POLITICAL EMPOWERMENT OF WOMEN IN KENYA: THE MISSING DIMENSION
The third gender rule has become an elephant that needs to be moved to create room for other developmental agenda. In the recent past, there has been heated debate on whether the implementation of the “a third gender rule” as stipulated in the constitution, in relation to political leadership, should be suspended indefinitely or not.
Feminists have done well, they have demonstrated beyond doubt that gender inequalities exist. The radical feminists help us appreciate the need for out of the box measures in tackling patriarchal tendencies. Marxist feminists help us appreciate the uncompensated role of women in the economic system. The black feminists have illustrated how ethnicity creates differentials in women exploitation across the world. I love liberal feminists because in their solution to the exploitation of women, they help us appreciate the salient evolutionary nature of social change.
Post modern thinkers do not buy into grand theorizing and associated generalizations. There are jitters with regard to women empowerment efforts in Kenya because they are beginning to appear as being advanced at the expense of men. This arises due to the generalizations that underpin the gender debate in Kenya.
I want to agree with Marxists, that the only real differentiating factor in most societies is class. Gender inequality is a concern but in this postmodern era, such claims of gender inequality ought to be qualified. I strongly believe that gender inequality can be addressed if a Marxist analysis becomes the defining prism for empowerment interventions. Let me focus on political empowerment of women in Kenya to illustrate this view.
Politics is about power; the power to influence policy, interests and sharing of national resources. What factors determine who wields political power? The key ones are class, ethnicity and gender. However, empirical evidence shows that ethnicity and gender as determinants of life chances or achievement in life diminish the higher one goes up the social strata. The idea is that, the higher up individuals are in terms of social class, the less they are affected by ethnicity and gender inequality. Herein, is the missing dimension in the third gender rule debate with regards to political empowerment of women in Kenya!
Politics, let us repeat, is about power. Unmistakably, those with wealth, the elites (the bourgeoisie), save for a few charismatic peasants, are best positioned to concentrate power. This is what many women activists have not realized; even among men, those who grab power are not poor people but the elites. When social class combines with ethnicity, gender is a minimal factor. There is no poor man who will from nowhere seek election and be elected thus women should not expect any woman seeking an elective position to succeed. The only poor people who pull it off do so if they align with a wealthy patron or an ethnic patron e.g. the poor kikuyu who align with Uhuru Kenyatta definitely get elected. The daughter of Raila Odinga or the Son of Uhuru Kenyatta is in many ways likely to be a Kenyan leader than yours truly; not because of capacity or intellectual dexterity but because of class.
While we appreciate the need for affirmative action, women ought to realize that power has to be practically fought for. Political campaigns are a game for the shrewd elites. After so many years of affirmative action in Kenya, where are the women elites? It is unfair that these women elites still expect favors instead of stepping up and engaging society in creative ways. The political empowerment efforts can and should not be about giving women free seats in the name of nominations or some constituencies being set aside for them. Real political empowerment for women is about women elites stepping up.
Are there elite women in Kenya? Definitely, there are so many women that were born with a silver spoon in their mouths just as there are the likes of Raila and Uhuru. The real valid question is; why have those women not stepped up? Feminists will quickly point out that patriarchal attitudes have made the women subservient, not believing in themselves etc. True as that may be, is this a generalization or a myth that needs to be busted? Should the focus of these activists not be on getting women to step up and contest elections? Is this not an issue of belief among women and a question of attitude? To this the women activists will say politics is a dirty game that does not suit women. Is this not another myth? We have seen the likes of Elizabeth Ongoro, Jane Kihara, Martha Karua, Charity Ngilu, Nyiva Mwendwa and many others step up, how did they play the dirty game? Is politics only a dirty game for women and not for men? If politics in Kenya is characterized by violence, do men suffer the violence meted especially by elite politicians or men do not suffer violence? How did the likes of Ngilu survive the Violence?
I appreciate that patriarchal attitudes have for long favored the boy child over girls. However, borrowing from liberal feminists, I believe change can be achieved if activists focused on promoting facilitative freedoms for all Kenyans. Instead of unwarranted focus on girls child say among the Maasai, why not focus on child rights for all children to avoid the gender bias? Women have to deal with an insidious victim mentality; whereby they continue to use patriarchy as an excuse for not stepping up. The tide has changed; more girls than boys are completing university education. Lecture halls in most universities are now filled with more women than men. There are many elite families that have given girls and boys equal opportunities. It is sad that girls from elite families are now still being favored and given freebies at the expense of boys from poor backgrounds who have struggled to be where they are. It is imperative that girls start being told, “Our society is meritocratic and there is nothing for them merely for being girls”.
There is need for research to assess some of the generalizations peddled by women activists. It is about time the gender equality agenda becomes evidence driven. For instance, the argument goes that in villages girls are not given opportunities to study because they have to do cooking and other household chores. I grew up in the village and I saw many boys disadvantaged because they had to perform roles like looking after cattle, tilling farms and performing other roles that minimized their engagement with books. Girls on the other hand had household chores to perform then if they wanted they had enough free time to interact with books. While not diminishing the patriarchal attitudes towards women, it may be argued that empowerment for girls from many localities in Kenya is not about affirmative action but helping them believe in selves and consciously choose to work and improve their lot.
If affirmative action is to remain a means and not an evil end, affirmative action for women needs to be done very sparingly. In areas like politics, we need to ask ourselves whether affirmative action is the only way of achieving empowerment of women. Which is better, to have a bunch of women who are not liberated from patriarchal attitudes in parliament or to fill parliament with men and women who are gender sensitive and conscious. The political consideration by women activists should be on how the electorate can elect gender conscious men and women. The women activists ought to have agendas that promote gender equality through social empowerment without playing the sexes against each other. They should sensitize society: both men and women to choose leaders who are gender conscious and who propagate a social empowerment paradigm. After all, no woman will enjoy an empowered stay in society as long as men are threatened.
In conclusion, I think nominations as a means of politically empowering women does not benefit society at large. It is a scheme that benefits elite women who do not want to work for such social privileges. Equally, such schemes perpetuate patronage which only benefits the friends of political elites while the women in villages who really require empowerment remain trapped in world of enslavement. The formula for seeing more women in leadership is getting as many women as possible to step up. We have enough women elites but are they ready to play the game that is politics? To help more women step up, in my opinion, for a limited period, we should have a woman rep elected in every county to the senate, two women reps elected in every county to the national assembly and one woman elected per Sub County to the county assembly.