On March 10, 2017, a coalition of women's and human rights organisations put together the largest political convention of women in Kenya's history.
It brought together more than 5,000 women from 20 counties at the historic Bomas of Kenya.
Women had come to discuss their role in Kenyan politics and women's political representation, an almost unheard of event in Kenya.
It was a non-partisan political gathering of women, based on the understanding that before ethnicity, religion or political party, we are women first, and that as women we needed to organise ourselves into a political constituency that would drive our own interests and agenda. It was a seminal event.
Women were demanding to be taken seriously as political actors, as voters and more importantly as political leaders.
As usual with women’s events the media missed it with their post-convention coverage focusing on women’s response to the divisive partisan remarks by the Principal Secretary for Gender Zeinab Hussein.
In so doing the media failed to reflect on what the Women’s Convention portends for women’s political organising.
What the National Women’s Convention so powerfully demonstrated is that the regular woman, Wanjiku, is dissatisfied with the political status quo.
It isn’t just that the current politics isn’t working for her but also that she has decided she will not be silent. This isn’t the plaintive dissatisfaction of “tunaomba serikali” but a deep dissatisfaction, maybe even anger, that led to the very specific demand of the Convention for 50 per cent of all political and leadership roles at all levels of government.
PAST DISCRIMINATION AND EXCLUSION
The fact that ordinary Kenyan women feel the need to independently organise politically around gender is unusual and marks a shift in our political history.
This women’s political convening is distinct from the once formidable Maendeleo ya Wanawake (MYWO), which was always an appendage of the State apparatus and a means to controlling women in service of the State.
MYWO is a women’s organisation but it was, and remains, in existence to serve male political establishment interests.
Where Maendeleo ya Wanawake was brought together to sing for the State and its chosen politicians, the women at the Women’s Convention had come together to sign for themselves and to claim their place in politics and leadership.
This unique non-partisan event in an election year must be viewed in the context of women’s experiences after the promulgation of the Constitution in 2010.
The heightened expectations our progressive Constitution brought about with its explicit adoption of women’s equality and affirmative action as part of the expansive Bill of Rights have remained largely unmet.
Most significantly, at the national level, Parliament has failed to enact legislation to ensure greater inclusion of women in the National Assembly and Senate in compliance with the Gender Principle.
The women’s movement was actively engaged in the constitution-making process and successfully lobbied for equality of women and the Gender Principle, which mandated women’s inclusion in leadership and decreed the end of super majority male rule.
Additionally, the women’s movement also ensured the Bill of Rights containeda State obligation for affirmative action to redress past discrimination and exclusion of women. These were significant accomplishments from an organised successful women’s lobby.
FOCUS ON POLITICAL POWER
However, the women’s movement failed in two key ways. First, it failed to own its success both in terms of lobbying for the inclusion of these rights as well as in drumming up support for the “yes” vote. Thus, in the national psyche the women’s movement did not get credit for this significant accomplishment by women for women.
The patriarchal establishment deliberately took credit, reinforcing a notion that men had “given” women these rights and that women had done nothing to deserve them.
Secondly, the women’s movement failed to prepare for success. After the Constitution was promulgated the women’s movement was unprepared for the systematic resistance that emerged and continues to this day on women’s rights.
As such, the work to secure women’s 2010 constitutional rights has not been conducted with the same singularity of purpose that helped secure these gains in the first place. Instead, the crucial work of implementation and holding the government accountable has been done by a handful of organisations and individuals.
Whatever the reasons, the incontrovertible evidence is that the women’s movement is weaker, not stronger, after the promulgation of the Constitution.
It is against this backdrop that we must understand the Women’s Convention. In the context of a less powerful women’s movement, one that was admittedly more rights-focused, there is emerging a demand for another coalition of women, only this time the focus is on political power, not legal rights.
DIRECTION FOR THE MASSES
The political implications of this are far-reaching. The legal rights focus of the women’s movement meant that lawyers and NGOs were at the forefront of the struggle, as it was important to articulate the legal issues.
The women’s movement was traditionally controlled by a few NGOs and women leaders, many of whom are now “eminent women”, the public faces of the movement.
The leadership structure represented the old political order, with power held by an exclusive few at the top who in turn provided direction for the masses to follow.
In contrast the Women’s Convention was a reflection and articulation of the issues of concern to women nationally – their systematic exclusion from political power.
Their demands areanchored in the Constitution but their explicit focus is power, not rights. This type of organising reflects the intended but unexpected consequences of the Constitution and of national values that explicitly include the “sharing and devolution of power”.
The Women’s Convention may mark an evolution of the women’s movement. Women are no longer asking for what they are entitled to, they are organising to get it through political means. It would be a mistake to ignore them.
Marilyn M. Kamuru is a lawyer and a researcher on women’s rights issues.