Fulfilling the Kenyan Constitution - Improving Female Representation

Office of Meg Munn MP
June 25, 2014

Kenya is a country with strong tribal traditions, fear and mistrust are not far beneath the surface and they erupted in widespread killing during the in 2007 Presidential election. The shock to the political system resulted in a new constitution being enacted in 2010 and further elections in 2013. This time there were no serious violent incidences and the electoral process was deemed by many international observers as free, fair and credible. However politics is still conducted in a tense atmosphere, with a number of court cases challenging the legitimacy of elected representatives.

The new constitution was approved via a referendum and the Kenyan people are proud of it. Influenced by other regional countries, it includes an ambitious requirement that elected representation on public bodies should consist of no more than two thirds of any one gender. Its neighbours Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda have each achieved a minimum of one third female representation, overcoming traditional male dominance.

Unfortunately achieving this in Kenya is seen as a woman’s issue, and parliament failed to legislate for the mechanisms to achieve the constitutional requirement. The outcome of the 2013 elections was that 94% of those elected were male. Guidance from the Supreme Court said this could be reached progressively but with a deadline of August 2015. The Attorney General's office is working on a proposal that will ensure the National Assembly and Senate conform to the constitution.

During the Easter recess PN member Meg Munn MP undertook a political volunteering placement, jointly organised by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and VSO. Based on the successful model of volunteering when people, from around the world, use their skills to support work overseas she spent a week in Kenya working with Kewopa - the Kenyan Women's Parliamentary Association. Kewopa is committed to achieving the one third minimum representation and was instrumental in pushing the court challenge resulting in the timeline for gender representation.

Kewopa wanted to build support for the principle of this affirmative action, and who the likely opposition would be, and Meg was asked to examine options for them to pursue. Somewhat daunted it nevertheless seemed that the experience of the UK Labour Party had something to offer as in Kenya, as in the UK, elections are for individual constituency representatives. First Past the Post electoral systems pose particular challenges for achieving a fair level of representation for women.

In the UK 34% of Labour MPs are female - by far the best of the three major parties. The core strategy has been all women shortlists in around half of the seats where a sitting MP was retiring, as well as in seats that might be won. However Labour’s improved representation did not come easily or quickly. Motivation for change arose in the late 1980s when the party appreciated it was losing the women's vote.

This focus on the importance of individual political parties changing would be a new approach in Kenya. The parties there have argued that the electorate will not vote for women, and hence put more men forward as candidates. However this argument is not borne out by the experience of the 2013 election - 6% female candidates having led to 6% female MPs.

This low representation was topped up by nominating additional women to the Senate and by an additional female MP for each of the 47 counties, giving Kenya around 19% female parliamentarians but creating other problems. These additional female members are seen as a key cause of a high political wage bill, and are another excuse not to select women as candidates for constituencies.

In many discussions in Nairobi the possibility of political parties increasing female representation was explored. A realistic timescale to increase from 6% to the minimum of 33% might be over 2-3 elections. Political parties would need to be incentivised to put forward a higher proportion of female candidates, but also achieve a higher proportion of elected women. As state funding is currently available to parties this could be made a requirement for the future.

Having a bigger proportion of women candidates would require parties to actively recruit and ensure they had the skills. But there are already many women in the country that have developed leadership skills and are respected in their local environments. Encouraging these women to take up politics is the next step.


PN Member Meg Munn has been Member of Parliament of the United Kingdom for Sheffield Heeley since 2001.

Photo courtesy of Inter-Parliamentary Union: Sophia Abdi Noor MP, Kenya.

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