Seven years after enacting radical new constitutional provisions to tackle the marginalization and under-representation of women, the fight for equality in Kenya remains far from won. Although small but significant gains by women have been made - including the election of Kenya’s first female senators and governors - the constitution still requires that not more than two-thirds of elective or appointed public bodies be of the same gender. This is commonly referred to as the “two-thirds gender rule”.
In 2017, just 23 women were elected to the National Assembly (from 290 contested seats) and three women were to the Senate (from 47 contested seats). Overall this means that women still make up just 21% of the National Assembly and Senate, meaning Kenya is falling far short of its own constitutional requirement of 33%.
The elections also saw significant levels of sexual and gender-based violence, with many female candidates reporting they faced harassment, abuse and violence during the election campaign.
There were reports of female candidates being shot at, having their houses burnt down and being held hostage to prevent their political participation. A recent report by Human Rights Watch concluded 65 women and 16 girls experienced sexual violence during the post-election period, and claimed that a number of the attacks were carried out by security forces.
Even women candidates who succeed in winning office in the face of these obstacles continue to live under the threat and reality of physical violence. Evidence grows that women are targeted in gender-specific ways - often by their male counterparts - through harassment and intimidation, and that complaints raised by women politicians are publicly dismissed or ridiculed - some incidents have even been turned into memes and jokes plastered onto t-shirts.
A long-standing problem
Before the 2010 constitution, space for meaningful participation by women in Kenya’s political sphere was extremely small. The constitutional reforms were a response to the past and present exclusion of women, but they were not fully implemented - a fact that haunted the previous parliament and cabinet.
In December 2016 courts ruled the cabinet unconstitutional because it did not meet the two-thirds gender rule (of the 20 cabinet secretaries appointed, only four were women). Women constituted 19.4% of National Assembly, and 26% of the Senate, thereby falling short in both houses of the 33% requirement.
Then in March 2017, the courts decided the National Assembly had to pass a law addressing the two-thirds gender rule dilemma in parliament or face disbandment before the August elections. The subsequent failure of parliament to take any action is alarming, and indicative of the deep resistance among politicians to addressing the under-representation of women.
This also marks Kenya out among its regional neighbours, as women’s representation is low compared to other East African countries such as Rwanda and Uganda. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Kenya has the least number of women in parliament in the East African community.
A chance for change
President Kenyatta will soon present his list of nominees for cabinet and principal secretaries - a great opportunity to demonstrate his government’s commitment to enhancing gender equality in Kenya and to upholding the letter and spirit of the constitution.
He should ensure at least nine women are appointed to his cabinet and that at least one-third of the Principal Secretaries he appoints are women. President Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party has a majority in both the National Assembly and the Senate and so it would be easy for his party to table a bill before both houses that effectively addresses the two-thirds gender rule.
It is also imperative that President Kenyatta and his government address violence and threats of violence against women, and commit to creating an enabling environment for the meaningful participation of women in politics. Most importantly, the Kenyan authorities must ensure the victims of sexual violence are immediately able to access medical and mental health services and that the perpetrators of these crimes are held to account, especially any within the police.
There is also need for extensive gender-responsive training to ensure police officers are effectively trained and equipped to deal with violence against women. Women should be provided with better access to justice and security, such as establishing special courts to address sexual and gender-based violence in Kenya with judicial officers fully-equipped to handle such cases.
The 2010 constitution put in place clear legal provisions for entrenching gender equality in Kenya, and established several commissions to collectively address the challenges. Kenya has also ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, which explicitly requires countries to enforce laws prohibiting all forms of violence against women and to punish the perpetrators. And it must not be forgotten that Kenya is also a state party to the African Charter, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which also require governments to protect women against violence.
The Kenyan government and constitutional commissions are faced with the task of meeting their individual and collective legal responsibilities. But the lack of political will to act– including ignoring direct rulings from the courts – suggest that there is a deeply entrenched resistance to change.
Women should never have to sacrifice their safety to take up their rightful place in public life. It is incumbent on President Kenyatta and his administration to ensure that Kenya, finally, makes good on its promises.