The lounge next to the dining room in Kenya's parliament looks like a classic men's club interior with dark, deep leather armchairs. But today there are not just men in suits using them anymore; they have had to make way for some women too. Cecily Mbarire is one of the 87 women elected to the House and Senate. After three terms in Parliament, she is an experienced politician. More dresses in the corridors of power are critical to advance issues that matter to women - and for development - Cecily argues.
– We can also influence budgets to be more sensitive to the needs of women. If you look at issues like education, health, and specifically reproductive health, or issues affecting children. Those are issues that are closer to the woman’s heart, she says, and continues:
– Also, poverty is very high and so you must start thinking of empowering women economically so that they can be able to lift their families - and the nation as a whole. You need women in politics to be able to influence the development agenda, she says.
Through support from Sida to the UN agency UN Women, several women parliamentarians and other women leaders, such as judges, has had the opportunity to participate in a leadership program.
– The training has helped me build the necessary skills to make the right decisions and to focus on the right issues - issues that are close to women, Cecily says.
She explains that the training made them think about what it means to be a leader and woman and how to represent the voters. But the capacity building has also worked as a support group for women in high-rank positions in Kenya.
– Through the support mechanism for women leaders we are able to give a shoulder to each other both through the good and bad times. It really helps to build confidence and also to empower women to improve as leaders, she says.
Cecily has participated in several training sessions and today she serves as a mentor for other young female politicians. However, that is not the only way that she has paved way for women in politics in Kenya. When she became pregnant with her second child, she was already a parliamentarian. And when the time came to give birth, she asked for maternity leave. It was the first time that a politician asked for parental leave from the work as an MP and there were no policies to refer to.
– This highlighted the need to develop a maternity policy, not just for just the staff but also the MPs. Now we have a maternity policy in place and as we speak there are three young women in parliament who are about to deliver and they will benefit from this. I was happy that my case brought forth the maternity policy, she says.
According to Cecily women legislators have been successful and created many changes. She mentions examples such as the sexual offenses legislation, laws against female genital mutilation and the new constitution which now has an affirmative action for the underrepresented sex. However, there are still big challenges for women who engage in politics.
You have to fight some serious cultural barriers and cultural issues that prevent gender equality. In general you are dealing with a patriarchal society that didn’t accept for women in politics before affirmative action, she says.
In spite of the challenges, she still has a positive vision for the future.
– If my daughter asks me about the future as a girl, I will tell her without a shred of doubt that the sky is the limit. The possibilities for her to realize her dreams are wider now. I would tell her that you are going to live in a better world than I grew up in, Cecily says and continues:
– I see a future where it will be easier for women to get into politics and I have no doubt that we will end up with a female president one day in Kenya.
The bell rings to mark the beginning of the next debate in the parliament. The armchairs in the lounge are empty again. In the courtyard of the parliament building Cecily bumps into a female colleague, they greet and chat. The sound of their high heels when they walk into the building is the last thing you hear before the courtyard becomes still and quiet.