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Bold Enough to Change the Status Quo; The Story of the Women of the Turkana County Assembly in Kenya

During the 2013 elections in Kenya, the voters of Turkana County, the second largest county in the country did not elect any woman to serve as their Member of the County Assembly (MCA) for any of the 30 county assembly seats.

Additionally, the voters did not elect any woman to the top offices of Governor, Senator or the six single member constituencies in the county. In fact, the only woman elected to office in the expansive county is Hon. Joyce Emanikor, who won the parliamentary seat via the constitutional affirmative action principle, a position popularly known as the “Women Representative.” While not directly elected by the citizens, there are 15 women currently serving as nominated MCAs in the Turkana County Government. These nominated seats are a result of the two-thirds gender principle in the Constitution of Kenya, 2010 that seeks to ensure that “not more than two-thirds of the members of elective and appointive bodies shall be of the same gender.” The principle, clearly outlined in Article 27(8), was well implemented in Turkana and across all the other 46 county assemblies, however has yet to be implemented at the national level. While the implementation of the two-thirds rule at the county level has been lauded as one of the successes of the devolved system of government, the women MCAs who attained their seats thorough it have faced numerous challenges since they were sworn into office in 2013. 

When I traveled to Turkana County to kick off an IRI legislative strengthening program in January 2014, the first thing that struck me was the disadvantaged position that the women in the Turkana County Assembly were in. First and foremost, they were not represented in any county assembly committees, and yet this is where the bulk of the legislative work is conducted. Second, a large majority had not engaged with political processes prior to their nomination and therefore did not understand their basic roles and responsibilities in both the political parties and in the county assembly. In fact, I remember one of the members telling me that her work in the county assembly was to “ensure no one taints the name of her political party in the house” since that is how she had been oriented by the political party that nominated her. Third, the women MCAs faced discrimination both within and outside of the county assembly. Many members in the male-dominated assembly would, for instance, look down on the female members on the basis that they came in under the two-thirds gender principle and thus were not directly elected. In the community, most citizens were not aware of the presence of the women legislators, and those who were, claimed that they are not needed in the assembly; sentiments that have been echoed time and again during national parliamentary debates on the gender quota.

These challenges coupled with a backdrop of a heavily patriarchal community culture presented huge obstacles for the very first batch of women legislators in Turkana County. But those challenges did not deter the women MCAs’ determination to succeed. IRI conducted the first induction training for Turkana’s women MCAs in January 2014, with the training topics focusing mostly on the devolved system of government and the Constitution of Kenya, 2010. Subsequent engagements with the women representatives focused on building their capacity to understand and perform their representative, legislative and oversight roles. Professional development skills such as effective communication were also incorporated in the trainings to equip the women MCAs with the capacity to freely and fully express themselves both in the legislative house and in the community as well.

It did not take long for the women to start achieving success in the Turkana County Assembly.  They first managed to push the county assembly to dissolve all committees so that they can be re-constituted to recognize and subsequently include women MCAs in their membership structures. Then, they presented and successfully passed a legislative motion to have the cross-party “Turkana County Assembly Women Caucus” formally recognized in the assembly. The motion passed in spite of much resistance from the men, some of whom vowed to form their own group, the Men Against Women Empowerment (MAWE), to counter the collective efforts by the women legislators.

Three years down the line, the Turkana women MCAs have become a force to reckon with in the male-dominated assembly. Every time I meet with them, the pride they demonstrate while updating me on their successes always shines through. My last interaction with them late last year was, for me, the peak of their success. Having received IRI-facilitated training on gender responsive budgeting, the women legislators put their skills to use by reviewing the 2016/17 Turkana County Government budget. Through their review, the women MCAs developed gender-focused budgetary priorities that they would advocate for in the assembly, with their highest priority being to increase funding for nutrition and maternity programs in Turkana County. They even went ahead to seek the views of citizens by forming a technical working group with women from civil society and their Turkana County Women Representative, Hon. Joyce Emanikor. 

Kenyans go to the polls in August 2017 and it will definitely not be business as usual as more women have come up to vie for various elective positions, including a woman from the Turkana County Assembly Women Caucus who has declared her interest to vie for the Governor’s seat. It is successes like this that make me proud of the work that I do, working with women who are bold enough to change the status quo, and this March I celebrate such women!