Amina Ahmed, Emma Elfversson and Kristine Höglund | 20 December 2022
How can women secure electoral positions in the face of gender-based intimidation and insecurity? In Kenya, female political candidates face considerable barriers in the form of violence, threats and intimidation. In the August 2022 election, attention was focused on the close presidential race and subsequent legal contestation over the election results. When William Ruto was sworn in as the president, Martha Karua fell just short of becoming the country’s first female vice president, as the running mate of Raila Odinga.
But outside the media spotlight, another issue stands clear: Kenya saw a record number of women elected to important posts at national and county level. While women remain underrepresented, and Kenya has failed to achieve the two thirds gender rule, these results mark important progress towards the goal of more gender-equal political representation. How can these small gains be understood?
Women’s 2022 electoral success
The pattern follows a clear trend across the last elections, where the share of women elected for political positions has steadily increased. This year, women elected into parliament represent the highest number so far in the history of Kenya and should rightly be celebrated considering the myriad of challenges women face in politics. Moreover, the number of female governors, the highest office in the devolved system of county governments, has doubled since the last election in 2017. Women ousted veteran politicians, as in the Meru gubernatorial race, and in places like Nakuru, women won seats for multiple tiers of government. In total, this year, Kenyan voters elected seven female governors (three in 2017, none in 2013), 29 members of parliament (MPs) (23 in 2017 and 16 in 2013) and 3 senators (same as 2017, none in 2013).
Despite these gains, the overall picture is dim. Women’s representation fails to reach the threshold set by Kenya’s 2010 constitution, which demands that neither gender should hold more than two-thirds of the parliament. In addition to elected MPs from Kenya’s 290 constituencies, 47 seats in parliament are reserved for women, elected from each county. Together with the 29 female MPs directly elected this year and six women nominated to represent special interest groups, women MPs still only take up less than a quarter of seats in parliament.
The implementation of the two-thirds rule has been hampered by entrenched gender power dynamics. For example, parliament was expected to enact the law for its implementation by 2015, but has failed to pass the bill numerous times with counteraccusation between male and female MPs on the lack of quorum during debate of the bill. With this legislative gap, political parties are not mandated by law to have a gender quota in their party primary nominations. Considering that the outcome of the primaries essentially determines the outcome in party strongholds, empowering women in this stage could have a major impact. Four out of the seven women governors elected in 2022 had direct tickets, three women MPs also had direct tickets by major political parties popular in their areas.
The electoral achievements of women must be understood against the background of the harsh environment wherein female politicians run their campaigns. Despite women being eligible to vote since independence in 1963, political campaigning has been curtailed by discriminatory practices and patriarchal culture. Violence against women politicians and the need for substantial campaign financing to be successful, deter women who historically have been economically disenfranchised. Male opponents employ gendered rhetoric to intimidate women from vying and pushing those who campaign to drop out.
Despite these challenges, what can we learn from the recent women’s election successes?
Experience of holding lower-level positions in politics have created a springboard effect for women to win more powerful political positions by them gaining confidence and political connections. In the 2022 elections, for example, Susan Kihika rose from County Assembly Speaker in Nakuru 2013, to Senator in 2017, to win the governor race this year. She made a name for herself as an astute politician who forged formidable alliances at county and national level to win the position.
Another launchpad for women elected in 2022 has been the constitutionally safeguarded woman representative position that came with the 2010 constitutional reform. Politicians such as Gladys Wanga (Homa Bay governor), Ruweida Mohamed (Lamu East MP) and Rozaah Buyu (Kisumu West MP) won positions after first vying and serving as women representatives. Rozaah had unsuccessfully vied for MP position twice, but beat a three-term incumbent in her third attempt after serving one term as woman representative. In another show of the affirmative action gains, Kawira Mwangaza trumped incumbent and veteran politician Kiraitu Murungi to win Meru governor seat after serving one term as the county woman representative.
Perceptions of women’s leadership
The tide is turning albeit slowly. Many voters now view women as equally capable to lead as men, and therefore look to the candidate’s credentials and ideas rather than their gender. This attitude shift helps explain how several women who are experienced public servants and community grassroots mobilizers have won in their first bid. Irene Njoki, a newcomer to party politics but longstanding civil servant, trumped two-term incumbent MP and close Ruto ally Ngunjiri Mbugua in Bahati constituency. Agnes Pareiyo, a champion against gender-based violence won the Narok North MP seat over several male opponents.
Examples from the 2022 election showcase how women break through existing gender barriers to win competitive political positions. The springboard effect is in line with research that shows that gender quotas help promote women’s representation beyond the seats reserved for women, and the importance of holding local office for being able to win national-level seats.
Major challenges remain in achieving an equal playing field for female and male politicians and concerns have been raised that gender equality will not be on the top of William Ruto’s political agenda. A recent analysis argues that “the gender quota is just window dressing” and that political parties lack genuine will to improve equal representation.
There are also undesired effects of affirmative action such as the 47 women representative seats in parliament. The reserved seats led some to believe women should run only for those seats; in some areas, women who defied pressure and vied for non-reserved positions faced targeted harassment. Beyond increasing numbers, measures must focus on enhancing the decision making power of women to achieve more gender parity in Kenyan politics.
Amina Ahmed is currently a Master’s student at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University with interests in gender inclusion and local peacebuilding. She is also a Rotary Peace Fellow. You can find her on Twitter at @Aminaah21
Emma Elfversson is associate professor at the department of political science, Uppsala University. Her research focuses on issues relating to ethnic politics, communal conflict, local conflict resolution, and rural/urban dimensions of organized violence. She employs both qualitative and quantitative methods; field research focuses on cases in Kenya. You can find her on Twitter at @emmaelfversson
Kristine Höglund is professor at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University. She works on issues relating to the causes and consequences of election violence, urban violence and conflict management, and the causes of peace with a primary geographical focus on Africa. You can find her on Twitter at @krishogl