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Kenya's women leaders look to new president to keep his promises

william ruto

Kenyan President William Ruto, who was sworn into office on Tuesday, is taking power at a time when the country has the largest number of elected female representatives in history - and they want him to keep his promise of getting more women into politics.

"A significant dividend of our electoral and democratic process is the tremendous achievement we made in breaking the glass ceiling by enhancing the participation of women in leadership," he told a cheering crowed at his inauguration.

Ruto promised on the campaign trail to uphold a 2010 constitutional clause that says no more than two-thirds of any elected body can be comprised of one gender, and promised to ensure government hiring bodies observe the rule as well. This clause has never been fulfilled and many women politicians say it must be.

Record numbers of Kenyan women were elected in August. The number of female governors more than doubled while the number of female parliamentarians jumped by nearly a third.

"We will look back and say this time was really historical," said lawyer Susan Kihika, who was elected as the first female governor of Kenya's populous Nakuru County during the August parliamentary, presidential and county polls.

"But we are nowhere near where we need to be," said Kihika, one of seven female governors out of a total of 47 - about 15%. Female parliamentarians are a slightly larger proportion, at about 23%.

One reason: Female candidates face abuse and physical assault, deterring many women from running. They need better protection on the campaign trail, said Kihika.

Ruto was the only one of four presidential candidates without a female running mate in the August election, though he has promised to give more power to women in politics.

"We shall allocate 50% of all cabinet positions to the women of Kenya," he told a campaign rally in June, to cheers and vuvuzela horns from the crowd.

In 2020, the then-chief justice of the Kenyan Supreme Court ordered parliament to be dissolved for failing to implement the gender rule. Kenya's high court later suspended the order's implementation and there has been little movement on the issue since then.

Margaret Toili, a former parliamentary candidate, was one of the petitioners and has drafted a new petition to file, she told Reuters.

"We are still not implementing the two-thirds law," Toili told Reuters. "They are facing the same consequences: dissolve parliament."

Political parties must also encourage more women to run, said Mercy Mwangi, coordinator of the Kenya Women Parliamentary Association.

Mwangi said progress had been helped by a clause in the 2010 constitution that created 47 parliamentary seats reserved for women, out of a total of 350. Two of the seven female governors elected in this cycle were previously women's representatives, as were four parliamentarians.

"It's actually creating a stepping stone for women," she said.

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