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©VSO/Adriane Ohanesian

"I was a lone ranger"

Esther Murugi has blazed a trail for women in Kenyan politics, but, as Sarah Ditum reports, much still needs to be done to increase women’s participation and influence in politics, both in Kenya, and across the world.

Her warm, composed presence belies it, but 63-year-old Esther Murugi Mathenge is a fighter.  

Esther Murugi ©VSO/Adriane Ohanesian

Esther in her office in Kenya.

Murugi served as MP for Nyeri Town in central Kenya, from 2007 to August 2017, and held the offices of Minister for Gender and Children’s Affairs (2008 to 2010) and Minister for Special Programmes (2010 to 2013).

Her career has put Murugi at odds with deeply held prejudices about women and power. “Unfortunately, Kenyan politics is seen as a man’s world and you are a trespasser. I can assure you that becoming a minister was not easy. I was a lone ranger,” she explains. She says that female politicians face violence both physical and verbal. 

The danger is real - Kenya’s election earlier this month has been marred by violence, including the murder of a leading official, with violence continuing after the election following claims of rigging. Unrest after the 2007 election left 1,100 people dead and 600,000 displaced.

When I first started as minister, I spoke to older women who felt that their government had forgotten them.

But while Kenya has specific tensions, the issue of women’s representation in politics is global. Worldwide, only 20% of parliamentarians are female, and only 17% of those occupy ministerial roles. At local level, women make up just 20% of elected councillors, and the picture is even more damning at the highest level: a mere 15 of 193 heads of government are women.  

In nations including Kenya, Nepal and Myanmar VSO is working to change this at every level of politics, from the grassroots, and village councils, to local and national government. For example, VSO backs the Kenya Women Parliamentary Association (KEWOPA), supporting women in politics, which Murugi has worked with since 2008.

Esther with beneficiaries of the Cash Transfer for the Elderly programme ©VSO/Adriane Ohanesian

Esther greets women in the Cash Transfer for the Elderly programme in Nyeri, Kenya.

Though the UK has a female prime minister in Theresa May, women politicians in the UK face many of the same challenges as Murugi. Thangam Debbonaire, MP for Bristol West, has pointed out that finance, a lack of flexibility for maternity leave and family responsibilities, and direct abuse serve to keep women out of politics. While the balance of parliament has been shifted by initiatives such as the Conservatives’ Women2Win, Labour Women’s Network and, most of all, Labour’s use of all-women shortlists, women still make up only 32% of UK MPs. 

That’s a serious problem, not just because it points to systemic sexism in the under-representation of a group that makes up half the population, but also because without women in decision-making positions, women’s interests aren’t taken into account. “Every time you need something to change significantly in the law, you need women MPs. And you don’t just need women MPs, you need feminist MPs,” says Debbonaire.  

Esther in her office ©VSO/Adriane Ohanesian

Esther at work in Nyeri, Kenya.

That’s certainly been shown by Murugi’s career. More than 25 years ago, her work with the women and girls’ volunteer organisation Soroptimist International exposed her to the hardships women in Nyeri faced, inspiring her to seek political office. Remote water supplies left women walking hours to obtain the water to drink and with which to cook, clean and irrigate crops; inadequate access to hospitals was harming both women and their children; and a lack of education for girls was restricting them to stereotypical roles as wives and mothers. As Member of Parliament for Nyeri, Murugi prioritised these issues.

Becoming a minister meant she could set her sights on national reform: her biggest achievement is the Kenya-wide Cash Transfer for the Elderly programme, again inspired by her direct experience of women’s lives. “When I first started as minister, I spoke to older women who felt that their government had forgotten them,” she says.

“Many had never worked so they didn’t have a pension, or anyone to look after them. This scheme evaluates over 65s who haven’t been employed or who don’t have children to support them and who are in poverty. They are given cash every month to buy food and medicine, and they get free hospital treatments. I can see people looking healthier and happier. That’s your aim as a politician. I’ve not seen a male politician think of them.”

Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life.

UN Sustainable Development Goal

There are still too few women in Kenyan politics. The 2017 elections have been hailed as a breakthrough because of the success of Kenya’s first female governors in four regions, but in the National Assembly, progress is slow. In addition to the 47 women representatives required by the constitution, 23 female MPs were elected. That’s a total of 70, only a tiny increase on the total of 65 after 2013’s general election and well short of 30-35 per cent “critical mass” figure - the level of female representation that the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) suggests as the threshold at which women begin to change the male-dominated political culture. In Kenya, as in the rest of the world, parity is still a long way off: if current trends continue, it will be 2065 before women have equal representation, and then another seven decades before half the world’s leaders are female. 

Esther with mothers in Kenya ©VSO/Adriane Ohanesian

Esther Murugi Mathenge speaks with mothers at the Karia Health Center in Nyeri, Kenya.

Because poverty disproportionately affects females and because women’s circumstances are so closely tied to their children’s outcomes, putting women at the heart of policy is critical to the development of the whole nation. Having women in politics creates role models for female participation in public life, challenging, the often, conventional ideas about masculine dominance and feminine servitude.

The Sustainable Development Goals have set a target of ensuring ‘women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life’ by 2030. So now the focus is realising this objective, through action and implementation and ideally, CEDAW’s 30% figure should be seen as a beginning and not an end in itself. As Murugi has demonstrated, women have a vital role to play in government. But as she says herself: “We’ve still not made it… we need to do a lot of work.” 


Find more about VSO’s work around gender here.

Further reading on poverty disproportionately impacting women and girls here.