2022.

The second potential solution would be to strike a completely new bargain on how to entrench fair representation of women in our politics. Such a bargain would include 50-50 representation in the Senate and county governments.

Under this arrangement, county elections would be run under a proportional representation system and parties forced to nominate an equal share of men and women on (alternating) party lists.

For each county, the governor and deputy governor would be of different sexes, and 50 per cent of MCAs would be women. Having a cohort of at least 750 elected women would provide a large pipeline of future candidates for National Assembly seats.

An even better solution would be to implement both! Doing so would guarantee substantive women representation at all levels and produce strong elected women MPs and not puppets of ethnic chiefs.


-The writer is a professor at Georgetown University

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