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Statistics on equal participation show that women remain underrepresented in political positions globally. According to UN Women, there are only 26 women serving as heads of state and/or government in 24 countries. Of these, 10 countries have a woman as a head of state, while the rest have a woman as head of government. Only 14 countries have 50 per cent or more women in the cabinet. Overall, just 21 per cent of government ministers are women. At the national parliament level, only 25 per cent of parliamentarians are women. Only four countries in the world have 50 per cent or more women in parliament in single or lower houses ((Rwanda – 61 per cent, Cuba – 53 per cent, Bolivia – 53 per cent and United Arab Emirates – 50 per cent). Achieving gender parity in political participation is a persistent problem for nearly all countries in the world.

In 1995, 189 countries unanimously adopted the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action, an agenda for women’s empowerment and a key global policy document on gender equality. The document prioritized twelve critical areas of concern that needed to be tackled to achieve gender equality. One of the areas was Women in Power and Decision-Making and countries agreed to take measures to ensure women’s equal access to and full participation in power structures and decision-making, and to increase women’s capacity in decision-making and leadership. The Platform for Action set a target of having women hold 50 per cent of managerial and decision-making positions by the year 2000.

Achieving gender parity in political participation is a persistent problem for nearly all countries in the world.

More than 20 years since the turn of the millennium, the ambitious 50-50 target is far from being attained, and the question of gender parity remains a persistent concern in democratic processes, particularly in Africa. The situation in Kenya is no different. The National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA Kenya) carried out a Gender Analysis of the 2017 elections and highlighted a number of gains and drawbacks. Following the inauguration of a new constitution that promised gender equality, 29 per cent of all candidates who ran for political office in 2017 were women, the highest number ever recorded in the country. The result: women won 172 of the 1,883 seats, up from 145 in the 2013 elections.

The analysis also highlighted that from 2017 to 2022, women accounted for 23 per cent of the National Assembly and Senate seats. However, this number is deceptive because it includes seats reserved exclusively for women representatives. The 2010 Constitution created the position of County Women Representative, a seat reserved for women in Kenya National Assembly.

The Constitution also envisaged a situation where no more than two-thirds of the members of the National Assembly or the Senate were of the same gender. While the courts have ruled that both houses have failed to achieve the constitutional threshold for gender representation, the country is yet to come up with a formula to resolve the question in electoral politics.

There is a debate between two positions. One proposal is to force political parties to nominate women to vie for certain political positions. However, with political plurality where different political parties can nominate candidates of different genders to vie for the same political position, there is no guarantee that if one party nominates a woman and another nominates a man, the woman candidate will prevail at the ballot box. The other proposal is to amend the constitution to make provisions such as for the County Women Representative, where certain representative positions are reserved for women.

However, women’s representation can only be sustainably achieved through increased participation in elective politics. In partnership with Womankind Worldwide, FIDA recently conducted a three-day training programme dubbed the “Woman Leadership Academy” to increase public discourse and participation of women in the August 2022 polls. The sessions were a forum for current women legislators to share their experiences with the 350 aspirants in attendance, including on political party processes, campaign strategies, mental wellness, and media training.

The initiative followed the Vote-A-Dada campaign launched by FIDA in August 2021 to encourage more women to get onto the ballot. Vote-A-Dada campaign “integrates the inter-sectional participation of women in the country to demand action from the State, the Legislature, and all other governance institutions in promoting women’s leadership”, said Kirinyaga Governor Ann Waiguru, who was the chief guest at the training event.

As the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) moves to gazette candidates for the August 2022 general election, anecdotal evidence suggests that this year’s elections will feature the highest number of women candidates in the history of the country’s electoral politics.

Women’s representation can only be sustainably achieved through increased participation in elective politics.

The nomination of women into powerful political positions has always faced criticism as tokenism and political correctness. Critics argue that the mere presence and visibility of women in political positions, without due regard for merit, is counterproductive and devalues the criticality of competence in public service delivery. However, the nomination of Martha Karua as the Deputy Presidential candidate for one of the two leading political coalitions has reinvigorated the debate on the value of gender equality and parity in political representation.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that every person has the right to take part in the government of their country. Initiatives that empower women, guarantee their autonomy, and improve their social, economic, and political status are essential for the achievement of a transparent and accountable government and the promotion of sustainable development in other areas of life. Equality in power relations enables women to lead fulfilling lives, while equality in political participation and representation provides a balance that accurately reflects the composition of the society. Gender equality and parity strengthens democratic processes. It remains to be seen whether the results of the August 2022 general elections will reinforce the gains made over the past two decades towards achieving women’s equal participation in leadership.