Women’s leadership slowed by patriarchal norms in Kenya elections
A 16 per cent increase in women-held elective seats was one of the successes of Kenya’s 2022 General Election. But for many women aspirants, old practices and norms continued to undermine their campaigns. The contrast between progress and such norms were on full display in Kenya’s coastal region.
“The next time you speak to me, it will be in the Governor’s office!” were Deputy Governor Fatuma Achani’s parting words to UN Women in 2021, referring to her ambitions to win the Governor seat in the 2022 elections in Kwale County. Her prediction was correct, becoming the first woman ever to do so in the county. Achani’s historic achievement was not easy, enduring a targeted campaign against her as an individual, simply because she is a woman. She explains:
“It was a good experience when I got declared the winner, but before then it wasn’t that nice. The main campaign agenda was not about performance, it was about personality. I was a woman against five other men and their main campaign tool was one of intimidation and using stereotypes. They were attacking me as a person, even my own family. It was all over social media – abuse every single day.”
For Achani, building herself as a brand and gaining trust with her constituents proved to be a more effective approach to winning votes:
“Over the years I have tried to build a brand – I wanted to be sure people associated my name with delivering. We’ve managed to transform girls’ enrolment – giving scholarships for school children in national schools and universities and giving bursaries. We have a budget of 400 million KSH [over US$3 million] every year to support students in schools.”
Alongside a strong team ethic, Achani found that civic education projects, supported by UN Women and the Government of Finland, helped changed mindsets among certain constituencies:
“Organisations like the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) worked with religious leaders and other opinion leaders to promote women’s leadership as a viable option. Some sheikhs also actively ensured women aspirants were not targeted for abuse or harassment.”
From a gender perspective, the results of Kenya’s elections are mixed. On the one hand, history was made – with a 16 per cent increase in the number of women elected across county and national government. In particular, the number of female governors doubled. Yet female politicians still only constitute 10.6 per cent of all elective seats, a 1.5 per cent increase from 2017. The number of women elected to the National Assembly remains far below the constitutional threshold of not more than a two-thirds gender majority.
Old tricks still persist
Before women aspirants even reach office, many are exposed to unequal treatment by voters, and competing candidates. Shariffa Ali, from Mombasa County, is one of many candidates whose campaign was disrupted, threatening her livelihood and her children’s education. Despite a progressive manifesto to combat her community’s widespread unemployment, she was removed as a party candidate because the father of a competing candidate gave a large donation. Even though she managed to vie under another party, she was again undone by corruption and harassment:
“During the campaign it was difficult, people would take down my posters. Other candidates would give cash handouts in return for votes. I can’t compete against that. They would be handing out sums of around US$5 per person – but the real cost is five years of suffering for communities. As a single mother, my abilities and morality was questioned and used to put me down.”
As Kenya’s democracy continues to develop, Ambassador of Finland to Kenya Pirkka Tapiola reaffirms the need to continue support to civic education and building capacities of both incumbent women leaders and the next generation:
"The Government of Finland’s key priorities include strengthening democratic governance and inclusive development in Kenya. This means working towards equal representation and meaningful participation of women in elective and appointed offices. As we move forward with Kenya and international development partners, we must already begin to set targets for the next elections 2027 and work persistently towards improved political engagement by women at national and county level."
Since 2019, UN Women and the Government of Finland have targeted four counties in Kenya to strengthen women's leadership and political participation. The project has contributed to increases in the number of women candidates on the ballot, the number of women independent candidates and more women selected as presidential running mates compared to 2017. In the target counties of Kwale, Kitui, Marsabit and Turkana, an additional 4 seats were won by women candidates in the 2022 election, compared to 2017. UN Women's elections analysis can be found here.