Kenya’s high court has ruled that a third of parliamentarians must be women

Far from balanced.
Far from balanced.
Image: Reuters/Baz Ratner
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Kenyan lawmakers have about 50 days to figure out a way to guarantee women’s representation in parliament. Earlier this month, Kenya’s high court ordered parliament to ensure that at least a third of seats are held by women, or risk dissolution.

African countries regularly top lists of governments with the highest female representation. Rwanda, which adopted gender balance quotas in 2003, has the world’s highest proportion, with 61% of seats in the lower house occupied by women. Of the world’s top 20 countries for women in parliament, seven are in sub-Saharan Africa.

But Kenya, a country that prides itself on its progressive reputation, lags behind its peers. Its constitution, adopted in 2010, mandated that no more than two-thirds of the legislature be held by one gender. Yet the government has delayed enforcing that ruling.

Today, women make up 19% of Kenya’s upper house, the National Assembly, and 27% of the Senate, a ratio that puts it just behind Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, and ahead of Bulgaria and Kyrgyzstan.

Researchers have found mostly positive effects of gender quotas in African politics. New laws passed to protect women dealing with domestic violence, land disputes, and divorce in Rwanda, Tanzania, South Africa and Uganda have been attributed to having more women in government.

There’s also backlash and questions about the efficacy of gender quotas in countries with weak legislatures or less-than-democratic processes. In Senegal, the word “parity” in Wolof has reportedly come to mean, “I no longer accept my husband’s authority,” according to  Gretchen Bauer, at the University of Delaware, who has written about the gender quotas on the continent.

In Kenya, those same challenges exist. Women who have run for office say that intimidation and violence is common. Female candidates in 2012 received death threats or were pressured by men in their party not to run, according to the Kenya Women Parliamentary Association, and many had to employ private security.

Those that do occupy existing reserved seats for women are relegated to a kind of “ghetto within the national legislature” where they are not seen as full parliamentarians, writes political analyst and writer Nanjala Nyabola. The Kenyan political arena is dominated by mimi ni ndume—“I am the bull”—attitudes, patronage networks, intimidation, and the threat of violence, Nyabola writes.

So far, existing proposals for implementing the two-thirds rule are weak. One lawmaker’s proposal calls for deferring the issue until 2037. Another, by former house majority leader Aden Duale, would fulfill the quota by allowing winning parties to nominate women to the legislature after the election—a “top up” approach.

The High Court’s threat of dissolution is also something of an empty one. Parliament is already slated to be dismissed in late summer, before August’s presidential and parliamentary elections.