By Jacqueline Muturi
In every electioneering period, women in Kenya face attacks on the campaign trail, brutal character assassination from both party members and their opponents and threats to step down. They are a reflection of the convergence of patriarchal gender stereotypes steeped in our traditional customs and gender based stereotypes. The convergence prevents women from claiming their political rights.
Politics and political leadership in Kenya is often viewed as a male preserve. Women who join politics and succeed in it in terms of attaining legislative seats, face a lot of ridicule and slander since they are “othered” and are not seen as capable leaders.
The personalization of politics in Kenya does not make it any better, as our political systems reinforce allegiance through tribal cleavages where patriarchal leaders maintain patronage and wield significant power which they use to influence local decision making. Participation in politics requires one to seek support from local leaders and negotiate with them as they control a majority of the voting blocs. Since women are not represented in these local and traditional leadership structures they cannot negotiate and create relationships that could instrumentally help them gain political success.
Though it is difficult to determine whether the violence that female candidates face is a result of them being women or politicians, the type of political violence women face differs from traditional forms of political violence. Women in politics often face gendered violence which seeks to repress, deter, control and violate their political rights. The political violence meted on women is carried out by different actors including opponents, police, criminal gangs, party members and even their family. In addition, political violence against women tends to happen before, during and after elections. Lastly, the violence is not only physical and psychological but they face economic violence and unbridled harassment and character assassination.
Political violence against women is rooted in a culture of gender-based violence. In Kenya, women are often victims of violence in their homes as well as in their public life. Traditional and cultural norms portray women as submissive to both cultural and family decisions. This creates an environment in which they face the highest levels of both sexual and physical violence. In addition, a gender-insensitive, and an under-resourced justice system, fails to hold perpetrators of violence accountable for their actions thereby perpetuating impunity and reinforcing unequal power relations based on social norms against women. Such a socio-cultural environment has crucial repercussions for women who seek to participate in public fora. Many are coerced and threatened to make choices dictated by the men in their lives. They face intimidation, public shaming, divorce threats as well as physical violence which then bars them from making independent political decisions.
Gendered political violence has a net effect on all women. It silences women and excludes them from public participation. For women who succeed in gaining political seats, their tenure is often short-lived and they are therefore unable to influence policies that impact women. On a societal level, the gendered impact of political violence influences how the public views women especially female politicians. Political violence diverts attention from the achievements of women in public office by casting doubts on their ability to lead, therefore, reinforcing the negative stereotypes on the role and place of women in society.
A culturally violent environment creates certain challenges and vulnerabilities for women who want to fully participate and engage in the political space. For many women who lack coping mechanisms to withstand political rigors and violent attacks, they opt to leave politics prematurely. Men do face harassment and are attacked, however, it is never because they are men. However, for women, the perpetrators want to protect the gendered order of political power and ensure the preservation of politics as a male-dominated space.
Overall, violence against women in politics is an offensive barrier that hinders female politicians from fully participating in it and also negatively impacts their durability and success in the political arena. To be able to address political violence against women, it is important that we understand the root causes and how the gendered aspect of violence manifests in order to address it.
Jacqueline Muturi is a Research Intern at the Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies. This opinion piece was published in the Standard newspaper, December 2021.