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  • A Seat at the Table:The Fight For Gender Parity In Kenya And Somalia
  • Nanjala Nyabola (bio)

NAIROBI, Kenya—When Bina Maseno was 23, she decided to run for Council Assembly in Nairobi City County and reached out to a few experienced female politicians for advice. She expected to hear suggestions for navigating party power dynamics or articulating campaign messages for a broader audience. But what she got was a primer in protecting herself from sexual assault by male politicians and putative voters.

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Wangari Muta Maathai, Nobel Prize winner and former Kenyan MP


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“I was shocked,” she recalled. “One woman told me that I had to dress in a matronly way, because voters always think that youthful looking women are sleeping their way through the party. Another woman advised that I should never go to a rally without wearing biker shorts underneath my clothes, because inevitably the men in the audience would try to strip me.” During Maseno’s 2012 campaign, this latter piece of advice was repeatedly tested and found to be accurate.

For women across the world, electoral politics can be a hostile and violent place. Women who stand for office can expect casual sexism and discrimination, ranging from snide remarks about their appearance to being propositioned by their male colleagues. In some countries, this psychological violence escalates to physical violence in which men seek to make the public sphere so inhospitable for women that they disengage from electoral politics.

Percentages of women in parliament reveal two interesting facts on global underrepresentation. First, although women make up roughly 49.6 percent of the world’s population, only two countries in the world had parliaments that exceeded that ratio as of August 2016. Rwanda leads—57.5 percent of its parliament is made up of women—and Bolivia follows with 51.8 percent. Second, there is almost no correlation between a country’s level of development and the proportion of women in parliament. Hence, the United States (19.5 percent) finds itself sandwiched between Saudi Arabia (19.9 percent) and Kyrgyzstan (19.2 percent).

The countries that were able to achieve some measure of gender parity all have one thing in common: They initially or continue to rely on quotas to increase representation of women in parliament. Rwanda’s post-genocide constitution requires that 30 percent of all decision-making bodies be made up of women, while Bolivia passed a raft of measures in the run up to its 2014 parliamentary elections to increase women’s participation in the electoral process.

In contemporary conversations on achieving gender parity in parliament, there is little debate about whether quotas are the easiest way to create a space in which women can be heard. In a March 2013 press release, the secretary general of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), Anders B. Johnsson, said, “Although quotas remain contentious in some parts of the world, they remain key to progress on … gender parity in political representation. There can be no claim to democracy without delivering on this.” The same press release noted that nine out of the top 10 countries with the highest growth in the number of women MPs between 2011 and 2012 had used quotas.

The disparate fortunes of East African countries like Rwanda, Kenya, and Somalia tell a story of how well quotas can work when supported with institutional will and how resoundingly they can fail when patriarchal political spaces conspire to undo them. All of the eight countries that are traditionally thought to make up East Africa—Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan—have quotas entrenched in their electoral systems.

These quotas take different shapes. Article 27(8) of the Kenyan constitution requires that no more than two-thirds of the legislature be made up of either gender. In Somalia, the Electoral Implementation Team—a donor-supported body that has devised and will be implementing the rules under which the 2016 election will occur—promised that 30 percent [End Page 11] of all the seats in the incoming parliament would be reserved for women.

And yet at 20.8 percent and 13.8 percent...


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