It is impossible to deny the substantial progress women have recently made in government and politics.Increasing women’s representation in politics has been a long-standing agenda for both developed and developing countries. Despite numerous efforts involving quotas as well as direct and elected appointments, women continue to remain under-represented, accounting for only 25% of membership of national parliaments worldwide. The persistent barriers leading to the gap in representation for women in leadership and politics are well documented in various literature .Some examples include: preventing women from accessing decision-making and political positions, scarcity of female role models demonstrating the feasibility or social acceptability of women leadership, views of political parties (often referred to as ‘gate-keepers’) regarding the role of women in politics as less effective than men and lastly, entrenched gender bias among voters reducing the chances of women winning or the proportion of women going for re-election.
Overcoming these barriers is critical for development, as evidence suggests that the gender of politicians plays an important role in policy decision-making. There is a clear hypothesis in the literature that increasing women’s political representation influences policy decisions that reflect the interests of other women and children and results in positive outcomes for the society. In particular, women are considered more likely than men to increase investments in public education, reduce the gender gap in school attendance and deliver public health improvements in developing countries that especially benefit the poor.
Studies from India support this theory, demonstrating that women leaders are more effective than men in delivering public health infrastructure for poor villages. This increases the voice of women in reporting sexual crimes, improving educational outcomes for adolescent girls and raising parents’ aspirations for their girls – and adolescent girls’ aspirations for themselves. Exposure to women in leadership also significantly reduces males association of leadership activities with men.However, there is a strong counter-argument in the literature that recognizes that even if women have different preferences from men, it does not necessarily follow that women politicians will make different policy decisions than men.
Critics argue that where mandated political representation through quotas increases the bargaining power of women, this should only affect direct transfers to women and not policy decisions, provided that the preferences of voters are known beforehand and not constrained by party politics.Other studies from India have shown that the influence of women was regarded as disappointing by voters and did not lead to positive development outcomes. Women were said to experience more difficulties than men in exerting their influence during decision-making in meetings, are less likely to act as chair to lead the discussions and may indeed be less effective than men at performance (at least initially). This requires voters to take more time to adjust their views so that reservations would not hinder progress in reducing the gender gap in political representation. A recent synthesis study contributes further to this debate, highlighting the processes through which some women overcome these barriers to become influential. Elite women (described as having higher education, technical knowledge, economic independence and in some countries access to political patronage) are considered more credible and able to take advantage of new political opportunities to influence high-level decision-making. However, whether this influence advances other women’s interests and development outcomes largely depends on which women hold the power.
The experience in Kenya
With regard to women and politics in Kenya and in the context of Sub-Saharan Africa, the rate of increase in women’s representation in government has been faster than in most parts of the world. Many governments are taking steps to increase the representation of women in policy making by using a mix of electoral gender quota systems, where mandatory ‘reserved’ or ‘appointed’ seats determine a minimum number of seats to be held by women in parliaments or in local governments. Countries with the highest representation of women in government have tended to either recently emerge from conflict, or have ruling parties with social democratic inclinations accompanied by an increase in autonomous women’s movements, or both.
In East Africa, Rwanda is top in women representation not just in the region, but has the highest global proportion of seats held by women at 64%. Uganda and Tanzania are also among the best performing on the continent, with over 35% representation of women in parliament. This result mirrors the countries with the highest economic growth rates in the region, with Rwanda and Tanzania both achieving growth rates above 7% in 2015. Kenya is however far behind her neighbours. In 2010, women’s political representation was just 10%. Women’s movement and feminist activists’ major breakthrough was to influence the reform process of the 2010 Constitution of Kenya, which introduced the two third gender rule in Article 27(8) of the Bill of Rights to help enhance equality. The rule requires that not more than two thirds of any elected or appointed seats in government (both at sub-national and national levels) shall be of the same gender. The devolution process and the creation of forty seven counties provided an opportunity to shape and improve the role of women in leadership and decision-making positions across Kenya by 2015. However, despite this encouraging step, the quota system has created a new set of challenges for women in politics. The introduction of 47 elective Women Representative posts for each of the counties in effect discouraged women from contesting in the constituency elections and voters from voting for women outside the representative post, using the argument that ‘a vote for a woman is a wasted one as she already has her seat” (ODI). After the 2013 general election, the President named six women into his eighteen member cabinet, a number of mandatory government positions were created to be filled by women and a record eight-seven women entered parliament. However, this still falls short of the requirements to have at least one third representation of women in the National Assembly. The unity of women was also tenuous, with distinct divisions relating to political, ethnic, family, kinship and class.
Although women account for 50% of the population, Kenya faces two unique development challenges compared to her neighbours. To start with, regardless of whether equality is reached in numbers, this has not translated to increased representation of women in politics even with the introduction of the gender rule. Secondly, where women representation in leadership has increased in Kenya, it remains unclear if and how this has influenced positive human and development outcomes for other women and children, whose needs remain largely under-represented in policy making.
Although emerging studies are beginning to explore the influence of women in leadership in more depth, the subject remains largely under-studied. There is consensus that the gender of policy makers matters, yet little is known about the role of women in politics in different political contexts, their influence in decision-making positions and the actual difference they make while in leadership positions. In Kenya, a balanced gender perspective is recognized as important to promote sustainable growth and economic development. However, there is a clear gap in robust and context-specific evidence that maps the representation of women in the government of Kenya and explores in-depth if increased representation of women in political positions has positive influence on policy decisions and development outcomes that benefit poor and marginalized groups.
Dr. Kellen Kiambati holds a PhD in business administration with a focus on strategic management from JKUAT and an MBA from KEMU. She is a certified business associate (CBPA) and a member of the Institute of Human Resource Management of Kenya. She is also the author of business Research Methods and can be reached on email@example.com