For the first time in Kenya’s history, the country’s August 2022 elections will see a female candidate at the center of one of the country’s key political coalitions. It is unprecedented that major political blocs with a real chance of winning a Kenyan election have a woman as their running mate.
In May, veteran politician Martha Karua was announced as the deputy presidential candidate for the Azimio la Umoja coalition led by Raila Odinga.
Karua’s background as a passionate campaigner for democracy and integrity and as a representative of the important Kikuyu electoral bloc in Kenyan politics are important reasons for her appointment. Her candidacy is also interpreted as a strategy to win over female voters and to signal that their concerns matter. Gender equality is high on the electoral agenda in Kenya, with the two frontrunner candidates vying for women’s votes.
The Azimio Alliance has incorporated a strong element of gender equality into their campaigns and presented their leadership as one that promotes gender balance. Karua’s candidacy helped emphasize that point.
Karua, a lawyer and former Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, is a veteran politician. She first became a Member of Parliament in 1992 and tried her hand at the presidency in the 2013 election, representing a smaller party and receiving 0.36% of the vote.
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Women around the world face unique hurdles when running for office in male-dominated institutions. Kenya is no exception. Karua’s opponents have attempted to undermine her based on her gender.
The 2022 race is heated, with major concerns over hate speech. Research has also highlighted the prevalence of sexist rhetoric in politics.
So what does Karua’s appointment mean for women in politics? And what would be the potential impact on gender equality in Kenya if she came to power as Deputy President?
misogyny and gender stereotypes
Opponents of Karua’s political offer began discrediting her immediately after the announcement that she would be a running mate. The attacks were personal and gender specific.
In one example, presidential candidate William Ruto and running mate Rigathi discredited Gachagua Karua during election campaigns in central Kenya, a key electoral bloc. They spoke in Swahili and referred to her as “huyo mama” – meaning “this woman” and did not call her by name.
At another campaign event, MP Sylvanus Osoro questioned Karua’s credibility for taking a leadership role when addressing party supporters. He called her unfit for the Vice President role because she was not married. He indicated that this indicated that she was unreliable and would resign from government should her coalition win.
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Karua’s age and how it overlaps with gender has also been used against her. Rival politicians have referred to her as “cucu,” a Kikuyu term for grandmother. She is 64.
In a country ruled by the politics of personalities, Karua’s competence is framed and viewed through a gendered lens.
Critics point out that she has begun to conform to traditional norms about women. There is certainly evidence that she has changed her political image and strategy from previous campaign bids.
For example, she was said not to have been aggressive enough in the presidential debate, a stark contrast to her longstanding political role as an arsonist and articulate debater. Kenyan media had long branded Karua an “iron lady”.
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Karua has nonetheless gendered her call for support of different demographics. Instead of ignoring negative gender rhetoric, she embraces and repeats the rhetoric to appeal to women, men, mothers and grandmothers.
As she promotes her coalition’s social safety net program, she speaks directly to single mothers:
I am one of you and we have plans for you.
Speaking about Azimio’s youth employment agenda, she presented herself as a mother of this age group:
If you see your mother represented anywhere, she will not forget your problems.
Additionally, the Azimio duo refer to themselves as “mama” (mother) to Karua and “baba” (father) to Odinga, a term that denotes his status as a seasoned politician.
Karua refers to Azimio’s eventual victory as the introduction of “serikali ya baba na mama,” meaning “government by mother and father” – an analogy drawn from a traditional family structure in Kenya, where mother and father have distinct roles .
meaning of a win
It is clear that both sides are once again entrenching gender stereotypes in an election campaign in Kenya.
However, the appointment of Karua as Vice President of Odinga must be seen as a significant step forward.
If Karua’s alliance wins, she will be the first female Deputy President in Kenya, a significant and symbolic victory for Kenyan women. Supporters have praised Karua as a competent leader who has demonstrated integrity and vision.
But the reformist agenda to promote gender equality will not be an easy task for Karua. There are several issues the country faces, including entrenched gender norms that prevent women’s empowerment. Karua’s coalition has specific commitments for women enshrined in its manifesto, including providing funding and key government appointments.
While Karua has a legal background and enjoys support from various professionals and civil society, Kenya’s gender equality issue is not being pushed away by law. It requires a comprehensive transformation.
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Research has shown that political representation does not automatically lead to substantial advances in gender issues. Nevertheless, there is hope. Studies show that, for example, the representation of women in African cabinets is important for promoting gender equality policies.
In addition, the rise of women to the highest political positions, as in the case of President Joyce Banda in Malawi, is empowering women MPs.
The election of a female Deputy President in Kenya could therefore have important transformative implications for gender equality in the country.
Amina Ahmed, Rotary Peace Fellow and Research Associate at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, is a co-author of this article.