During the political primaries in April, Ann Kanyi, who was vying for her party’s nomination for the Tetu parliamentary seat in Kenya’s Aug. 8 general election, was dragged from her car and brutally beaten by four unidentified masked men wielding metal bars and a gun. During the assault, one of them demanded she quit politics. She was not the only woman physically attacked during the primaries after wading into the testosterone-fueled arena of Kenyan politics: Other female candidates were robbed by men armed with machetes and batons, had their motorcades attacked and supporters killed, and were beaten and threatened with public stripping.
None of this was coincidental. It’s all part of an alarming trend in Kenya toward ever-increasing levels of violence against female politicians. To be sure, violence is part of the political landscape in Kenya, regardless of gender. Just last week, a top election official was tortured to death by unknown assailants. But our research suggests that women in politics — as well as female supporters, campaign staff, and family members — are being uniquely targeted, and in gender-specific ways. The goal: to turn back progress ushered in by a new gender quota, implemented as part of a 2010 constitutional overhaul, that has vaulted more women into positions of power in Kenya than ever before.
Around the world, we have seen a slow, steady rise in the number of women in politics. In countries such as Rwanda, Nepal, and East Timor, gender quotas — often implemented pursuant to rewritten constitutions — have sparked more rapid increases. These gains have generally been heralded as successes for women’s equality, although the limitations of quotas are widely acknowledged. Less acknowledged, however, is the possibility that better representation for women can lead to new forms of harm, especially where pockets of conservative resistance remain.
The level of violence against female politicians worldwide is staggering. According to a 2016 survey of 55 female parliamentarians from 39 countries by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, 82 percent of respondents reported being subjected to psychological violence; 44 percent reported threats of death, rape, kidnapping, or beatings to themselves or their children; 26 percent had directly experienced physical violence; and 22 percent had been subjected to sexual violence. While initial resistance might be expected in the wake of rapid gains in women’s representation, numbers like these suggest a genuine backlash against women’s progress — what the British sociologist Sylvia Walby referred to two decades ago as the “renewed determination by patriarchal forces to maintain and increase the subordination of women” after they begin to encroach on spaces previously controlled by men.
This is part of the story in Kenya, where the 2010 constitution established a gender quota mandating that neither gender hold more than two-thirds of the positions in any government entity (thereby ensuring that a minimum of one-third plus one of parliamentarians and members of local county assemblies are women). The subsequent 2013 general election resulted in Kenya’s highest number of women in government in its history. But since then, female politicians have faced unprecedented levels of violence, apparently designed to discourage them from vying for office or, once there, from defying the agendas of powerful male political elites.
The shadow of violence under which female politicians are forced to operate has less obvious consequences as well. In the course of our research, some female politicians told us they often feel the need to ally with powerful male elites for protection. This is particularly prevalent at the county level, where some women have thrown their support behind male gubernatorial candidates in order to reduce resistance to their own candidacies. Once in office, these women become beholden to those governors and their political agendas. Moreover, women face significant financial burdens because of their need to take additional safety precautions, such as staying in hotels during election season and hiring additional security guards. Some female Kenyan politicians, such as Winnie Kaburu, the only female gubernatorial candidate in Meru County, have simply chosen not to take official meetings after dusk, which sets them at a clear political disadvantage from their male counterparts.
While the threat of violence is especially acute on the campaign trail, it increasingly follows successful female candidates into office. Last year, Elizabeth Manyala, a member of the county assembly (MCA) in Nairobi County, claimed that her colleague, Elias Otieno, slapped her and smashed her into a wall, sending her to the hospital with extensive head and neck injuries. Her crime? Refusing Otieno’s demand that she reallocate funding from the county women’s caucus to one of his pet projects. Manyala, who holds a doctorate in government and is one of the most educated MCAs in the country, told us that even though the police arrested her attacker, he was never prosecuted and she was ultimately blamed for the altercation. “My political party was saying now I am the bad one. Everybody, even the women I was representing, were saying it was my fault,” she said. Many of the female politicians we interviewed said they had been blamed for attacks or harassment against them.
Our ongoing research in Kenya reveals that women like Manyala are targeted in unique, gender-specific ways. They are frequently attacked, verbally and physically, by male colleagues in government offices or legislative chambers while performing their duties, often after voicing unpopular opinions or refusing to capitulate to male colleagues’ demands. (Male politicians, by contrast, are typically targeted by “goons” outside of their offices.) These differences suggest that violence directed against women in politics is, in part, a reflection of a deeper effort to deny women access to political spaces that have traditionally been dominated by men.
Optimists have expressed hope that the recent uptick in violence is just short-term cost of women’s increased leadership that will subside as women’s leadership becomes normalized. Instead, our research suggests that it is the violence against women in politics that is becoming increasingly normalized. A significant part of the blame for this falls on Kenyan authorities, who have failed to enforce laws designed to protect women and punish perpetrators. Some of it also falls on political parties and the media, neither of which has made any serious effort to hold perpetrators accountable.
But we must also consider the possibility that efforts to promote women’s inclusion in government can backfire if they are not accompanied by concurrent efforts to dismantle patriarchal structures that enable gender-based violence. This possibility calls into question international development agencies’ efforts to promote women’s leadership without providing the resources and support needed to ensure that women can safely participate in political spaces. For gender quotas to succeed, in other words, they must be accompanied by corresponding efforts to strengthen the rule of law in order to enable women’s unimpeded political participation.
As Kenyans prepare to go to the polls on Tuesday, it is imperative that the authorities guarantee the security of the women running for office — as well as the security of their supporters and the general public. While gains in political representation for women may one day translate into gains in political power, for now they are fueling a vicious backlash that is complicating and undermining women’s broader progress.
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