‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’, is a mundane enough saying…except that in regard to the women’s performance in the recent General Election, the adage bears special poignancy.
Less than five years ago, the creation of the county woman representative position — popularly known as woman rep — saw women’s numbers in the legislature hit an all-time high since Independence in 1963.
The inaugural Parliament (1963-1969) had zero women.
Kenya’s first woman mayor, Grace Onyango, became the first elected woman MP in 1969, and it was not until 1974 that six women — four of them elected — joined Parliament.
For sure, the woman rep position has had more than its fair share of challenges.
Though they command a bigger geographical area, than the 290 traditional constituencies, they do not seem to enjoy the same prestige as the MPs.
It does not help matters that unlike the 290 MPs, the woman rep has no benefit of the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) — which accords incumbent MPs unfair advantage over their rivals at the next elections because they can use the fund to buy voters’ loyalty.
It took nearly a whole electoral cycle for the woman reps to qualify for anything close to the CDF.
Truth be told, a number of those interviewed — and they included the highly articulate Nyeri Woman Rep Priscilla Nyokabi — seemed to be suffering esteem problems as the common perception about them was: “But whom do you represent?”
Any wonder, then, that at the end of their first term as woman reps, a number of them were seeking ‘higher’ office?
A case in point is new Likoni MP Mishi Mboko, who trounced Jubilee’s Masoud Mwahima after a single term as Mombasa woman rep.
Same with Kilifi’s Aisha Jumwa, who snatched the Malindi constituency seat from Willy Mtengo, and beat six other men.
Former Garissa woman rep Sophia Abdi Noor also took the climb to Ijara MP.
If there is one point the Mishi Mboko, Aisha Jumwa and Sophia Abdi Noor cases prove, it is that the affirmative action seats cannot be taken for granted.
They served as an avenue of exposure for the women, who used them as a stepping stone to join the predominantly male constituency MPs.
During the inaugural tenure of Woman Rep, the women occupying the affirmative action seats did more than just be ‘flower girls’— the term popularised by their male detractors in the 11th Parliament.
The women made significant legislative contributions.
Ms Nyokabi, for instance, sponsored the Access to Information Bill, which made it criminal for a public officer to refuse to give information requested by members of the public.
And her Nyandarua County counterpart, Ms Wanjiku Muhia, sponsored the Persons with Disabilities Amendment Bill 2013, whose objective was to make television more accessible to persons with hearing disabilities and to ensure they are not deprived of timely and relevant information.
Although enactment of the Bill did not occasion additional expenditure of public funds, it took a woman rep to bring the plight of the hearing-impaired to public attention.
It is significant that the number of elected constituency MPs jumped from 18 to 22.
Yet, the greatest achievers have to be governors, from zero women elected in 2013, to three and senators also from zero in 2013 to three this year.
The gains for both translate at 6.3 per cent.
While one would be tempted to suggest that they maintain that approach until they achieve the constitutional two-thirds threshold, that would be an untenable position — for the simple reason that it is only at one third that women can form a critical mass capable of influencing decisions that can change their lives.
Ms Kweyu is a freelance writer and consulting editor. [email protected]