(Header: Deputy President William Ruto, Senator Moses Wetangula, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, and President Uhuru Kenyatta, source: Presidential Strategic Communications Unit, Kenya).
Less than twenty percent of Kenya’s Parliament is made up of women, comparing poorly with its neighbors Rwanda (61% female representation), Tanzania (36%), and Uganda (34%). This underrepresentation exists despite affirmative measures to improve female representation in Parliament, including the “Two-Thirds Gender Rule” in the 2010 Constitution, which states that no more than two thirds of the members of an elected or appointed body can be of the same gender.
To help achieve this goal, the Constitution allocates 47 seats—one from each county—in the National Assembly as “women representatives.” Despite these measures, women remain underrepresented in the government, suggesting that there may be non-legislative causes behind this gap. Understanding citizens’ attitudes may provide more insight into how female politicians are viewed and their underrepresentation in parliament.
In advance of the upcoming national election, MIT GOV/LAB partnered with Twaweza to lead a series of field interviews. Kenyan research assistants conducted semi-structured interviews with urban and rural citizens over the course of six weeks, each week focusing on different themes. One thematic focus of the interviews highlighted identity and group politics, looking at how tribe, gender, and party politics influence people’s votes. This analysis will focus on interviewees responses on gender, including the following questions: What is the role of women in the community? Where do women fall on the social ladder? Do Kenyans trust a female leader? Does gender influence how Kenyans vote, if at all?
While these 45 interviews are not meant to be representative of Kenyans overall, perhaps they can shed some light on the attitudes and behaviors that influence political decision-making and the role of women in Kenyan politics.
Confidence looks bad on female politicians
Though many women were supportive of female politicians, there were a few who did not support the idea. They felt that female leaders become too prideful once in a position of power. One respondent, a farmer in her mid-fifties preferred male to female politicians, stating “men’s heart are easy and considerate,” as opposed to women’s, which are “full of pride.” A male businessman in his mid-forties also reiterated that women prefer men as leaders and are jealous of female politicians, who are seen as “bigheaded.”
It may be that in an effort to adapt to an intimidating political climate, women adopt behaviors seen as prideful. Female politicians may feel obligated to act more confidently and independently to project a stronger presence, but this shift in attitude is misinterpreted. Though advances in education for girls was often mentioned as a positive advancement, traditional gender norms persist in Kenya, especially in more rural communities.
Corruption as especially tainting for women
A majority of women interviewed expressed disinterest in politics. One respondent in particular, a female tea grower in her thirties, indicated that her distaste for politics stems from the “dirtiness” of it. She continued to say that a “game” as dirty as politics should be left to the men. Since corruption would affect all Kenyans, it is interesting that the responded perceived it as a male issue.
According to one male respondent, a shoe-shiner in his early forties, politics is a “man’s game.” He explained that this belief is preserved by gendered societal norms and views of women in politics as having “loose morals,” which discourages women from engaging with politics. It seems that that while women are criticized for their participation in this “dirty game,” men are encouraged to engage and deal with the corruption.
Overall, the sample of interviews seems to show how societal expectations and norms effectively mold politics into a “man’s game.” The different standards Kenyans have for male versus female politicians seem to perpetuate a masculine political environment. Though politics is seen as a “dirty game,” seemingly only female politicians are penalized for engaging with politics or issues of corruption and are accused of having loose morals, whereas men are seen as necessary agents in addressing corruption. While there are instances of exemplary female politicians discussed in the interviews, so long as double standards around corruption and gender norms persist, politics in Kenya will likely remain a “man’s game.”
Interviews were conducted by Kenyan researchers trained by MIT GOV/LAB, including Brenda Ochieng, Mwongela Kamencu, Nelson Ngige, and Titus Kuria.
Soobean Jo interned with MIT GOV/LAB in Spring 2017, assisting research on voter behavior in Kenya. She is a student at Wellesley College Studying Economics.