Women and power: Political participation in Wajir county, Kenya

Women are taking politics in Kenya by storm. For the first time since independence, Kenyans elected 36 women (seven governors, three senators and 26 members of parliament) into various political positions in the August elections. A few years ago, this would have been nearly impossible given the traditionally patriarchal nature of Kenyan politics.

Elders and Wajir women in a consultative forum
Elders and Wajir women in a consultative forum

Women from Wajir county in northeastern Kenya are fighting for their share of representation and power in politics after years of marginalisation and discrimination from leadership and decision-making processes.

The exclusion is attributed to prejudicial biases deeply rooted in cultural, social and gender norms that have for a long time prevented women from participating in politics. Patriarchal norms that assign gender roles traditionally bestow household responsibilities on women and leadership on men.

Devolution of Kenyan governance started in 2013 and created the position of County Woman Representative to ringfence some positions for female political aspirants, but women have not previously been able to secure other seats in the County Assembly.

Mahfudha Abdulahi attempted to run to be a Member of the County Assembly (MCA) representing her local area in the elections in 2013 and 2017 to no avail. In Wajir county, inclusion on the ballot paper required nomination from the traditional Council of Elders, known as the sultans or ugaas. They vet and choose political candidates for election in a system of ‘negotiated democracy’. She stood no chance of being on the ballot.

Mahfudha Abdulahi, Member of County Assembly
Mahfudha Abdulahi, Member of County Assembly

During her third attempt in 2022, the elders were still hesitant to nominate her since it stood against cultural norms. When they finally agreed to give her a chance, it was through a tough process competing with 11 male aspirants. The elders used a randomised process to choose between them, with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ cards thrown on to the ground.

“Whoever picks a ‘yes’ will be nominated,” recounts Mahfudha. “That was the order from the ugaa and his members and the entire community.” She was lucky and picked the ‘yes’ card, which earned her a direct nomination, and consequently she was elected as an MCA during the 2022 general election.

Muna Ahmed, a champion and advocate of women’s rights in Wajir thinks this ‘negotiated democracy’ limits women’s inclusion. “It’s a big barrier to women elected leadership because there is no clan or tribe that will prefer a woman to be a flag bearer or a woman to represent them,” she says. “As a result of that, women inclusion and participation in elected leadership has been limited.”

Muna Ahmed, member of Wajir Women Council
Muna Ahmed, member of the Wajir Women Council

She is one of over 40 women who joined hands in November 2021 to form the Wajir Women Council, with support from International Alert and our partner Focus on Arid Land and Integrated Development (FO-AID), as part of the USAID-funded Tusameheane Tujenge Nchi project on using participatory governance for peacebuilding. The council’s mandate is to support, advocate and create awareness for women aspirants in Wajir county.

The project facilitated the formation of the Wajir Women Council and supported them to conduct meetings with the Council of Elders to discuss affirmative action for the inclusion of women in politics by vetting and approving them to vie for political positions, especially those aspiring to be MCAs.

“We invited the women with the help of International Alert and FO-AID for a series of workshops, meetings and processions,” said Rukia Abdulahi, Chair of the Wajir Women Council. “We also invited the sultanate from every clan to attend the meetings and we talked to them and enlightened them on the importance of involving women in elective positions.”

Rukia Abdulahi (middle) giving a speech during a peaceful procession to advocate for inclusive participation of women in elective politics
Rukia Abdulahi (middle) giving a speech during a peaceful procession to advocate for inclusive participation of women in elective politics

With increased awareness and enhanced capacity, the Council of Elders has started to support female aspirants, which has also motivated the communities to reshape their perceptions about women and politics. In the August 2022 elections, the elders endorsed 11 women to vie for MCA positions as well as nominating the Woman Representative.

“The women leaders approached us through the Wajir Women Council and made a request for inclusion in elective leadership,” said Abdi Mohammed Ali, a Wajir county sultan. “They wanted to compete actively against their male counterparts, unlike in the past when women have been limited to nominated positions in the political set-up in Wajir. We the sultans, ugas and religious leaders have agreed to support them to vie for elective positions as MCAs, as MPs, as senators.”

Of the eleven women candidates who were endorsed by the elders to run as MCA aspirants, three have been successfully elected to office, including Mahfudha. According to Hassan Omar, CEO of FO-AID, the people were very supportive of women candidates during the campaigning period, partly owing to a mind shift where the community and the clan elders are slowly accepting the leadership of women.

“We want to sustain the gains that the project made,” says Hassan. “We are still thinking of how we are going to support the elders and the women, including those who have been elected. We will continue engaging them in our projects so that they can feel we still care about them.”

During the project close-out workshop in December 2021, the Wajir Women Council representatives and others involved in the project gave feedback that the project was ending at a very critical time, when the gains were beginning to take shape. They wanted Alert and USAID to continue supporting their initiative even after the end of the project.

With the continued success of programmes like the Wajir Women Council, the rise of women in Kenyan politics may have only just begun.

Project participants pose for a photo during the project learning workshop
Project participants pose for a photo during the project learning workshop