Would Kenyan women’s rights be safe under William Ruto? Why they might not be

William Ruto has been declared the winner of the presidential election in Kenya. The final outcome, however, remains uncertain following a challenge from his main competitor, Raila Odinga.

As president, Ruto would be tasked with upholding the 2010 constitution. He overhauled the country’s governance framework by devolving power to county governments. It also enshrined more rights for women and young people.

However, it should be remembered that Ruto led the “no campaign” in the 2010 constitutional referendum. One of the main contestations within Ruto’s camp – which included religious leaders – was the modest provision regarding the right to abortion in specific circumstances.

Ruto and his wife Rachel are devout Christians. In my view, a presidency that publicly foregrounds the centrality of religious leaders and Christianity as a guiding principle is cause for concern in a secular state. This is relevant in a global context in which religious fundamentalism continues to shape gender freedoms in negative ways. So can he be counted on to champion Kenya’s modest victories for women and girls?

Kenya Kwanza’s “Women’s Agenda”

Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza coalition’s 68-page manifesto aims to implement a nine-point ‘women’s agenda’. This includes full implementation of the two-thirds gender rule within 12 months of taking office.

It also promises to provide financial and capacity building support to women through a “Hustler Fund” for women-led cooperative societies. His other pledges include increasing the staffing of gender desks in police stations, tackling spousal consent in land sales, and tackling low access to sanitary pads.

The coalition promises to establish a social welfare fund for Kenyan women working abroad as a safety net for distressed diaspora citizens.

Kenya Kwanza is committed to deploying a sufficient number of community health workers with a regular allowance. The costs will be shared by the national government and the county governments. It also says it will make safe, clean and affordable cooking fuels available.

Most of these commitments are in line with the demands of women’s rights activists that led to the current provisions of the constitution. These demands include those relating to control and ownership of land for women, and the two-thirds rule between the sexes.

Read more: How Kenya courted a constitutional crisis over parliament’s failure to meet gender quotas

Additionally, through donor-funded interventions, work has been done on access to sanitary pads and the establishment of gender desks in police stations.

But the translation of these constitutional aspirations into political positions and actions has been slow. Often it has been deliberately thwarted by political actors.

For example, the failure to fully implement the two-thirds gender rule has been bogged down by male MPs citing “cultural norms” and the need for meritocracy.

At the heart of the full implementation of these policy proposals is the more fundamental issue of structural inequality that is maintained by cultural and religious dictates.

It is here that Ruto’s religiosity and desire to anchor Christianity in particular as the guiding compass of his government becomes critical.

Religion and culture have been noisy undercurrents in debates about rights, justice and freedom. That under Ruto religious leaders and associated lobbies are becoming key players in policy-making is a legitimate fear. Equity-minded Kenyans should keep this in mind if global trends are taken seriously.

Increased global surveillance

Around the world, religious groups and conservative parties have coalesced around policy and legal proposals, often citing a challenge to gender ideology as the basis for limiting the bodily autonomy of women and girls.

In June 2022, the United States Supreme Court overturned the Roe v Wade decision. It was a 1973 ruling that upheld that the US constitution gave women the right to have an abortion, thereby limiting federal and state abortion laws that restricted those rights.

Read more: US abortion law ruling draws attention to women’s rights in Africa

The Roe v Wade decision cements a precedent for bringing together moral and religious positions in policy-making around women’s rights and gender. This precedent was set in the days of former President Donald Trump through federal funding cuts to organizations such as Planned Parenthood.

It was also a period that led to concerted efforts in multilateral spaces, such as the United Nations, to erase the term “gender” and replace it with “women”. This move was intended to thwart conversations about gender equality that were not solely invested in biology as a basis for understanding inequality.

Similar conversations about gender ideology have taken place across Europe in France, Germany and Denmark.

Organized resistance from religious and conservative lobbies and political parties is based on a desire to revert to interpretations of gender equality that curtail the freedoms guaranteed to women and girls for decades.

And then ?

If Kenyan and transnational feminist organizing has taught us anything, it is that preparation rather than response to retrograde forces is key. I offer three key messages.

The first is that the country needs to map out the arguments, institutions and structures that could be deployed to actively overturn hard-won freedoms. Unconstitutionally recognized offices of Parliament, such as those of the First and Second Lady, and County Assemblies are important places to monitor and engage.

Second, as feminist scholar Sonia Correa points out, religious groups working to reverse rights are organized globally. The fight against this backlash against women’s rights must be transnational and global in nature.

Finally, it will be essential to create spaces to protect and secure the most vulnerable from what will be interpreted as a state-sanctioned defense of “Kenya’s morality”.

Feminist history has taught us that when the “soul of a nation” is contested, it is the women, girls and those considered deviant whose bodies will serve as the theater for this battle.