In 2010, Kenya adopted a highly ambitious constitution which included progressive reforms aimed at achieving greater gender equality in government. One of the reforms was the two-thirds gender rule.
The rule states that no more than two-thirds of members of elective bodies shall be of the same gender. Yet, Kenya’s parliament has been unable to pass legislation to implement the gender quota.
The repeated failure of this bill to pass in parliament, coupled with traditional stereotypes about the role of women, continue to perpetuate the false narrative that Kenyan women should not participate in politics on the same level as men. This notion holds women back from substantively contributing to social, economic, developmental and political discourse.
Nevertheless, women have continued to find new places to have their voice heard.
Over the last ten years, digital media has become a space for voices the mainstream media would rather not hear to be able to loudly express discontent over the country’s patriarchal public sphere and to recast women as more than just mothers or mothers in waiting. While progress for Kenya’s gender laws remain stagnant, women have taken to virtual spaces such as Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp as an alternative to non-traditional media to bring about the long-awaited change in their country. Through these digital outlets they are breaking the barriers that prevent them from equally pursuing and contributing to the public sphere.
In the book, “Digital Democracy Analogue Politics,” Nanjala Nyabola explains how social media has “reinvigorated feminist discourse in Kenya.” The term digital democracy is described as the integration of 21st-century information and communications technology to promote a more inclusive democracy and engaging democratic processes.
Nyabola explains how social media had cultivated a movement with the hashtag #MyDressMyChoice to call out a series of attacks on women in November 2014. The #MyDressMyChoice movement was created on the Facebook page of Kilimani Moms, a coalition of mothers from Nairobi who called for protests to support the right of women to dress as they like. Following these protests, the Kenyan judiciary started to prosecute those caught molesting women, which as Nyabola suggests, is “the first time there had been a prosecution for this kind of behavior in recent memory.”
Another notable first for digital democracy in Kenya were the 2017 general elections, also characterized as the nation’s first social media election. During that period social media sites served as the modern and attractive hub for the public to learn about and discuss serious issues such as the then highly contested elections, including electoral irregularities and malpractices.
Women have faced significant challenges to their participation in elections, such as cases of verbal and physical assault. This is reflective of the low 23 percent of women accounting for the National Assembly and Senate — a figure that includes seats reserved solely for women representatives. While minimal, the gains women made were historic. For the first time since the 2010 constitution was adopted, six women were elected to serve as governors and senators. Elected women, such as Ms. Susan Kihika, senator for Nakuru, have used and continue to use social media, notably Facebook and Twitter, to not only communicate with their constituencies but also to publicize the need for Kenya to invest more into the field of gender equality.
While social media played a critical role in the politics of 2017, it’s growing effect over the years has also been witnessed and assessed with both the 2007 and 2012 general elections. This is further confirmation of the recognizability and power of the digital democracy era.
Understanding the great potential of utilizing new media to boost women’s political participation, in 2015, the International Republican Institute (IRI), in partnership with members of the county assembly, launched an SMS-led program. Through this technology, women especially those in rural areas, were able to comfortably and confidently be engaged on policy issues as well as to express their concerns and priorities.
While social media has provided women with such victories, women activists still struggle to break through when it comes to influencing policy. In the cyber and physical sphere, women are exposed to violence when speaking about policy issues which can hinder women from further engaging in political dialogue.
In response to the reality of gender-based violence against female political aspirants as well as other marginalized groups, organizations like IRI have used digital technologies to enhance women’s participation into the political conversation as well as their sustenance. The success of the SMS platform and the overall promising trajectory of digital democracy, IRI is committed in its continuous aim to deliver and support related innovative projects for global democracy stabilization.
Breaking down the barriers that prevent women from equally pursuing and contributing to the public sphere is key to establishing a more representative democracy in Kenya.