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Barriers women face: Why the two-thirds gender rule has a long way to go

By Nancy Nzau | Mar 8th 2022 | 4 min read

Public Service and Gender CS Margaret Kobia presents the Kenya Eminent Women Trailblazers Recognition and Award 2022 to former Karachuonyo MP Phoebe Asiyo. [James Omoro, Standard]

The elections in Kenya this year present an opportunity for a rising tide of women to take political seats. An encouraging precedent was set in the 2017 General Election; when compared to the previous elections, the proportion of women in our Parliament increased from 24 per cent to 29 percent. 

However, without action to curb the barriers that keep women out of power, the great equality movement may constitute no more than a trickle.

From research, the barriers are vast and varied. Key among them include limited access to education and information, economic dependency, negative stereotypes, alienating social and cultural attitudes, the burden of domestic responsibility, harassment, intimidation, and violence.

Kenyans still have a long way towards conquering negative socio-cultural stereotypes.

In fact, research shows that any positive change in women’s political representation in the past years has usually been down to implementing candidate quotas, key in mind, the two-thirds gender rule that came to life in 2010.

Although not fully in action, the gender rule has made a difference in Kenya’s political scene. 

“Quotas are an effective compensatory way of levelling the playing field as they help women overcome the structural imbalance,” says Dr Gladys Kasiva Ngao, sociologist and candidate for the 2017’s National Assembly speaker position and a key player in the Ukambani political scene.

“It is about getting to a tipping point where women’s voices are loud enough to set the agenda and influence decisions, something near impossible for a token woman in a male-dominated political system,” Ngao says 

“The two-thirds system guarantees women’s safety and security to exercise their franchise, as authorised by the constitution,” she says.

For some women, the barrier is simply that they don’t run in the first place. 

“Most women don’t see running as feasible even when they are qualified,” says 50-year-old Julia Kamwara, an aspiring Mathare Member of Parliament. 

Kamwara took early retirement to chase a dream she held so dearly for many years. Like any young girl, Julia grew up aiming for the stars.

And even though she always wanted to be president, for now, she is vying for the Member of Parliament seat in Mathare constituency, where she served as chief for seven years. She wishes she could have done that sooner. 

“It took many years to gain the self-confidence to actually believe that I can join politics,’” Kamwara says. “Women are the biggest self-doubters, and there’s a need for older women in politics to provide mentorship to young political aspirants.”

“It is a job like any other. Women political aspirants need to maintain an open heart, take risks and not bow to intimidation,” 

To Kamwara, politics is not a matter of life and death and is probably why she chose to pursue a manifesto of peace. However, she believes that it is upon this foundation of peace where would-be financiers do not fund her campaign, stating that many people prefer a violent approach towards politics, a path she’s unwilling to pursue.

“I cannot give in to goons and intimidation. I believe we can have politics without violence,” she says.

For Edita Ochieng, who is vying for the Kibera Member of parliament seat, violence and stereotypes are the most notable barriers against her political aspirations.

“Most people in my community, and Kenyans in general, are fixated on a patriarchal system of leadership. They believe men should provide direction, but the world has long changed in that regard,” Ochieng says. 

“We are no longer looking for survival. We need empowerment, schools, and economic development. Women can formulate policies, especially those addressing community challenges and issues that are unique to women,” she says.

“Growing up in Kibera, I witnessed and experienced physical, emotional and sexual violence. These experiences inspired what I do now. I want to change the narrative by empowering people in the slums and providing growth opportunities to women,” Ochieng says.

According to Ngao, women parliamentarians add critical perspectives to the democratic process and stimulate a positive change towards advancing women’s rights. They’re best placed to shine a light on problems affecting women in their constituencies and demonstrate that female leaders can be effective decision-makers. 

Ochieng believes that a patriarchal approach to leadership limits women’s access to education opportunities available to their male counterparts, which makes it hard for women to fulfil their potential.

“Through several partnerships, we work with women to sharpen their communication skills, enhance their self-awareness and build their confidence. We also amplify the voice of women leadership by encouraging community engagement and providing visibility through painting murals, social media, and mainstream media,” she says. 

If history is anything to go by, it is not smooth sailing once women overcome these barriers to reach parliament. Women in public positions are undermined and frequently sidelined by their own parties and colleagues, subject to verbal harassment, misogynist attacks, and even physical violence. 

“It’s not enough to push for more women into politics, they must be supported by cultural change. As an example, efforts to educate the entire community about accountability and representation can improve a positive reception to what female political aspirants have to say,” says Ngao.

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