Researching the political participation of women in Kenya

Kenya's new constitution has given rise to much hope. Whether it will also increase the political participation of women is something Shillah Memusi is researching at the BIGSAS graduate school in Bayreuth.

If all had gone according to plan, Shillah Memusi would have been doing her doctorate at Edinburgh in Scotland, as she had already been admitted for a PhD at the university there. Funding proved a stumbling block, however. "I never thought of Germany when I was looking for a university to gain my PhD. If I had been looking into an engineering programme, yes, but African Studies in Germany?"

To Bayreuth via Manchester and Nairobi

At a friend's suggestion, she entered "African Studies" and "Germany" into her search engine and quickly found herself on the website of the Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies (BIGSAS) at the University of Bayreuth. She had already completed her master's at the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester and then conducted research at Strathmore Law School in Nairobi. In opting for Bayreuth, she picked one of the most renowned centres of African studies in Germany for her PhD. Its latest addition, the "Africa Multiple" cluster of excellence launched in January 2019, will only increase its reputation. This Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) funding for top-class research will result, for instance, in new chairs being created and in more interdisciplinarity in African studies at Bayreuth. Collaboration with academic institutions in Africa will also be stepped up. In her doctoral thesis, Shillah Memusi is exploring how the lives of people in Kenya – and especially the lives of women – have been changed by the country's new constitution which the population voted for in a 2010 referendum. "There was a lot of hype about the new constitution. So my idea was to check how change is coming about", is how Memusi describes her motivation.

Is the constitution living up to its promise?

Admitted to the BIGSAS as a junior fellow, Memusi has been living in Bayreuth since October 2015, interrupted by a seven-month period spent conducting field research in her home country. In her doctoral thesis, the Kenyan has been looking at the political representation of women in Kenya – based on the example of Kajiado and Narok Counties in the south of the country, which are mainly home to the Maasai. The constitution, which came into force in 2013, promises a great deal in this respect: it stipulates that at least a third of the members of the County Assemblies, the National Assembly and the Senate must be women. This criterion has been met at the county level, though only because women, as required by the constitution, were nominated for seats that are reserved for them. Not a single woman was elected during the 2017 elections. Women were at least voted in for the first time as governors and senators, however. Currently, only 23 percent of the members of the National Assembly and the Senate are women.

Women are politically underrepresented all over the world, with a few notable exceptions. What matters in this debate is understanding the realities that keep women from political participation, and tailoring policies to address their underrepresentation.

What keeps women from active political participation

"Women are politically underrepresented all over the world, with a few notable exceptions. What matters in this debate is understanding the realities that keep women from political participation, and tailoring policies to address their underrepresentation", explains Memusi. She goes on to say that it is difficult for women in Kenya to get involved in politics because they are accused – by men and women alike – of neglecting their "real duties", namely taking care of the family at home. "It is largely a matter of socialisation, and how this influences attitudes and behaviour towards public and political engagement", explains Memusi. She sees a lack of education and financial resources as further obstacles on the path to political participation. For the Maasai, there is an additional language barrier, as many people in rural regions do not have a sufficiently good command of either English or Swahili, the country's two official languages. "The constitution was not translated into any of the local languages", says Memusi.

Breathing life into the constitution

One of Memusi's conclusions is that most people, no matter how enthusiastic they may be about the new constitution, do not realise the significance of the new rights of women in their everyday lives. She believes that life has yet to be breathed into the constitution, and regards this as the job of state institutions. "They have to go back to the communities and find out how to approach the issue of public participation of women at the local level." Shillah Memusi recently submitted her doctoral thesis. If her recommendations are taken to heart, that is to say if politicians now base their actions on scientific findings, that would be the most gratifying outcome for the young researcher.

Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies (BIGSAS)

Nearly 100 junior fellows from 27 countries in Africa, America, Asia, and Europe are currently doing a PhD at the Graduate School of African Studies that has been run at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Bayreuth for over ten years. While writing their theses, the young researchers there are supervised by three-member teams. The supervisors and mentors come from the University of Bayreuth or one of the six partner universities in Arabic-, English-, French- and Portuguese-speaking countries of Africa, and represent such diverse disciplines as anthropology, geography, history, law, linguistics, literature, media studies, religious studies, sociology, and political science.


This article was originally published in the Research in Germany newsletter April 2019.

April 2019

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