Can Kenya Manage the Gender Provision?

Last year, Kenya voted for a new constitution, which included a quota based on gender for all elected positions. The provision requires that no more than 2/3 of the members of each elected body shall be comprised of one gender. In the interim, this means that women are guaranteed at least 1/3 of all elected seats within the country. Kenyan officials made a move last week to amend the new constitution – removing the quota. The president’s office told BBC that it would be “technically impossible” to elect women to 1/3 or more of the MP slots.

Gender quotas are not new for African governments. According to the Quota Project, at least 16 African countries now have some sort of gender requirement for elected offices. This practice has helped African nations skyrocket to the top of the list for proportion of female to male seats within the national legislature. As of June 2011, five African countries had more than 1/3 female representation in their national parliaments, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). Rwanda currently has the highest female representation, with 56% women in its national legislature. Still, the sub-Saharan region sits at around 11.8% female MPs, trailing every other region except the Pacific and the Arab states.

The pessimism from Kenyan officials is not misplaced. The country currently sits at #105 on the IPU list – only 9.8% of Kenyan MPs are female. Ten years ago, female MPs only accounted for 3.6% of the Parliament. At this rate, it will take at least another decade for women to reach the 33% benchmark.

The question remains – are there enough qualified women in Kenya to fill approximately 75 MP seats? At the moment, there are 20 female MPs. This would amount to a 275% increase in female representation. Data on female matriculation rates are difficult to come by; however, the World Bank reports that among the youth, the female to male literacy ratio is actually in the girl-child’s favor, sitting at 102. There are also almost just as many girls as boys enrolled in primary and secondary school. And there is little difference between the literacy rates of males and females at the adult level (91% versus 84% respectively).

Nairobi is littered with women’s civic organizations, which indicates that Kenyan women are politically active and ready to have a voice within the community. But there is little known about the civic participation of rural Kenyan women and their political potential in a country that has been notorious for its glass ceiling.

Part of the problem is coming up with a system that encourages the election of female MPs. One possible solution is a quota system with reserved seats for female MPs. For example, Uganda’s current constitution allocates a single parliamentary seat per district as the “women’s seat”. Thus far, this system has allowed Ugandan women to reach a 35% minority in the National Parliament. But the quota system is not without its problems. Some scholars have argued that designated “women’s seats” are confusing (see Tamale 1999). Are these MPs in place to represent the entire constituency or just the women within that constituency? In addition, Dr. Sylvia Tamale notes that female MPs in Uganda are often co-opted by their male counterparts, or as she puts it, “are women in power without power.” Others contend that “women’s seats” discourage women from running for open seats for their district. Despite the problems, the quota system in Uganda has at least paved the way toward more female MPs.

The present system proposed within Kenya does sound quite impossible. This system would require that only women sit for elections in certain constituencies for certain elections.

Ultimately, the Government of Kenya has a tough decision to make regarding the new constitutional gender requirements. Critics argue that the majority of Kenyans support the new constitution and that the nature of politics in Kenya requires some sort of affirmative action if women are ever to have a voice. Others simply say, “Kenya is craving women leadership.” Whatever, the case, the Government of Kenya has less than 12 months to come up with a viable solution, and I don’t seriously think that scrapping the 1/3 provision is an option that Kenyan voters are willing to accept.

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