Flower Girls, Girlfriends and Sexist Discourse: The Politics of the Two-Thirds Gender Bill

Guest Writer
20 December ,2016

by Wendy Okolo

The African Human Development Report indicates that African countries make up four out of the top 10 countries with high levels of women representation in parliament. These four countries are Rwanda, Seychelles, Senegal, and South Africa. It comes as no surprise that Kenya is not part of this progressive narrative (if the ongoing debacle on the gender bill is anything to go by).

The deadline to enact the bill passed on the 27th of August, the same day The Saturday Nation released grim statistics on women’s representation in top public institutions and the political space. According to these statistics, women occupy 26% of President Kenyatta’s Cabinet, while 37% are principal secretaries. The judiciary, argued to be doing better, comprises 39% women. At a quick glance, this looks like a promising gain, though we can’t pop the champagne yet: equal representation is still a mirage.

A closer look reveals that a more women work in the lower courts as compared to the higher courts, an indication of gender bias not only in ranking levels at the judiciary, but also a strong hint to the gender dynamics at the broader social context. Only 32% of the Kenyan population thinks that implementation of provisions on inclusion of marginalized persons is a priority. Thus, it is little surprise that we have made no progress on implementation of the bill.

Numbers always tell stories – through what they show, or what they hide. Here, they show the prevailing situation in as far as measuring the progress of inclusion of women in politics goes. Numbers can also be useful in representation. A good example is the use of quotas to increase the numbers of women in political spaces. This is what the bill aims to achieve – to set a minimum for the number of women that should be included in politics.

Somehow this approach seems to be failing in Kenya, whereas it has been fairly successful in Latin American countries, such as Ecuador, Brazil, and Colombia. Closer home, Rwanda serves as a good example. Yet, before we get excited about the success of quotas, it would be naive to assume that quotas in themselves are effective in addressing the complex problem of inclusion of women in political and public institution spaces.

Certainly, there are wider systems that affect the efficacy of quota systems. A number of studies have shown how characteristics of a country’s electoral system shape the success or failure of quota systems. Structures that that need to be put in place for quotas to succeed. For example, the level of explicitness in setting measures to increase representation of women, measures that make it more difficult to exclude women and active participation of civil society in monitoring implementation of quotas. Scholars have also argued that complementing quotas with public policies create deeper transformation.

Women’s collective galvanizing is useful for creating more room for women to maneuver in political and public institutions. Studies have demonstrated how women’s social movement has been significant in advancing progressive social policy issues, particularly in regard to including women in the political agenda. What is verifiable from these studies is the complexity of inclusion. It is never just about percentages and quotas – there are stories that shape these numbers and stories that influence the success rate of quotas. These are the stories that tease out interesting questions for gender practitioners, because they tell the enabling/disabling factors to inclusion. The inclusion of women in politics and public institutions is a process that is necessary but with no easy solutions – a silver bullet approach simply does not cut it.

In the case of Kenya, there is a history to the lethargy in implementing the gender bill. It is characterized by lack of political good will and the endorsement of internally induced patriarchal structures evident in the sexist discourse in political spaces. Male members of parliament have been on record for rejecting the gender bill on the rationale that this gives room for “people to nominate their girlfriends.” The bid to push the gender bill was lost an account of male parliamentarians who argued that the bill was retrogressive to democracy, and that, passing it was tantamount to giving women free seats.

In a separate report, The Saturdays Nation’s City Girl describes the gender bill as a move instigated to give women unfair advantage. She refers to the sitting women leaders as flower girls who make no substantive contribution in the political space. Her view of women parliamentarians as flower girls is not isolated – male members of parliament have been known to refer to their female counterparts accordingly. These gendered nuances obviously shape the inclusion/exclusion politics of women in the political space.

Not much attention is given to them because they are the story behind the numbers that we see. This flower girl and girlfriend discourse asserts the notion that public space is the space of men. A space structured according to gendered norms and any attempt to transgress these norms is met with strong resistance, or sometimes covert resistance as is the case with MPs boycotting the vote. The vital role of women as equal contributing partners is downplayed by sexist discourse and this has very direct implications of the number of women who enter these political spaces.

The fact that women’s rights to equal representation in the political space and public institutions need to be recognized should not have to be emphasized. As it is, Kenya positions itself as a democratic state, yet the truth is that it cannot speak of democracy without having gender democracy. The gender bill needs political goodwill to get through, but more importantly, its enactment and implementation will require male goodwill that reads against the grain of sexist discourse.

It is important to have men stand in support of women to push this bill through. It is essential that men be part of the change narrative that speaks against sexism and includes more women into the political space and public institutions.

Wendy Okolo is a feminist and a gender specialist skilled at gender analysis and mainstreaming. She is interested in gender inequality, with specific focus on power relations, women empowerment and how these shape social dynamics across various sectors.  

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