As Kenyans vote for a new president and county councils, they will also be voting for an increased number of female candidates. Prior to Kenya’s upcoming elections, Micah Cheserem, chairman of the Kenyan Commission on Revenue Allocation, urged his fellow citizens to elect women as their county ward representatives. Cheserem’s remarks followed a heated debate as to how the constitutionally-mandated quotas for women representatives should be implemented. In December, the Kenyan Supreme Court ruled female political quotas not applicable for the 2013 election; instead, the Supreme Court ruled to progressively establish gender quotas by August 2015.
The product of a larger Kenyan debate, the constitutionally mandated quotas represent how best to confront the historic marginalization of women. Last year, the Poverty Action Lab researched possible impacts of a similar women’s quota system on villages in India. The study found a significant change in local perceptions among both men and women regarding the effectiveness of female leaders. Additionally, the study revealed a change in social perceptions whereby men no longer associated women with strictly domestic activities. Similarly, the presence of female political leadership increased aspirations in both adolescent girls and their parents.
The Poverty Action Lab findings reinforce existing research that suggests positive spillover benefits of participatory democracy for those involved. As Terrence E. Cook stated in his 1971 book Participatory Democracy, ”Political participation can have an intrinsic as well as instrumental value, that it can be an important factor in human growth and development.”
Addressing gender disparities remains a top priority in discussions surrounding the post-2015 development goals. A 2010 UNIFEM report observed that “progress is slowest on the gender dimensions of these targets – from improving maternal health and access to decent work to eradicating hunger.” The Gender and Development Network recently published a report titled, “Achieving Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in the Post-2015 Framework” that emphasizes the need for women’s empowerment in the post-2015 development agenda. The report discusses the pervasive injustice faced by women around the world, observing that women still make up a far greater portion of the poorest and most marginalized groups than men. This data is especially true in regards to the services measured by the Millennium Development Goals.
A United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) report exploring ways local level government can be used to promote gender equality stated, “Unless decentralization policies include specific measures to mainstream gender, women’s participation in local development processes will remain minimal.”
Unfortunately, even if politicians at the national level advocate for women’s access to basic services, many obstacles in implementation may still remain at the local level. Obstacles often include centralized fiscal planning, human resource issues, legal problems, and cultural pressures. Because many female representatives view attaining gender equality as a personal responsibility, increasing the number of female representatives in local level government likely improves women’s access to basic services.
Participatory local governance structures exhibit a distinct ability to include women in the political process and to encourage greater gender equity. While countries work to resolve various cultural pressures surrounding the historical marginalization of women, it is important for policymakers to agree upon a legal framework that encourages female political inclusion. Such a framework serves as the basis of authority and protects against the marginalization of female voices.