Gender Representation in East African Politics: A Case Study of Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya

Creating a democratic society depends on women’s equal involvement in governance.


Women’s equal participation in politics is a crucial step toward achieving gender equality, Sustainable Development Goals, and progress for all. It is not only empowering for the women engaged, but benefits their communities, countries, and Africa as a whole.

The proportion of women in political parties, legislative and executive arms of government may be significant in some cases, but what matters is how these numbers translate into bettering policy direction and content. One such way is to compare the ratio of budgets under the control of women to the number of women elected to cabinet positions. According to a study by the International Republican Institute, the average percentage of budgets that women in cabinet posts oversee is 18.9%. This demonstrates that the effort made to increase women’s presence in politics in Africa is, at best, merely symbolic and, at worst, redundant.

Governments need to demonstrate gender equality in their leadership and decision-making bodies by not only increasing female representation in ministerial and elected positions but also by fostering gender-equitable work cultures in state institutions. Adopting gender-responsive policies and practices in governing institutions ensures that female leaders are able to function and perform their services in an open and inclusive work environment. In this blog, we examine three case studies: Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda, and propose methods to attain gender parity in political participation in East Africa.

East Africa Case Studies

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The only long-term solution to significantly improve women’s representation is to increase their participation in elective politics.

1. Rwanda

According to the 2021 edition of the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s “Women in Parliament” report, Rwanda continued to be the nation with the highest ratio of women in elected office in the world, with women holding 61% of the country’s legislative seats. Rwanda was also placed sixth in the report for having 50% or more female ministers.

After the October and November 2003 elections, women won 48.8% of the seats in Parliament, catapulting Rwanda into a country with the world’s highest proportion of women in parliament. This put Rwanda ahead of Sweden, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, and Norway, which are leaders in women’s participation in politics. Over time, the proportion of women in parliament increased, and in 2008, the Rwandan parliament became the first in which women were the majority. Women held 63.8% of the seats in Parliament. The 2003 electoral success has its origins in the quota strategies pursued by all parties since 1999. The effective implementation of gender quotas in Rwanda has spurred a discussion about the role played by female legislators in attaining equality as well as the symbolic, descriptive, and substantive representation of female MPs.

On one hand, specific legislative objectives and standards make a significant difference in female representation in politics. For instance, the constitution in Rwanda requires that at least 30% of positions with decision-making authority be held by women. Rwanda in reality has surpassed this with the current number of women in the parliament at 63 %. According to Prof. Jeannette Bayisenge, Rwanda’s minister of gender and planning, increasing gender equality promotes peacebuilding, boosts economic growth, lowers poverty, improves societal well-being, and contributes to sustainable development, which has in many ways been evident in Rwanda.

On the other hand, despite the seeming progress made at the forefront, there are arguments that this is not replicated locally as Rwanda remains a strongly patriarchal society. According to Justine Uvuza, a PhD candidate at Newcastle University, some of these women may have felt more obligated to carry out their responsibilities outside the home than liberated by the very genuine progress they were making. As she put it in her study, “Hidden inequalities: Rwandan female politicians’ experiences of managing familial and political responsibilities,” being a “good Rwandan” meant being both patriotic — serving her nation through her job and public work — and also meek and serving her spouse. As a result, according to Justine, a female politician may speak in front of the legislature to support causes like tougher laws against sexual assault and free or discounted maxi-pads for the poor, but she may be too afraid to speak out against abuse or violence at home.

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2. Uganda

In Africa, Uganda was one of the first nations to implement reserved seat quotas in 1989 after the Museveni administration implemented reserved seats for women at all levels, from local councils to the parliament, ensuring that women held at least one-third of the seats. The National Resistance Movement (NRM), the country’s ruling party, decided to implement the quota policy in response to lobbying from women’s organisations. Women’s participation in politics in Uganda has increased as a result of several causes. These include calls for greater involvement from women and women’s organisations, the impact of the global feminist movement, and Uganda’s chaotic political and economic history, which has provided opportunities for creative political projects.

Despite this, women in Ugandan politics continue to experience a great deal of hardship due to a variety of issues, including unequal access to education, poverty, domestic labour, discrimination, male dominance, and enduring gender stereotypes. Uganda is a patriarchal society that has been heavily influenced by both culture and religion. The idea that women should follow rather than take the lead is prevalent. Women’s advancement in political engagement is therefore impacted by traditional views on gender equality. In the majority of Ugandan communities, women are regarded and treasured as daughters and mothers who, upon marriage, will bring dowry to the family. Society holds women accountable for passing on cultural values to the younger generation because they are also viewed as the keepers of culture and customs. In most cases, their male opponents utilise these to marginalise and support the exclusion of women from politics.

Equal participation of women in Uganda’s local decision-making processes is essential in order to prioritise women’s demands in local government agendas and achieve sustainable development goals. Women’s engagement and representation in local government councils create opportunities for them to further their own interests and participate in political decision-making.

An article by Monitor suggests that the creation and support of a mentoring programme that increases women’s self-confidence and interest in politics are necessary to achieve equal political representation and ensure that women benefit from local government programmes. The programme should assist women in realising that serving in public office is a call to civic duty and does not harm family life. Finally, persuasive storytelling, and mass media campaigns that use radio, social media, and gatherings where successful women leaders may share their experiences can all help to improve mindset transformation.

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3. Kenya

According to a report by the National Gender and Equality Commission, Kenya’s 2022 elections saw a record number of women win seats in the legislature. Kenyans elected 30 female MPs, up from 23, seven female governors, up from 3, and the same number of female senators as in 2017. Three out of the four vice presidential candidates were female, and there were twice as many women standing for governorships than in prior elections. In Kenya, women are required by law to take up at least one-third of all appointed and elected bodies, but this criterion is not followed in reality as only 23% of the National Assembly and Senate are made up of women, including seats designated exclusively for female legislators.

Although gradual, the Kenyan general elections in 2022 mark a significant improvement in the representation of women. Many women, those who were successful and those who failed, have stepped out to demonstrate that, despite decades of discrimination against women in political leadership, they are capable of being leaders just like anyone else. Since the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution, there have been more women elected to represent the people than there were in 2002 when only four women were elected to Parliament. The only long-term solution to significantly improve women’s representation is to increase their participation in elective politics.

In Kenya, women face a host of obstacles: inadequate political support from their parties, particularly in the primaries; a lack of financial resources; gender-based violence; gender stereotyping; and patriarchal structures across society. A good number of women get frustrated into quitting the campaigns at the level of party nominations. This is because men have dominated the political party decision-making structures. Given that locally elected officials typically only get support from the community chiefs if they are native to the community, most married women are also disadvantaged as they get now belong to their husband’s clan.

One of the recommendations made by the 2017 International Election Observation Mission and Pre-Election Assessment Mission of the NDI in Kenya was to make sure that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, political parties, civil society, the media, and the security sector all quickly act to remove significant barriers that prevent women, young people, the disabled, and other marginalised groups from fully participating in all aspects of the electoral process. These obstacles essentially exclude 50% of the population as a whole, and when taken together, their impacts lead to the exclusion of women and other marginalised communities in Kenya. Increasing the engagement of women in elective politics is the only sustainable way to enhance their representation.

Key Takeaways

  • Despite several international, regional, and national laws that give women the right to equal political participation and representation as citizens, gender disparity in access to political leadership in Africa continues.
  • Rwanda has the highest percentage of women in parliament (61.3%) globally and is a model for gender equality, yet shockingly, sexual violence and strong patriarchal systems are still prevalent there.
  • Uganda is a patriarchal society; the idea that women should follow rather than take the lead is prevalent, making advancement in political engagement harder because of traditional views on gender equality.
  • In Kenya, women are required by law to take up at least one-third of all appointed and elected bodies, but only 23% of the National Assembly and Senate are made up of women currently, including seats designated exclusively for female legislators.
  • Closing the gender gap by upholding women’s rights to political participation requires cross-cutting approaches to national and local issues and specific actions from key institutions.
  • Adopting gender-responsive policies and practices in governing institutions ensures that female leaders are able to function and perform their services in an open and inclusive work environment

Contributed By 
ALN Academy

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