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Where Women Are

Nanjala Nyabola
Marie-Emmanuelle Pommerolle

A Seat at the Table: The Fight for Gender Parity in Kenya1

Nanjala Nyabola


This chapter offers an overview of the importance of representative legislatures and the value of quotas in achieving such representation.

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  • 1 This article originally appeard as Nanjala Nyabola; A Seat at the Table: The Fight for Gender Parit (...)

1When Bina Maseno was 23, she decided to run for County Assembly in Nairobi and reached out to a few experienced female politicians for advice. She expected to hear suggestions for navigating party power dynamics or articulating her campaign messages for a broader audience. What she got instead was a primer in protecting herself from sexual assault by male politicians and putative voters.

2“I was shocked,” she recalled:

One woman told me that I had to dress in a matronly way because voters always think that youthful looking women are sleeping their way through the party. Another woman advised that I should never go to a rally without wearing biker shorts underneath my clothes because, inevitably, the men in the audience would try to strip me.

3In Maseno’s experience in 2013, this latter piece of advice was repeatedly tested and found to be accurate.

4For women across the world, electoral politics can be a hostile and violent place. Women who stand for office can expect casual sexism and discrimination, ranging from snide remarks about their appearance to being propositioned by their male colleagues. In some countries, this psychological violence escalates to physical violence in which men seek to make the public sphere so inhospitable for women that they disengage from electoral politics. Minnie Kasyoka, a 24-year-old potential Kenyan candidate in 2017 who changed her mind about running, told me:

I opted out for mental health reasons. The backlash is crazy. Without [a support group], I don’t think I have the mental acuity to survive the verbal abuse and threats. It’s not safe … and most people think it’s okay that the job description includes constantly being afraid for your life.

5Percentages of women in parliament reveal two interesting facts on global underrepresentation. First, although women make up roughly 49.6 percent of the world’s population, only two countries in the world had parliaments that approximated that ratio as of August 2016. Rwanda leads since women make up 61.3 percent of its lower house of parliament, and Bolivia follows with 53.1 percent women in its national assembly.2 Second, there is almost no correlation between a country’s level of development and the proportion of women in parliament. Hence, the United States (19.5 percent) finds itself sandwiched between Indonesia (19.8 percent) and Kyrgyzstan (19.2 percent) (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2017).

6The countries that were able to achieve some measure of gender parity all have one thing in common: they initially or continue to rely on quotas to increase the representation of women in parliament. Rwanda’s post-genocide constitution requires that 30 percent of all decision-making bodies be made up of women, while Bolivia passed a raft of measures in the run up to its 2014 parliamentary elections to increase women’s participation in the electoral process.

7In contemporary conversations about gender parity in parliament, there is little debate about whether quotas are the easiest way to create a space in which women can be heard. In a March 2013 press release, the secretary general of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), Anders B. Johnsson, said:

  • 3 Inter-Parliamentary Union. 2013. Increased Women’s Political Participation Still Dependent on Quota (...)

Although quotas remain contentious in some parts of the world, they remain key to progress on… gender parity in political representation. There can be no claim to democracy without delivering on this.3

8The same press release noted that nine out of the top ten countries with the highest growth in the number of women MPs between 2011 and 2012 had used quotas.

9The disparate fortunes of East African countries like Rwanda, Kenya, and Somalia tell a story of how well quotas can work when supported with institutional will, and how resoundingly they can fail when patriarchal political spaces conspire to undo them. All of the eight countries that are traditionally thought to make up East Africa—Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan— have quotas entrenched in their electoral systems.

  • 4 Inter-Parliamentary Union. 2017. Women in National Parliaments. Inter-Parliamentary Union, http://a (...)

10These quotas take different shapes. Article 27 (8) of the Kenyan constitution requires that no more than two-thirds of the legislature be made up of either gender. In Somalia, the Electoral Implementation Team—a donor-supported body that has devised and implemented the rules under which the 2016 election occurred—promised that 30 percent of all the seats in the incoming parliament would be reserved for women. According to the IPU, the final number was 24.4 percent.4

11At 21.8 percent Kenya has the lowest proportion of women in parliament in East Africa. As noted earlier, Rwanda leads the pack with an impressive 63.8 percent. Ethiopia comes in second at 38.8 percent, followed by Tanzania at 36.6 percent, Burundi at 36.4 percent, Uganda at 33.5 percent, and even war-ravaged South Sudan and Somalia at 26.5 and 24.4 percent respectively. Kenya has largely failed to bring in large numbers of women into parliament and is at risk of not only continuing to fall short on numbers, but also of undoing existing meagre provisions that encourage women to participate in public life.

12Kenya’s patriarchal politics cannot be attributed to generalized violence. Rather, as corruption and brutal contestation in politics have become normalized, women have been crowded out for not organizing or participating in political violence. Consider that the current president and deputy president won the 2013 election by a landslide, despite the fact that both were facing charges at the International Criminal Court for instigating and orchestrating the 2007 post-election violence that left over 1,500 people dead. The ability to muster and marshal violence to intimidate opponents is known colloquially as “mimi ni ndume” ( “I am a bull”) politics, and is rewarded and admired. This has created a space in which most women—and non-elite men—prefer not to compete.

13In fact Kenya’s legacy of women’s participation in politics is mixed. The first female mayor in Africa is Kenyan – Grace Onyango elected in Kisumu in 1959. Similarly, Nairobi had a female mayor in 1970 but not since. After the 2017 election, only 16 out of 274 elected members of the lower house are women, or 5.8 percent, while the constitutional quota brings the proportion of female members up to 19.7 percent. The 2010 constitution allowed, in Article 97 (1) (b), for “forty seven women each elected by the registered voters of each county, each county constituting a single member constituency.” These are the reserved women’s seats, one representative from each county. But, although the 2012 elections saw a numerical increase in the number of women in parliament, no woman was elected to the upper house of the national parliament, and the vast majority of women came to parliament through the 47 reserved seats. A similar pattern persists at the regional level: only 82 women were elected to the 1,450 open county assembly seats in 2013, while 680 were nominated to meet the constitutional threshold.

14Even though it is considered one of the core principles of the hard-won document, parliament has repeatedly failed to pass implementing legislation that would allow for Article 27 (8) to come into effect. The constitution, passed in 2010, did not provide for a mechanism through which the two-thirds distribution would be achieved beyond the creation of reserved seats. Shockingly, according to female legislators in the house, at the last vote on a possible bill to operationalise the requirement, many male politicians simply left the house and went to the parliamentary bar instead.

15Worse still, the reserved seats have had a deleterious effect on any gains of the last 20 years. In 1997, Charity Ngilu, the former MP for Kitui who has also held several cabinet seats, became the first woman in Kenya to run for president. Since then, at least ten women of various backgrounds and abilities have attempted it. But in parliament, instead of encouraging more women into mainstream politics, the reserved seats have created a ghetto within the national legislature. This feeds the misconception that women representatives are in parliament exclusively to articulate the demands of women rather than to participate as full parliamentarians.

16This ghetto of appointed representatives owes its existence directly to the violence of the electoral process in Kenya. As Kasyoka noted above, violence and intimidation are normalised in Kenyan politics. When women put themselves up for election, they not only face casual sexism but risk physical harm. Indeed, after the 2012 elections, a group of female candidates reported to parliament that their campaigns had been subjected to harassment, intimidation, violence and other underhanded tactics. Janet Chepkwony, a losing candidate in Kapsabet, a town in the former Rift Valley province, reported:

  • 5 Bii B. 2013. Female Candidates Claim Discrimination in Kenyan Elections. Global Voices: Africa, 17  (...)

I received threats to my life, while my supporters were physically abused or intimidated. This made it difficult to access some of the areas and compete with my rivals on an equal footing.5

17According to the Kenya Women Parliamentary Association (KEWOPA), women candidates in 2012 were forced to employ private security and pressured by senior men in their parties and ethnic groups not to stand for office. The men claimed that their political participation went against traditional gender roles.

18Retreating to the women’s representative seats may have ensured the political survival of strong female candidates during a period of upheaval, but it robbed the National Assembly of key voices, while allowing the patriarchal mainstream to capitalize on their absence. Many of the progressive provisions of the 2010 constitution have been rolled back, including protections for LGBTI groups, the disabled and other special interest groups. Vis-à-vis women’s rights, crucial legislation like the Matrimonial Property Law was gutted so that women were not automatically entitled to 50 percent of the assets accrued during their marriage, but only to their “contribution,” a formula that distinctly favours men.

19This is the male-dominated space that generated two bills—both introduced by men—that sought to defer the implementation of Article 27 (8). The MP from Ainabkoi, Samuel Chepkonga, proposed a bill that would ignore the implementation deadline and defer the enactment of the two-thirds rule until 2037. House majority leader Aden Duale pushed forward a bill that he called the “top-up approach,” which would allow parties to nominate women to parliament after the election, corresponding to the number of seats won by the party at the election.

20Both of these bills are unconstitutional. The constitution mandated the implementation of quotas occur within five years—a due date that has since lapsed. The Chepkonga bill was arguably the more flagrantly unconstitutional of the two, but many opposition legislators see the Duale bill as a Trojan horse that would allow the ruling party to augment its presence in parliament without having to return to a vote. As of August 2016, both bills failed in the house, and when the Duale bill was introduced in parliament in early 2018, it was a version that proposed increasing the number of legislative seats available rather than addressing the systemic issues that lock women out of politics.

21Very little of this jives with Kenya’s self-proclaimed image as the most progressive country in the region, but it makes sense when you consider the extent to which political life in the country is shaped by patriarchal institutions. Candidacy for elections in Kenya is not simply decided by political platforms but by a network of interests. For instance, all of the large ethnic groups in Kenya are headed by men-only councils of elders whose endorsement is required to secure support for a candidate by their respective ethnic community.

22In the Somali communities of northeastern Kenya, councils of elders determine entire slates. This means elections are almost always decided before people cast their ballots. The council of elders in Mandera, a constituency on the Ethiopia-Somalia border, announced the candidates for all electoral posts in the county in the middle of 2016, and few outside candidates were able to unseat those chosen by this council. In July 2016, the Njuri Ncheke council of elders from the Meru communities of central Kenya threatened to disown and even curse politicians who excluded them from decision making. Among the Kikuyu community of central Kenya, the council of elders is lobbied—often financially—by various candidates over a number of months before securing their endorsement. Councils of elders in Kenya have rarely supported a female candidate for any national position, and have often intervened to discourage women from running against men. This idea of negotiated democracy is supposed to protect the peace, but it subtly excludes those who are not represented in or do not wield influence over these councils—women, the disabled and the poor.

23Highlighting the challenges facing female politicians in Kenya is not to say that women in the other countries of East Africa do not face sexism or violence when they choose to run for office. In Rwanda for example, Kagame’s regime has arrested both women who dared to run against him for president. Diane Rwigara, his latest challenger, has also seen her mother and sister arrested, and their businesses and homes destroyed. Rather, the underlying assertion is that if governments choose not to protect the spaces created to increase the participation of women in public life, legislatures will never be fully representative. Kenya has failed to make gender parity a priority, leaving women vulnerable to the physical and psychological violence that locks them out of the public sphere.

24There are many people who argue that leaders like Paul Kagame in Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda court women as a political bloc, because they view them as more malleable or susceptible to influence. But the fact remains that these leaders view and interact with women as a political force. Women are part of the conversation in these countries in a way that they are not in Kenya, and women’s rights issues have suffered because of it.

25Consolidating the representation of women in legislatures is about more than simply increasing the percentage of women MPs, but where even that is absent getting the numbers is an excellent start. In the long term, it should involve creating spaces for alternative visions of inclusion: new conversations around belonging, democracy, progress and other big ideas. For women like Kasyoka, representation is also about hope:

There’s so much negative press about politicians that creates hopelessness in the citizenry, and that kills progress. I want to change how people think about politics and politicians… [it’s about] taking back politics.


1 This article originally appeard as Nanjala Nyabola; A Seat at the Table: The Fight for Gender Parity in Kenya and Somalia. World Policy Journal 1 December 2016; 33 (4) 10-15. doi:

2 Inter-Parliamentary Union. 2017. Women in Politics: 2017. Geneva, UN Women, [archive].

3 Inter-Parliamentary Union. 2013. Increased Women’s Political Participation Still Dependent on Quotas, 2012 elections show. Geneva, Inter-Parliamentary Union, [archive].

4 Inter-Parliamentary Union. 2017. Women in National Parliaments. Inter-Parliamentary Union, [archive].

5 Bii B. 2013. Female Candidates Claim Discrimination in Kenyan Elections. Global Voices: Africa, 17 May 2013, [archive] (Retrieved April 5 2018)


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).

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