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Where Women Are

Nanjala Nyabola
Marie-Emmanuelle Pommerolle


Women and Elections in Kenya

Nanjala Nyabola et Marie-Emmanuelle Pommerolle

This book is dedicated to Kenyan women.

Texte intégral

1In August 2017, three women made history by winning seats in Kenya’s senate and three others as the first female governors. It should have been cause for celebration in the context of a long-running struggle to increase women’s representation in politics in Kenya. Instead, against the widespread electoral fraud and intimidation of women candidates across the political spectrum, it was a reminder that the struggle was complicated and far from over. Should it matter that at least four of the six women, enter their new elective positions with major blights on their political record? Or is the mere presence of women enough? Should we celebrate devolution and forget that Kenya still has the lowest proportion of women in parliament in East Africa? Should we note that Kenyan neighbours with high records of formal female political representation are blatantly failing other human rights records? Should we have to choose between patriarchy and authoritarianism?

2The 2017 election in Kenya is easily the most complicated election cycle in the country’s history to date. In the build up to the August 8 vote, there were numerous legal and political challenges to the legitimacy of the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC)—the agency that conducts elections in Kenya. In fact, in October 2016, with less than a year to go, the entire Commission resigned and was replaced in a rushed vetting process that raised more questions than it answered. Weekly protests called by the opposition to raise questions about the seemingly partisan nature of IEBC routinely turned chaotic. The head of Information and Communications Technology at the IEBC was placed on compulsory leave two months before the election, only for his replacement to be murdered with less than a week to go. By the time the results were announced on August 11, it was clear that something had gone terribly wrong.

3And it would only get worse. On September 1, after three days of intense debate, the Supreme Court annulled the presidential election and called for a fresh poll within 60 days. In some quarters, this was seen as a reason for optimism as it symbolised the independence of the judiciary from the executive. A fresh poll was declared for October 2017, only for the leader of the opposition to declare that he would not participate, triggering a new wave of protests and uncertainty. Eventually, the incumbent won by an undemocratic margin of 98.6 % of the ballots cast after over 60 % of eligible voters boycotted the polls, raising questions about the extent of Kenya’s democratic consolidation.

  • i Human Rights Watch. 2017. They were Men in Uniform’ Sexual Violence against Women and Girls in Keny (...)

4In the flurry of this unpredictable news cycle, the stories of women are getting lost. Although women comprise 51 % of Kenya’s population, they compose only 47 % of registered voters, and not one has been involved in the high level negotiations that have surrounded the poll. They are absent on the front pages of the newspapers and in the boardrooms where decisions about the country’s future are being made. The enduring images of the election cycle are press conferences led by men, handshakes between men, statements written by men -- a testament to the hold of patriarchy at the highest level. The story of Kenya’s 2017 election is the story of a patriarchal oligarchy, where two sons of male leaders of the independence era are playing a high stakes game of chicken with an entire country: keeping the world watching while waiting to see who would blink first. Women are neither antagonists nor protagonists – they are background. In fact, only special reports by human rights NGOs make us realize how much women have been the primary victims of this cycle of electoral violence.i

5The goal of this project is hold space in the archive for Kenyan women who are routinely written out of politics in the country, given its tendency to focus on the actions of men as the protagonists of Kenya’s political story. What does it mean to hold space in an archive? To us, it means elevating the stories and experiences of women in all their complexity as a baseline for future conversations about the broader themes. It also means adding to previous similar attempts to chronicle women’s experience with elections (see bibliography), pointing out issues that arise from the law and practice, and once again taking on the repetitive litany of “factors” hindering women from being elected: violence, money, conservatism, among other monikers suggested to describe and justify the exclusion of women from public office. It basically means reminding us all, before we run off and say that this election was about X, that there was also Y. It is about reminding the people who think and write about elections and politics in Kenya that women are here and active. It is eventually an attempt to reflect, from a gender point of view, on other forms of marginalisation and disenfranchisement in the Kenyan polity.

6The erasure of women in politics in Kenya happens at the intersection of patriarchy and ethnicity, where the social and political subjugation of women is one of the unspoken principles of ethnonationalist politics. It’s not that ethnic groups in Kenya are inherently patriarchal. In fact, a cursory reading of the histories of a variety of Kenya’s ethnic groups reveals that while many communities did have stark divisions of labour between genders, the idea of one type of work being inherently superior to another is not universal. What is considered “tradition” in Kenya, as in many other post-colonial societies, is a product of European, Victorian invention – grafting on ideas of womanhood onto an ill-understood foundation of political behaviour.

7Rather, the challenge is that appeals to vague invented gendered traditions give patriarchy cover for aggressively seeking, protecting and propagating power. It narrows the playing field, handily reducing contestation for political supremacy in the society by 51 %, through saying women and other gender minorities are ineligible simply because they are. And, by extension, that women’s political candidacy is only viable in so far as it doesn’t threaten the supremacy of men, meaning it’s fine for women to fight it out for gender quota seats (provided by the 2010 Constitution), but it’s another thing altogether for them to stand against men. The few women who dare venture in to these spaces often meet physical and psychological violence. They are accused of betraying their ethnic groups and of that malleably defined concept: “African tradition.”

8In this “African tradition,” elders, and especially male elders, hold social and political authority. Politicians from all sides seek “endorsement” from councils of elders, in a quest for legitimisation by the gerontocracy that exists across ethnic lines. The very few youths who made it during these elections were immediately rewarded with the attributes of a “genuine man.” One 23-year old newly elected MP, who campaigned exclusively on foot, was quickly granted a brand new car by the president as a “welcome” to the political realm because in Kenya, besides age and sex, wealth is the main symbol and tool of political legitimacy. And here too, women are losing. Either they are not part of the “big men” networks, as political analysts put it, and their access to party nomination, efficient campaigning, and elections is hampered. Or, as citizens, they are considered the mere recipients of this wealth, as the cynical distribution of subsidized flour showed during this campaign.

9Yet since independence a steady - if low - number of women have dared the patriarchy in electoral politics in Kenya. They are outliers – the crazy ones – who believe that the risk is worth it. Some are able to get the support of family and friends, but many alienate their communities on the way there. Within their combined and interesting histories, there are stories of compromise and negotiation: of concessions to pragmatism and relentless defiance. There are pioneers like Priscilla Abwao, the first woman to sit in the colonial Legislative Council, whose political sojourns get papered over by masculinist narratives. There is also the stubborn refusal of women like Martha Karua or Sofia Abdi Noor who refuse to exit the stage quietly.

10In putting together this project, we reflected on our experiences as analysts and participant observers during the 2007, 2013 and 2017 elections, and realised that if we didn’t make space in the story (ies) of this election for women, once again, they would be erased. Between us, we have worked with almost 100 women in politics in Kenya. We have heard stories of women being beaten, even by their spouses, for entering politics. We have watched the governor of Nairobi slap a nominated woman member of parliament on television, only to apologise to her husband. We have seen Moses Kuria, MP of Gatundu South, threaten to insert a glass bottle into Millie Mabona’s vagina for daring to criticise the president. We directly witnessed male MPs leaving the Chamber when the vote of the two thirds Bill was due. We have heard male MPs call women politicians “flower girls,” and listened to many women who would go into politics in Kenya if only it were a little less violent.

11But we have also heard stories of resilience and creativity. We met Bina Maseno who uses make up meet ups to mobilise young women voters in Nairobi. We heard about women who changed their wardrobe and embraced the “mother of the nation” trope in order to navigate sexism. We witnessed women seeking endorsement by councils of elders, and who got it even if it required that they tinker with gendered roles and attributes. We learnt about the IEBC registering women to vote at the Coast during hours when they guaranteed that their husbands would be out of the home, so as to make sure that women were able to vote even if in secret. We have seen high profile female politicians re-invent themselves, time and time again, in order to find and keep whatever little space is available to them.

12This project is our effort to hold space for Kenyan women while the struggle for better representation pushes on. It adds to a number of reports, audits and articles documenting the legal framework promoting women’s participation in politics and its violation during past elections. It also adds to the efforts of a number of NGOs, coalitions, individuals (some of them writing in this collection) who relentlessly voice the claims of women in the public space but also in courtrooms where they try to make the law -- one of the pillars of Kenyan political culture -- more of a tool of social justice rather than one of male domination. Our collection adds to all of this by elevating stories that would otherwise be erased from the archive of the 2017 election, as well as stories of women who have gone before and that are getting lost. Some of the articles are academic historiographies of specific political communities in Nairobi, Kwale or Nyanza. Some are high-level snapshots of the current situation facing women in politics, and some are first hand accounts from women in politics to allow them to claim their place in the story of the 2017 Kenyan election. But we have also gathered stories of ordinary women voters and politicians who might sometimes reproduce the patriarchal schemes, but also challenge it by refusing to play the role they have been assigned by male political elites. There’s a very good chance that we are not telling the complete story of one part of a complicated election, but we have put these narratives together to hold space – to be a starting point - until the complete story can be told.

13Kenya’s political uncertainty will undoubtedly continue. The 2017 election has only made future elections more uncertain as the two heirs won’t be candidates in the 2022 election while divisions between various ethnonationalist factions have deepened. The new majority, as the previous one, seems unconcerned that the cabinet, the parliament and well as the Supreme Court do not yet comply with the two thirds constitutional requirement imposing that “no more than two-thirds of the members of elective or appointive bodies shall be of the same gender” (Constitution 2010, article 27 (8)). The use of technology to manipulate public opinion is on the rise. Millions of new young voters will come online having witnessed the flagrant violations of the electoral law. The 2017 Kenyan election was the most expensive election in the world: money will certainly continue to be a factor in shaping political behaviour, and be a hindrance to women’s participation. Political violence did not reach the levels of 2007, but arguably enough of the unspoken compact between state and citizen has been broken so as to undermine Kenya’s fragile democracy.

14There’s no telling how Kenyan women will respond to these and more challenges, but, for now, here are some of their stories from 2017 as a starting point to understanding the journey ahead.



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Notes de fin

i Human Rights Watch. 2017. They were Men in Uniform’ Sexual Violence against Women and Girls in Kenya’s 2017 Elections. Human Rights Watch, [archive].


Is an independent writer, researcher and political analyst whose work focuses on refugees and migration, as well as East African politics and society. She is the author of « Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet is Transforming Kenya » (Zed Books, 2018).

Is a political scientist interested in collective mobilization, elections and state violence. She has so far worked on and in Kenya, Cameroon and French Guiana. She has been the director of IFRA, Nairobi since September 2014, on a secondment from the University Paris 1- Panthéon Sorbonne where she is assistant professor of political science, and a researcher at the Institut des mondes africains (IMAF).

© Africae, 2018

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