David Mwere writes about women's representation in the Kenyan parliament following the failure of a bill to require no more than two-thirds of the parliament be made up of one gender. He discusses the differences between descriptive, substantive and symbolic representation:
The gender principle in political representation is meant to ensure equity between the two genders. No gender should be more than two thirds of those in elective and appointive public positions. The world over, there are three types of gender representation that have been tested and tried. They include descriptive, substantive and symbolic representation.
Descriptive representation is something like what we are trying to achieve – to have as many women as are needed to achieve what Article 81 of the constitution requires. In substantive representation, the quality, performance and effectiveness of representation come into play as opposed to the merely descriptive.
In this case women are not just chosen for the sake of it, it is their ability to deliver that will inform the end. However, in Kenya we are not yet at this stage. This means before we reach substantive or quality representation, we have to pass through the descriptive route to give the women the pedestal or an opportunity to flourish, nurture and mentor before moving to the next stage.
It is also important to note that the entry point to descriptive representation is a third, or what is called the critical mass, or 33.33 per cent. This critical mass helps to build role models that also add a critical voice. Until we transit through descriptive representation, we cannot say we have the quality of women to provide proper representation, oversight, legislation and budget making.
The few women that we have in the 11th Parliament have been branded “flower girls” because of their inability to discharge their duties effectively.
In symbolic representation, we are talking of a window-dressing public relations exercise. It is a case of a single voice in the wilderness, a voice that cannot move the women’s agenda. This is tokenism representation and is replicated by having at least a woman at the top level of any government agency, whether ministerial, commission, independent office or parastatal.