Opinion meetings in Wajir, Kisii, Nairobi, Nakuru and Turkana. Photo Credit: Oxfam

The unchallenged voter barriers against the realization of the 2/3rds gender principle in politics

I am one Kenyan who sincerely celebrates all the 172 women who managed a win against all odds in the just concluded August 2017 general elections, up from 147 elected women in the 2013 general elections. It is a first in Kenya considering the many failed attempts to pass legislation to actualize the 2/3rds gender constitutional principle.

Prior to the elections, Oxfam Kenya in partnership with Youth Agenda and FIDA engaged in several activities under the ‘VoteADada campaign’ in a bid to equip the aspirants and their campaign managers to campaign effectively. We also wanted to influence the electorate to vote more women into political office. In the process, we drew several useful lessons as a team as we traversed the five Counties of Kisii, Turkana, Nakuru, Nairobi, and Wajir where our activities were focused.

Among the lessons was the fact that, though the reasons for having more women elected into political positions may be obvious to the advocates for women in political leadership, they are not necessarily obvious to the common person or the electorate at that. For in addition to many documented challenges that women aspirants are said to face in their bid to vie for elections, such as, shortages of funds, violence, inadequate campaign skills, among others, there are other subtle mindset related challenges which one can easily brush off as petty, but guess, what? They are ‘valid’ reasons as far as their holders are concerned. And the reality is that as long as they are not convinced to think differently, then the struggle to having more women elected into political office can easily remain a pipe dream.

The VoteADada campaign team held several conversations on ‘Why #VoteADada’ with different members of the public ranging from the youth, religious leaders, women groups, elders, and journalists. Each would be asked to respond to the question ‘Would you vote for a woman or not in any of the five electoral positions; President, Governor, Senator, MP, and MCA, and to give reasons for their answer.' The reasons for ‘No’ in answer to the question brought out deep-seated internal barriers, in the form of stereotypes and non-scientific personal opinions that required objective interrogation and responses in a bid to understand where the opinion holder was coming from and where possible, positively influence their biases against women in political leadership.

The conversations would get people thinking and interrogating, why they vote the way they do and to question whether their biases against voting for women had helped deliver change in the way Kenya is governed. The challenging and interrogation session would then be followed by discussions on the benefits of having women in political leadership drawing learnings from success stories of other sectors that had benefited immensely from having more women in decision-making positions. By the end of the discussions, most, if not all the participants would have been positively challenged and influenced to consider voting for women., with several committing to reach out to others, not in the meeting with the same message. Our only regret is that we did not start these conversations earlier and hold as many as possible.

 The purpose of this piece is to share some of the reasons given for not voting women into electoral positions. As noted earlier, most of the reasons were informed by ignorance, stereotypes or just outright stubbornness of the opinion holder, which at some points put our patience to test as we tried to help unpack the origins of the opinions and to constructively challenge the opinion holder to think differently.

Reasons for not voting for women into electoral positions as stated by the opinion leaders

  •  Religion does not allow women to take positions of leadership, with the majority of Muslims saying that they were used to being led by men, with the belief that a community led by women would not succeed. Christians, on the other hand, argued that men are the head of the home, therefore defacto leaders of the nation. Further interrogation of this position revealed that due to the close relationship between culture and religion, the belief that women cannot lead was mainly informed by cultural beliefs, and not necessarily by religion. This was clarified by Religious leaders (both Islamic and Christians) in attendance, during the discussions.
  • Others feared that women are too emotional/temperamental, they can’t keep secrets, therefore, can’t uphold the oath of secrecy, and that they are not strong enough to take the stress that comes with leadership positions especially the presidency and governorship.
  • Women were also said to be too kind therefore vulnerable to being taken advantage of, and that they already have too many responsibilities at the home front to take on new ones, i.e. maternity leave, family demands etc.
  • There are those that felt that women were too bossy and petty and those with a general belief that women can’t lead and their place is the home.
  • The journalists noted that since they operate in a patriarchal society they also had biases that manifested in their harsh coverage of women in comparison to men in many instances.

As unfounded as many of these opinions maybe because in the real sense most weaknesses associated with women can easily be said of men, they still need to be addressed with the importance their sources give them because their votes count. It is our hope that as you have read through the opinions above, you have also been challenged to reflect on any biases you might have that stop you from voting for women at the expense of gender equality in political representation in Kenya.

Going forward we certainly have one of the aspects of our work on increasing the number of women in elected political positions cut out for us in future interventions.

AL-Hajj Ramadhan, opinion leader from Kisii addressing the Kisii opinion leaders