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Why Kenyan women are yet to shatter the glass ceiling in politics

By Christine Mungai | March 25th 2017
Ms. Anne Waiguru jig during a meeting with leaders from various wards in the county. She shared her vision for good roads, good health care, reliable water supply and development in agribusiness in Kirinyaga County

In the last election cycle, no woman was elected governor or senator.

It was an ironic, and perhaps unintended consequence of a progressive Constitution that sought to level the playing field for women to enter the Legislature, through creation of the seat of Woman’s Representative for each county.

With that, women were shunted away from contesting for MP, senator and governors’ seats, with the argument that they already have their “free” position in the form of Women Rep.

This time round, more women have declared their interest in those top posts. Kirinyaga might be the first county to elect a woman governor, with two women candidates – presidential candidate in 2013 Martha Karua, and former Devolution Cabinet Secretary Anne Waiguru – seeking to edge out incumbent Joseph Ndathi.

Former Lands Cabinet Secretary Charity Ngilu is said to be interested in the Kitui governor’s seat, while Kisumu Deputy Governor Ruth Odinga is looking to ascend to the top post in that county. Former Starehe MP Margaret Wanjiru seems to be losing steam in her bid to be Nairobi governor.

Deputy Speaker Joyce Laboso is running in Sotik, Runyenjes MP Cecily Mbarire will be in the race in Embu, former Kathiani MP Wavinya Ndeti is working the ground in Machakos. Other women seeking the top county slot are nominated MCA Margaret Loduk (Turkana), Yulita Mitei (Nandi), businesswomen Mabel Muruli (Kakamega) and Winnie Kaburu in Meru.

Predictably, the question of their marital status is already featuring in the campaigns. You already know what to expect – the shaming of the single and divorced, and the disparaging of the married that they should be taking care of their husbands.

Still, for Laboso and Mbarire, their disqualification in the eyes of their opponents is simply on a technicality – that they are married to ‘outsiders’. Laboso, a Kalenjin, is married to a Luo, while Mbarire, an Embu is married to a Teso. The argument is that they should vie for political seats ‘where they have been married’ - never mind the fact that they have already ‘proved’ their local political credentials by being elected by their ‘original people’.

Mbarire hit back that such arguments were “petty, selfish, desperate and immature”, and Laboso termed them “cheap and outdated”, and they are, but that’s not the whole story. What Mbarire and Laboso didn’t say is that if you are a woman hoping to clinch a political seat in your “home county”, especially if it is an ethnically homogenous place, there is actual strategic value in marrying an ‘outsider’.

For one, if your voters are predominantly rural, you will probably have to make speeches in your mother tongue, of which you are most likely more fluent in than in your husband’s language. So vying for a political seat ‘where you are married’ is not a viable option, for that reason.


But having a husband who is not from your village gives you a much-needed layer of insulation in a political playing field that often gets very dirty and petty. If your husband’s people are from the same local area as you, your in-laws will be accessible to your political opponents, who will probably feed them with stories of how “ungovernable” you have become – which, in a patriarchal society, reflects much more on your husband’s esteem than on yours. That can place an unbearable strain on many marriages.

But with your husband’s people far away, you can safely compartmentalise your life in that way, and even if your husband is on the campaign trail with you, the language barrier and cultural distance can make him look wonderfully progressive, as someone who has transcended ‘local issues’ – a win for both parties.

Still, apart from explicitly writing it into the law as the Constitution did in 2010, there are a number of unlikely factors that organically draw women into public life and leadership. One of them is geography – historically, gender roles are most sharply circumscribed in harsh environments, where the society faces a constant threat from a treacherous climate, terrain or wild animals. Data from the Africa Gender Equality Index seems to corroborate this: According to the index, the worst places to be a woman in Africa are Somalia, Sudan, Mali, Libya and Guinea, in that order. All are desert or arid Sahelian countries – Kenya is 14th best overall in Africa.

Seriously hardcore

Cultures that have limited resources, and have to fight over territory, battling the elements or nature have “seriously hardcore” concepts of masculinity, in the words of anthropologist David Gilmore.

It is because men are better suited biologically to be warriors and protectors, which is precisely what’s needed in that environment — so the chasm between gender roles deepens, and the society becomes more deeply patriarchal, and you would find much fewer women in public leadership roles.

It is not a coincidence that some of the most severe masculine (and sometimes, feminine) rites of passage in Africa are in harsh or arid environments, according to Gilmore’s theory.

Apart from public circumcision and scarification ceremonies that one has to undergo without flinching, some African communities take it further — among the Fulani of West Africa, boys take turns beating each other with whips and sharpened sticks. Among the Hamar of Ethiopia, it is the female relatives of the initiate who are whipped to bleeding.

On the other hand, where there is plenty of land, water, food and sunshine, masculinity is less severely practiced, and gender roles have more overlap — Gilmore cites cultures in lush places such as the Philippines and Tahiti where the social concept of ‘being a man’ is more relaxed.

There is less of a social or economic need for it, even rites of passage in some cultures in Malaysia, for example, merely entail boys competing to carve the coolest walking stick. You’ve seen it in the recent election of US President Donald Trump, where fear of terrorism and crime was successfully drummed up as a campaign strategy to push women into the political embrace of a strong — and often right-wing — male protector.

After the 9/11 terror attacks, some American conservative women hailed the return of “manly virtues,” as well as the “contained, channeled virility” of George W Bush, as journalist Cathy Young writes in March 20, 2017 article published in Foreign Policy magazine.

The second is adversity — a catastrophic disruption of existing social structures forces society to adapt. Rwanda is the best example of this. The civil war which started in 1990 and culminated in the devastating 1994 genocide, disproportionately killed men, which meant that as a matter of necessity, women had to take up roles that were traditionally the preserve of men.

Encouraged by President Paul Kagame, women now make up 63 per cent of the Rwandan legislature, the highest in the world. Similar trends have been seen in Burundi, which went through the same turmoil.

Return to the womb

It is part of a broader phenomenon that you see playing out when African cultures are faced with overwhelming uncertainty — they tend to “return to the womb” (and put women in charge) as researchers at the Society for International Development (SID) once put it.

You will find hints of this in Kenya too. In 2002, when the Kanu government was ejected, most of Rift Valley province found itself floundering, the rug of power pulled from underneath its feet.

In President Mwai Kibaki’s first term, the sense of loss and uncertainty was palpable in the region, as the political tide shifted away from its favour. With that, out of 15 elected women legislators nationally in the subsequent election in 2007, seven were from Rift Valley province, and some had trounced seasoned male politicians. It was the highest increase in female representation of any region in Kenya: up 250 per cent, from the two elected five years earlier, that is Alicen Chelaite and Lina Kilimo.

Still, many women cannot shake off social and domestic expectations, limiting their availability in political and electoral roles. First and foremost is that women generally have much less discretionary time than men.

Time use surveys from five countries in Africa showed that although men spend more time in wage labour/farm work, women spend much more time performing domestic duties (usually not considered “work”, but they take up time all the same). It is a double workday that few men have to do, and is sustained by the notion that women are ‘able to multitask’.

The result is that time as a resource is more scarce for women than for men, and ultimately women and girls are forced to forgo many opportunities, such as working eight hours in a factory or operating a boda boda. They cannot afford the time to be away from home, so have to do small, nearby jobs like washing the neighbour’s clothes or hawking near the house.

In that way, poverty — and more broadly, lack of women’s political representation — is a function of time as much as it is a function of income or society’s attitudes that on surface level seem progressive: most people agree that women ‘should’ be allowed to vie for political office.

But until more slack is picked up at home — or something catastrophic happens to make Kenyan society “return to the womb” — legislation will only be a blunt tool in overcoming the inertia that keeps women away from political office.

 The writer is a writer, journalist and executive editor of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Africapedia.com

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