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In our yeasty politics, traditionally women have given our elective politics a wide berth. And those who have dared have had to endure public humiliation.

Whether it is President Moi telling the late Prof. Wangari Maathai to be “a proper traditional African woman, respect men and be quiet” when she agitated against private developers eyeing Uhuru Park in 1989, or Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua uttering an obscenity, in church no less, while on the 2022 elections campaign trail, female politicians have had to tread a fine line between the murky expectations of politics and the inevitable misogyny that percolates the political landscape. Martha Karua faced vitriol from a Kenya Kwanza-affiliated MP who disparaged her single status and temperament in the last election campaigns. 

Nairobi Women Representative Esther Passaris has taken the flak on many occasions, most notably when Lawyer Miguna Miguna (in)famously called her a “socialite bimbo” – the word socialite here being used in its most generic Kenyan definition. Former Nairobi governor Mike “Sonko” Mbuvi made disparaging remarks about Passaris during a famous spat on Madaraka Day in 2019. With such an environment where badly behaved men expect better of men, it is understandable why in the past politics has only attracted a particular brand of women: fiery, feisty, and often ready to take on men on their terms. 

In the past, women in politics faced a lot of scrutiny, where their private lives – especially concerning marriage and family – became fodder to be used against them by their competitors, and only those who could gather enough courage to be as shameless as men survived. The rest were swept away, humiliated, embarrassed, and thoroughly scarred to ever dare try again.

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I first voted in 2007. Although it was just 17 years ago, few women vied for political posts and even fewer won. Female aspirants were seen as trailblazers. To fill the gap, affirmative action helped in nominating a few more, but female representation in the legislature was a paltry 9 per cent. In 2022, it was at 23 per cent. In 2010, to correct the impossible hurdle women faced in elective politics, a seat specially designated for women – County Woman Representative – was created to increase female representation in parliament.  

In the successive elections after 2010, the number of women vying and those elected has increased steadily. In 2013, six women vied for the gubernatorial elections; none was elected. In 2017, nine vied, and three were elected. In 2022, seven were elected out of 22 aspirants (a 32 per cent success rate). None of the 17 women that vied for a seat in the Senate in 2013 were elected. The number of women running in 2017 and 2022 went up and three were elected in both elections, and many more were nominated. In Parliament, there are 29 elected female MPs besides the 47 Women Representatives and the nominated ones, bringing their representation to 23 per cent. Although there is still a long way to go, the increased female representation is directly responsible for the proactive role women now play in politics, whether in the cities or at the grassroots.  

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If the number of women being elected is slowly but steadily rising, what has not gone unnoticed is the participation of women in politics, from campaigning to participating in the voting process, and directly benefiting from political largesse; jobs, nominations, and business.

I was actively engaged in grassroots politics between 2017 and 2022, working with various politicians. I noticed that no politician worth their salt wanted to overlook or underrate women in their politics. Unlike in the past, where politics was the reserve of men, and women kept away from active engagement, in 2022, in virtually all counties, some of the fiercest foot soldiers any aspirant could have were women. In fact, some aspirants invested more in women than in men both for strategic and for selfish reasons.

In Kisii County, for instance, three distinct groups of women were involved in Simba Arati’s campaigns: divas, queens, and professionals. He won by a landslide. Largely younger and tech savvy, Divas ran some of his online campaigns. Queens – mostly older women with various business interests in the county – campaigned on the ground with him, moving from ward to ward. The professionals were largely drawn from academia or the corporate sector. The respective leaders of the divas and queens were nominated as MCAs for their efforts. One woman from the professionals’ clique was appointed a member of the County Executive Committee. More women are likely to benefit through employment or business with the county.

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Politics is about who gets what, when, and how, said American political theorist Harold Laswell. For the longest time, men reaped direct rewards from politics, leaving breadcrumbs to women.  

The first cabinet in Jomo Kenyatta’s government was all male. In the subsequent regimes, the number of women in the cabinet was always a token, and often the threshold for women would be higher while the standards for men were unacceptably lower.

Thanks to constitutional reforms, the number of women – not just in politics but even in government appointments – has increased as the two-thirds gender rule is implemented across the board. Consequently, women want more and better, for themselves, and for society.

Role of education, generation, and demographic shifts

Beyond the constitution, two other facts account for the new consciousness among younger women. 

Women empowerment started with the girl-child programme in the 1970s, peaking slowly in the 1980s as President Moi opened more schools – especially for girls – countrywide, and accelerated in the late 1990s after the Beijing Women’s Conference. The upshot was that by the 2000s, the number of girls in school was almost equal to that of boys. Affirmative action further helped level the playing field. Even though more male students are enrolled in universities (60 per cent) than women (40 per cent), in three generations the skills gap between genders has been bridged and more women are working, are more civically aware of their rights and responsibilities, and much freer to air them.   

Being kept out of the workforce meant that women could not access the resources without which they could not actively participate in politics. With men being the owners of capital, coupled with tradition and religion, women were largely consigned to a domesticated and subsistent existence. Their engagement with politics only went as far as voting on election day. Politics was seen as inherently male, mostly violent, and the voices of women were not considered important enough.

Women who attempted to go into politics were shamed, bullied, and scared away. However, this has gradually changed, and while the misogyny is still prevalent and something female aspirants routinely contend with, attitudes have shifted. It is a brave new world for Gen Z, a far cry from the age of their grandmothers who could not be seen, and were rarely heard.  

“Women used to be called names – prostitutes, harlots, unmarried – and they were mostly discouraged or denounced by their families, but this has changed, and people are not as judgmental as they used to be,” says Patricia Mwashigadi, 30, nominated MCA in Taita Taveta County. Active in both county and national politics over the last six years, Mwashigadi says she has endured her fair share of tribulations, but nothing compared to what women suffered in the past.

Mwashigadi attributes the positive change of attitude towards women in politics to education, which has opened opportunities for women and granted them access to resources, thus turning the tide in their favour. 

Secondly, each successive generation is more liberal than its predecessor. Millennials are more open-minded than their parents but more reserved and restrained than Gen Z, the first generation to freely mingle with little regard to gender, as evidenced by their active participation in social trends such as clubbing, or supporting their favourite football clubs, both local and international. Clubs such as Shabana, Gor Mahia, and AFC Leopards command a sizeable crowd of female fans who are no longer viewed through chauvinistic lenses and who don’t care about such labels. Across Nairobi’s entertainment scene and other social events that used to attract more men than women, there is now equal participation and it is not uncommon to find more women in social events than men. This has also translated to politics.

Buttered side of a politician’s slice of bread 

In the last two general elections, I have been roped into their strategy meetings by a dozen politicians and two things have been evident.

First, politicians are acutely aware that women are now useful voices that cannot be dismissed, and they are thus willing to give them a seat at the table, both for representation and, more often, for practical reasons: women have become excellent mobilisers.

Second, the unreliability of the male voters. Female voters are known to be reliable and honest where male voters can be shifty, sometimes indifferent, and in some ways, increasingly removed from politics.

“On election day, it is not uncommon for male voters to be on their business like boda boda or matatu, or in drinking dens and thus may fail to show up. But women show up, 100 per cent,” one male aspirant told me. The aspirants worked more with women than with men, saying they are loyal and will show up on election day.

From sanitary pads to household basics to women’s enterprise funds, there are more carrots to dangle before women in political manifestos. In any case, women also benefit from whatever is promised to men. Thus it is easy for most men to feel left out, or to fail to be actively engaged. Add to this the chronic unemployment crisis that has become worse with every passing year, which robs men of the opportunity to work, marry, and be responsible citizens. Left with no responsibilities, men can become nihilistic and disengaged, as evidenced by their distractions; gambling and their love of illicit liquor, and the muguka that now faces a ban at the coast and the north-eastern region as political leaders proscribe it.   

Men definitely call the shots, are more politically active, and more engaged, but at a quantitative level. At a qualitative level, KSh 500 given as a handout to a woman is sometimes more impactful than the same amount extended to a man who drinks. According to the World Bank, 36.2 per cent of Kenyan households are headed by women, and this is especially so in the slums and the rural areas of the country.

Thus, women now understand how political decisions affect their livelihoods. In dishing out handouts to women, most politicians know they touch the hearts of those with the responsibility of running homes. But beyond handouts, any other decision – be it to deliver water or electricity or schools – is something in the hearts of women.

This is why the church is also a soft target for politicians since there are more women congregants than men, and therefore a willing and participating audience.

Curiously, when it comes to younger millennials and Gen Z men, most politicians prefer buying alcohol and drugs to those actively engaged in their campaigns and deploying them for menial tasks that sometimes render the men apathetic. On the other hand, women – especially the younger ones – can be driven.

“At a political party level, younger men are sometimes discouraged from vying, or rigged out, in favour of older, richer men. And when it is time for nominations, women and people with special needs are given preference; thus young men often get the cue that they are unwanted and they disengage when their candidates are locked out,” says a nominated female MCA from the Rift Valley who requested anonymity. She said this partly explains voter apathy in some regions. 

In his campaigns, President Ruto committed to a 50-50 gender representation in his cabinet. However, like most of his other needless and extravagant promises, he has not honoured this particular one. While parity is far from being achieved, pressure from female legislators, NGOs, international agencies, the West, the public, and various lobby groups has been mounting, and Kenya may reach a constitutional crisis to solve the two-thirds gender rule that parliament refuses to discuss. It remains a mirage across the three branches of government, although everyone is speeding up to meet the quota.

This civic awareness among women is high and will continue to grow. Women will aim for more. Should men, especially the younger ones, choose to feel victimised and ignored as women receive more goodies from politics (for example, the Women Fund and women-related resource allocations), one can only empathise with their apathy. Politics has become very competitive and whoever voices their issues better will have a sit at the table. Women have become better at it and the zeitgeist favours them. 

We are losing a generation of young men to vices such as gambling and drug and alcohol abuse. But while most of the problems men face need institutional intervention, some personal and collective agency on the part of men is necessary to stop their further disfranchisement. Young women have smelled blood and will not stop because they are aware of the opportunities that await them, and active engagement in politics has its rewards. Where our grandmothers didn’t have opportunities, and our mothers may have been limited, for millennial and Gen Z women the world is their oyster.

Certainly, much of the wealth is still in the hands of men, certainly misogyny and violence against women in politics remain prevalent, but the situation will get better. Women will mobilise better. There will be more seats at the table for them. And women’s involvement in politics will continue to grow.