Less than a fortnight before Kenya’s August general election, popular band Sauti Sol released a song called Girls on Top. Its video showed photographs of women activists, athletes, musicians and politicians including Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, former US first lady Michelle Obama and former Liberian president and Nobel laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
“What a man can do, a woman can do times two,” the lyrics went. “Woman you run my world and I’m counting… on you.”
This was just one sign of the enthusiastic support behind a push for women in one of east Africa’s most stable democracies to hold more political positions. The election even saw a woman vice-presidential candidate running for a major party for the first time.
Though Martha Karua, the running mate of presidential candidate Raila Odinga, was not ultimately voted in, the overall results were hailed as progressive in terms of women representation — even if the numbers still sound low. Women were elected to fill 29 of the 290 seats — up from 23 in 2017. Seven women county governors were elected, up from three in 2017, and none in 2013. Three women senators were also voted into power. These came along with 47 women’s representatives: roles reserved for women which are sometimes seen a stepping stone to other positions.
Sirleaf, the former Liberian president, joined those celebrating the development. She tweeted: “It was inspiring to see women strongly represented in the Kenya elections and notably the progress made since 2013 when 980 women candidates were cleared to run. In 2017, this rose to 1,358. In 2022, it reached 1,768. I hope this is a sign that we are moving towards gender parity.”
But newly elected women politicians say they still face significant challenges: particularly the lack of legal limits on campaign spending, which makes it not only difficult to participate in politics, but hard for them to perform well once they get into power.
Drive about 160km out of Nairobi, into Kenya’s Rift Valley region, and you will reach Nakuru. The county, which has a population of just over two million, is now led for the first time by a woman governor and senator, while women also make up five out of its 11 members of parliament. Kenyan lawyer Susan Kihika unseated incumbent male governor Lee Kinyanjui, while businesswoman Tabitha Karanja took over Kihika’s former senate seat. Nakuru is one of two of Kenya’s 47 counties with women in the top two political positions, Machakos being the other.
In the county’s capital city, also called Nakuru, reactions were mixed.
“This is what we’ve been fighting for,” said Ruth Aura, dean of the faculty of law in Egerton University. Aura is also a former chair of the Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya. “For me the [important] tribe is the women tribe, nothing else. And I’m very impressed with what Nakuru has done.”
“They get encouraged,” said Salome Ngugi (42), a supermarket worker who gestured towards her two young daughters. “Since [the new politicians are] women at least they’ll make changes to get women in business, girls in school. They weren’t recognised in the past, the boy child was prioritised. With women in power that can change.”
“I don’t like them. To them it’s just a job, they’re not interested in us,” said a women security guard doing a shift nearby. She did not want to be named.
“In Nakuru it’s a big mess, because women are not doing well in leadership,” said a 38-year-old woman, who also did not want to be named. “Yes, it’s a plus because of gender, women can fight for these positions and win, but when it comes to delivery I don’t think it’s going to work.” She believed that the women elected were successful because of their political party, rather than their policies and track records. “If [governor] Susan [Kihika] doesn’t deliver, they will say women are useless, they will say go back to where you came from… So I just pray that she delivers.”
Lucy Njambi, a 50-year-old who sells drinks at a stall across the road from Nakuru’s county assembly, said women there continue to face a lot of challenges. “Women don’t have capital for business. Men control more so women have less power.”
Despite this year’s gains, Kenya is still notably short of implementing a “gender principle” embedded in the 2010 constitution, which requires the state to make sure that no more than two-thirds of appointed and elected bodies are made up of the same gender. Women’s rights activists complain that the Kenyan government is not taking adequate steps to fulfil this. “We’ve been trying to get the legislation [implemented],” Aura said, “but women are already doing it on their own. Sometimes we don’t need the laws.”
At a quiet hotel in another part of Nakuru city, a group of newly elected local politicians were meeting to eat chicken and chips and discuss the steps forward.
One was Isabella Makori, a 41-year-old who also farms potatoes, tomatoes and maize. She was one of eight women elected to the county assembly — up from five in the previous election; there are 55 seats in total. Makori raised about five million Kenyan shillings (€40,000) for her campaign: a mix of savings, donations and fundraising. “It is expensive, my dear,” she said.
With her was Leah Wambui Ng’ang’a (38), another county assembly member. Ng’ang’a’s campaign slogan was “mama kazi” — women and work. She said the biggest problems she faced were “propaganda and money”.
Ng’ang’a is a mother of four children. She recalls men candidates publicly saying she wouldn’t have the time to serve the community. Any campaign costs a minimum of one million Kenyan shillings, she said — which can include cash to hand out to potential voters, a common practice in Kenya. “It was so stressful,” added Ng’ang’a, who would like to become governor one day. She fundraised from “friends and well-wishers”.
Grace Mwathi, a 53-year-old elected county assembly member, said women candidates suffer from a “lack of money, finances, security”.
“Women, I think we suffer from being depressed by men. When we want to do something they slash us down, they don’t want us to be like them because they say they are the head and they should remain the head,” she said. “When you become a politician and you are a woman people think you are a prostitute, [that] your husband does not give you permission to vie… all of those things.”
Mwathi’s campaign slogan was: “Mama na matendo” — a woman of action.
Despite the challenges, she says Kenyan women are unstoppable now. “Today our ladies are going to school and they’re competing with the men,” Mwathi said. “When you educate a girl you educate the whole nation. When a woman is in power you bring home, [whereas] a man takes out. So we are going to bring home what is needed.”
Steve Biko, a lawyer at Odhiambo and Odhiambo Advocates, counts Nakuru’s newly elected woman governor as one of his clients.
He said women political candidates can face abuses including a demand for sexual favours; arguments about which locales they can contest in and whether that changes when they get married; and slander saying they cannot serve if they have children.
But the main problem is “resource allocation”, he explained, during an interview in his office in Nakuru city centre. “Our society is generally patrilineal in Africa. Therefore, it denies women a chance to be closer to resources… Inevitably, therefore, [women’s] movement to other sectors of the nation and their participation there becomes limited by virtue of the limitations and resources they have. That closes them out of the political space.”
“If [women] lack resources it makes it difficult for them to campaign,” he continued. “Campaigning is expensive. We don’t have laws regulating campaign spending in this country. So it means the men who have more resources are likely to campaign better and faster and reach more [people] than the women.”
A 2021 study found that while, in most cases, women candidates spend as much or more as men on campaigning, they do not achieve the same levels of success. Drawing on a survey of 300 political aspirants, it found that, on average, a senator’s seat cost 35.5 million Kenyan shillings (€290,000) to compete for in 2017; an MP’s seat was 18.2 million; a women’s representative seat cost 22.8 million; and a county assembly seat cost on average 3.1 million.
Bringing in a law regulating campaign spending would “open the space for women”, Biko said.
“When you have no regulation, it means it’s a jungle — whoever has the most will take charge. And that gives men a higher chance to play dirty.”
When Kenya’s new president, William Ruto, appointed cabinet ministers in September, he failed to meet his own promise that 50 per cent of appointments would be women. Out of 22 ministers, only seven were women, with another two women advisers and a woman secretary also appointed.
But many members of his own party, the United Democratic Alliance, were still enthusiastic about what they see as progress.
Wanjiku Muhia, an elected MP for the Kipipiri constituency in Mount Kenya, was the only women candidate among 12 contenders for her seat.
“It is very hard financially, emotionally, physically, because we worked very late hours. We don’t have as much money as men, because in our culture, we don’t have properties to sell and put the money towards the campaign. But through God and convincing the people, many women have made it in this election especially,” she said.
“The voters believed more in women, hence they gave us a chance… [In] the first election after the 2010 constitution we started with zero women as governors. Then the next election we had three governors. This election… we have seven governors. This is a show that we are moving… It is an assurance that in the future anything is possible.”