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Women making positive strides towards equality at highest levels

Nakuru Governor Susan Kihika. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

“For me, a better democracy is a democracy where women do not only have the right to vote and to elect but to be elected.”- Michelle Bachelet, head of UN Women, former president and defense minister of Chile

Pre-colonial through colonial to post-colonial periods in Kenya have seen significant increases in the presence of women and their political participation in leadership and governance. One such example is the country's first female chief, Wangu wa Makeri (1901–1909), who rose to prominence despite patriarchal cultural and traditional structures.

Similar brave acts were carried out by several "unsung heroines," such as those who actively took part in the country's liberation war in the 1940s and 1950s, proving that women can and do make a big difference even in harsh situations.

However, during the first 40 years of postcolonial rule, women's access to formal political leadership positions has lagged behind because of a number of structural barriers, including extremely ingrained patriarchal socio-cultural values; undemocratic institutions and policy frameworks; and low levels of civic and gender awareness.

Due to the limitations of formal methods of negotiating power, political space and women’s rights in Kenya, they have over time learnt to exploit skillfully the non-formal methods of influencing public policy and governance, gaining access and influencing change, by overriding the formal structural and procedural roadblocks to access, agenda setting and influence.

In some cases, women have turned their stereotyped profiles of motherhood; as sex symbols and as tools of oppression and subordination to their advantage, and used them to shape and influence the agenda of democratic governance.

Such was the February 1992 case of a group of elderly Mothers of Political Prisoners who sustained, for several months, an unconventional strategy of public protest against the State. They combined hunger strike and stripped naked as they demanded for the release of their politically criminalised sons. Four prisoners were released in June 1992, and four more in January 1993.

In their own way, these mothers set a gender agenda for women in governance, and provided a demonstration effect to women and society at large, of the many possibilities and strategic avenues that exist for political engagement and for gaining access and influence to and in political leadership.

Linet Chepkorir, alias 'Toto', a 24-year-old win was exceptional. [Boniface Okendo, Standard

The women’s movement remains the one critical non- State actor that serves as a political bridge, a vehicle and midwife for lobbying and advocating for engendering of governance and a constant support structure for women politicians.

Grace Onyango became Kenya's first elected woman to hold a political office. She was Kenya's first female mayor after independence, one of the country's first female councillors, and the first woman to be elected to the House of Representatives. She was a member of Parliament until 1984 and accomplished all these firsts between 1964 and 1969.

As a result of the creation of special seats for women in the 2010 Constitution, 47 women were elected to the National Assembly, 16 were nominated by political parties, and one woman was appointed to the Senate and county governments to represent youth and people with disabilities.

The recent historic event in Kenya has truly set the stage for the women's movement in light of attempting to enforce the usurpation of a long-standing status quo in our patriarchal society. The outcome of the most recent elections has sped up the advancement of women by placing more women than ever before in positions of political leadership.

More women stood for office and were successful. Official results showed that 22 women, out of the confirmed results for 108 seats, had been elected. Seven of them had won back their seats. This tally excludes the 47 seats allocated to women contenders, whose holders are known as Woman Representatives.

The seven female governor-elects are Susan Kihika (Nakuru), Gladys Wanga (Homabay), Cecicly Mbarire (Embu), Wavinya Ndeti (Machakos), and Fatuma Achani (Kwale), Kawira Mwangaza (Meru) and Anne Waiguru (Kirinyaga).

Kenya has long struggled to get women into politics, with men accounting for the overwhelming majority of elected leaders and female politicians consigned to serving as one of 47 Women Rep. But the recent polls marked a breakthrough for female politicians. In Nakuru, for instance, female candidates were elected to eight positions, including governor, senator and woman rep - with Susan Kihika, Tabitha Karanja and Liza Chelule claiming victories. 

We’re making positive strides towards gender equality at the highest levels. While we aren’t quite there yet, there’s no doubt that we’re on the right path.