By Justus Nyang’aya
The world marks the International Women’s Day on March 8th. What a beautiful time to look internally, reflect on the incredible journey by women over the last fifty years and recommit to do justice for women who have suffered discrimination in virtually all spheres of life. It is time to “Be Bold for Change".
Looking back at the last five decades, we cannot help but be immensely proud of the progress made by women on the socioeconomic and political fronts. Today, Kenya has a total of 86 women members of Parliament. These include 47 women representatives, 16 elected members of the national assembly, 5 nominated members of the national assembly and 18 nominated Senators. One of the elected Members of Parliament is also the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly.
Comparing the numbers with previous years, there is little doubt that women have made great strides in their march to positions of leadership in a country with deeply conservative cultures that sometimes frown on women in leadership.
However, at 86 members, women representation account for only 19% of the National Assembly and 27% of the Senate, well below the constitutional two thirds gender principle. The National Assembly has a total of 349 members out of which 290 are elected from the constituencies, 47 women are elected from the counties and 12 are nominated to represent special interests. The Senate, on the other hand, has 67 members out of which 47 are elected from the counties, 16 women nominated by the political parties, two members who represent the youth and two other members who represent people with disabilities.
It is notable that women did not fair very well in other top elective positions. Not a single woman was elected Governor or Senator in any of Kenya’s 47 counties, which is a shame considering the crucial role played by the county governments in the new constitutional dispensation.
The political environment remains toxic, paternalistic, misogynistic and violent. Women, even the most daring, dread plunging into a field that treats them like rank outsiders in their own country.
A year or so ago, an online campaign started in Embu County. The campaign focused on disparaging and watring down the achievements of a leading woman leader who is running for Governor in the County. Among other things, online posters insisted on referring to her by her husband’s name. The husband happens to originate from another part of the country. The idea was to portray her as an outsider who does not deserve to run for a position in Embu County by invoking a name that could alienate her from the voters. Never mind that the politician was not only born and raised in the county but has been serving as a Member of Parliament representing one of the constituencies. The same tactic is being employed in Bomet County with a female gubernatorial aspirant being told she does not qualify to run because her husband hails from another region. The said woman is not only serving her second term as a Member of Parliament in the same area but is also the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly. Put simply, gender stereotypes are holding women back in far more significant ways than we imagine. To break these stereotypes, we need to stop viewing women from the traditional prism of stay at home caregivers, who lose their identity upon marriage, and start viewing them as leaders, for that is what they are.
From a very general perspective, women tend to be better managers, more compassionate, aggressively passionate, great implementers, less corrupt and, quite uniquely, bring their nurturing instincts to the positions they occupy.
Kenya has had many examples of outstanding women who have demonstrated the difference women can make if given the opportunity. We got Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai; Grace Onyango, who served as first Kisumu Mayor and was later elected a member of Parliament; Mary Okello, who founded Makini group of schools; Lupita Nyong’o, the first Kenyan woman to win an Oscar; Fatuma Ahmed, the first woman to ascend to the post of Brigadier in the Kenyan Defence Forces; Irene Koki Mutungi, the first African Captain on Boeing B787, and many others who have left a mark in their respective fields.
It is unfortunate, therefore, that men continue to use crude tactics to knock women out of competitive leadership positions. As a result, the public has been denied effective and compassionate leadership that many women leaders are known to possess.
As Kenya approaches another general election in just over four months, Kenyans must rethink their choices very deeply. For more than five decades, this country has been ruled by men. Men have disproportionately dominated the Presidency, the Cabinet, Legislature, Judiciary, the criminal justice system and indeed the entire civil service. What we have got in return is plunder of public resources, perennial hunger, collapsing healthcare system, loss of forest cover, slow development and a nation that is deeply divided along ethnic lines. It was Albert Einstein who defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. Since Kenyans are not insane, it is my hope that they will rise to the occasion on August 8, 2017 to change the nation’s destiny.
In the search for alternative leadership, the voters must now seriously consider women who have proven themselves for substantive leadership posts, not the token positions that we are used to giving them. By doing so, we shall do ourselves a favour by bringing into the mainstream a key segment of our population that has suffered discrimination on account of their gender while also fulfilling the constitutional two thirds gender principle.
Women do have a role to step up, to challenge stereotypes and to offer themselves for positions without being apologetic. But men have an even greater role as fathers, brothers, husbands and role models to support women empowerment. When women are empowered, the whole society is empowered. I pray that our celebration of International Women's Day, this year, be deliberate and meaningful in bringing real transformation in the arena of leadership for Kenyans and women.
Mr. Nyang’aya is the Amnesty International Kenya Country Director.
This article was published in The Standard on Tuesday 21st March 2017.