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Improving female representation in Kenya requires more than a simple constitutional change

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The following was published in The House Magazine

Kenya has strong tribal traditions with mistrust not far beneath the surface. This became all too clear during the aftermath of the 2007 election when widespread killing took place. The political system was profoundly shocked leading to a new constitution being introduced in 2010. It includes an ambitious requirement that elected representation on public bodies should consist of no more than two thirds of any one gender.

Unfortunately achieving this is seen as a woman’s issue, and parliament failed to legislate for the mechanisms to achieve the constitutional requirement. The subsequent elections in 2013 had no serious incidences, and the electoral process was deemed by many international observers as free, fair and credible. But the outcome was 94% of those elected were male with the political parties arguing that the electorate will not vote for women.

The low level of female representation was topped up by nominating women to the Senate and by an additional female MP for each of the 47 counties, giving around 19% female parliamentarians. But this created other problems. These additional members are blamed for a high political wage bill, and are another excuse not to select women as candidates for constituencies.

During the Easter recess I undertook a political volunteering placement in Kenya jointly organised by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK and VSO. I spent a week working with Kewopa - the Kenyan Women’s Parliamentary Association who are committed to achieving the one third minimum representation.

The Kenyan Supreme Court gave a deadline of August 2015 for mechanisms to be in place to fulfil constitutional requirements, allowing this to take place progressively. Kewopa wanted to build support for this affirmative action and I was asked to examine options for them to pursue. Somewhat daunted it nevertheless seemed that the experience of the UK Labour Party had something to offer as in both countries elections are by First Past the Post.  

In the UK 34% of Labour MPs are female - by far the best of the three major parties. The core strategy has been all women shortlists in half of the seats where a siting MP retires, and in seats that might be won. However Labour’s improved representation did not come easily or quickly, motivation for change arose in the late 1980s when the party appreciated it was losing the women’s vote.

This focus on the importance of changing individual political parties was a new approach in Kenya. We explored how to incentivise the parties to put forward a higher proportion of female candidates, and achieve a higher proportion elected. As state funding is available to parties this could be made a requirement.

Having a bigger proportion of women candidates would require parties to actively recruit and ensure they had the skills. There are already many women in the country with leadership experience who are respected in their local community. Encouraging these women to take up politics is the next step.

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