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Has COVID-19 Pushed Women in Politics off Kenya’s Agenda?

Asha Abdi, a former member of Nairobi County assembly, says progress for the increased participation of women in politics in Kenya has been painfully slow. Credit: Miriam Gathigah/IPS

In 2013, Alice Wahome ran in her third attempt to win the hotly-contested Kandara constituency parliamentary seat in Murang’a County, Central Kenya. As is typical of rural politics, the field was male-dominated, with the stakes being high for all candidates but more especially so for Wahome — no woman had ever occupied the Kandara constituency parliamentary seat.

“It was a very brutal campaign. I was harassed, verbally abused, threatened with physical violence and many unprintable things were [said to me] even in public,” Wahome tells IPS.

She says that attributes that are considered admirable and desirable in male politicians were weaponised against her and other women in politics.

“When we vocalised our opinions they said we talk too much and the underlying message is that decent women do not talk too much. When you have a stand, and are firm in your political beliefs and values, they say you are combative, intolerant and aggressive. The same qualities in men are acceptable,” Wahome says.

So vicious was the contest for the hearts of Kandara’s voters that on the morning of the 2013 general elections, the community woke to find packets of condoms branded with Wahome’s name. On the packets were messages, purportedly from Wahome, encouraging voters to embrace family planning.

“This was a smear campaign to show my people that I was not fit to be their leader. There are many things that politicians give to voters, such as food items. Distributing condoms in a rural, conservative society on the day of the elections is political suicide,” Wahome, a lawyer, says.

Fortunately, she had spent years interacting with the community, promoting health initiatives, education and the empowerment of women and girls. So despite the smear campaign, Wahome became the first woman to win the Kandara seat and is currently serving her second term in the national assembly after her 2017 re-election.

Propaganda, threats of violence and especially sexual and physical violence, public humiliation and unrelenting vicious social media smear campaigns are a few of the challenges that women in politics, like Wahome, have to overcome to win and sustain political leadership.

This is in addition to overall campaign challenges such as limited financial and human resources and vicious internal politics. But even at the political party level, the system is still skewed in favour of men who own and finance these parties.

“The political arena is very hostile towards women. The campaign trail is littered with lived experiences of women who have been brutalised for seeking leadership,” Wangechi Wachira, the executive director of the Centre for Rights, Education and Awareness (CREAW), tells IPS.

CREAW is a local partner for Deliver For Good global campaign that applies a gender lens to the Sustainable Development Goals and is powered by global advocacy organisation Women Deliver. The Deliver For Good campaign partners advocate to drive action in 12 critical investment areas, including strengthening women’s political participation and decision-making power.

Wangechi has been at the forefront of holding the government accountable for gender equality and equity, as provided for by Kenya’s 2010 gender-progressive constitution, which demands that all appointed and elected bodies constitute one-third women.

Article 27 (8) of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights says: “The State shall take legislative and other measures to implement the principle that no more than two thirds of the members of elective or appointive bodies shall be of the same gender.” 

The national assembly is obligated to enact the Constitution of Kenya (Amendment) Bill 2018, also known as the Gender Bill, to realise this provision. But more than 10 years down the line, this obligation remains unfulfilled. In 2019, parliament did not even have the required two thirds of members present in the house — the requisite quorum for a constitutional amendment — to vote on the bill.

“The national assembly has failed the women of Kenya. We have gone to court to push for the national assembly to enact legislation to correct blatant gender inequalities. There is too much resistance and push back from a patriarchal system,” Wangechi says.

It is this resistance that women in politics find themselves up against in their quest for leadership. Women account for just 9.2 percent of the 1,835 elected individuals in 2017, a marginal increase from 7.7 percent in 2013, according to a report by National Democratic Institute and the Federation of Women Lawyers-Kenya, the latter being another Deliver For Good local partner. 

This report shows that in the 2017 elections, 29 percent more women ran for office than in the 2013 general elections and there are now more women in elected positions across all levels of government. But Asha Abdi, a former member of the Nairobi County Assembly, tells IPS that progress has been painfully slow.

Overall, there are now 172 women in elective positions — up from 145 in 2013. In the 2017 general elections, 23 women were elected to the national assembly compared to 16 in 2013, and another 96 were elected to the county assemblies compared to the 82 women in 2013.

As such, women account for 23 percent of the national assembly and senate, with this figure including the 47 seats reserved exclusively for county women representatives. 

Human rights campaigners say that the momentum to hold the national assembly accountable had picked but as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, concerns are rife that the gender agenda is no longer a priority.

“COVID-19 has not slowed down political activities in this country. In fact, leaders are behaving as if we are going into elections tomorrow and not 2022. We have serious political re-alignments and nobody is speaking for women,” Grace Gakii, a Nairobi-based gender and political activist, tells IPS.

“Ordinary Kenyans are more concerned with staying safe from the virus and feeding their families. So some of the small gains we have made could be lost during this pandemic because there is no one to hold political parties and powers that be accountable,” she says.

Recognised as East Africa’s economic powerhouse by the World Bank, this economic giant lags behind its neighbours in as far as women representation across government bodies is concerned.

In South Sudan, the figures for women in politics are higher, with 28.9 percent in elected positions. Uganda has 34 percent, Tanzania and Burundi 36 percent, and Rwanda 61 percent.

“Political campaigns and the intense lobbying that goes with it are very difficult for women. There are many meetings at night and exclusive meetings in ‘boys’ clubs’. Society is warming up to women but too slowly. When you vie against men, all the male opponents gang up against you, because it is considered a big insult to be defeated by a woman,” Abdi says.

While the 2017 general elections showed a small shift in the political landscape, resulting in the election of the first three female governors and the first three female senators, Wahome says that the road ahead remains long and winding.

She says that women in politics should and can successfully rise to the challenge.

Wahome encourages women to draw strength from others who have tried and succeeded, saying that with time, patriarchal attitudes and customs will shift. She particularly encourages women to engage in grassroots transformative projects with their communities.

“There are many areas to choose from including education and community health. Let the people see what you can do and later, they will back you all the way to the top.”

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