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Is the grass always greener on the other side for Kenyan women?

 Street News Service 31 October 2019

It’s not often that citizens of a more prosperous country are said to cast envious glances towards its less-advantaged neighbour. But in the recent past, Kenyan women must surely look at their Ugandan counterparts and wish nationalities could be exchanged. (1018 Words) - By Joseph Opio

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Uganda's first-ever female Parliament speaker, Rebecca Kadaga being sworn in  Photo: Joseph Opio

While the women empowerment movement in Uganda scored monumental gains last June after Parliament elected Rebecca Kadaga as its first-ever female speaker and even more women were entrusted with strategic ministerial portfolios within the cabinet, Kenyan women were, during the same period, marching onto their own Parliament to protect political rights that seemed guaranteed just a year ago when they overwhelmingly voted for a referendum that ushered in a new constitution.

The new Kenyan constitution was promulgated on August 27, 2019. It's a constitution that promised women many rights, most significantly improved participation in the East African country's political space. To be precise, under Article 81 (b), the Kenyan constitution stipulated that no more than two-thirds of members of elective bodies shall be of the same gender. It's a clause that basically meant an automatic increase in the number of women in decision-making leadership positions.

Yet, a year after its promulgation, the harsh reality on the ground hardly points to any change in the status quo. Women make up less than 10% of the current Kenyan Parliament, with just 22 women out of 224 MPs, according to Federation of Women Lawyers Kenya, FIDA Kenya. The Cabinet is similarly uneven, with just 12 women - six ministers and six assistant ministers - out of 92 ministers. A similar patriarchal streak can be traced through the public service and other decision-making organs of the state.

While Kenyan women were willing to patiently wait to implement the new constitutional reforms via the ballot come elections next year, their anger was sparked last August when the coalition government made public its intention to resist the requirement that women should make up a third of MPs in parliament.

President Mwai Kibaki's office argued that the requirement would be "technically impossible" to achieve since forcing parties to reserve seats for women would cause serious divisions.

Kibaki and his government had belatedly become wary of the constitutional stipulation that provides for gender parity in political party candidate lists, as every third person on political party lists must be a woman, with no more than two-thirds of the 12 members nominated by political parties being of the same gender. The president therefore sought to appoint a task force to draw up a constitutional amendment, scrapping the quota.

Women activists were not impressed.

Hundreds of women leaders marched to Parliament, waving copies of the new constitution and demanding their rights to at least one-third of all elected seats in any governing body.

For activists like Joyce Miguda Majiwa, former chairwoman of FIDA Kenya, these are rights worth fighting to the death for.

"The government is doing men, women, youth and children and ultimately itself no favors by this stance to shortchange women," she argues. "The implementers need to shift their thinking as the constitution transforms the country's way of operating."

Majiwa cites the South African and Rwandese jurisdictions which have successfully employed the two-thirds limit principle and maintains that the principle would work if political parties are compelled to nominate an additional six women in line with article 97(1c) of the constitution.

Majiwa's sister-in-arms, Njoki Njoroge Njehu, a prominent activist, concurs: "We deserve this quota system and we must fight to keep it," she reaffirms, before describing the government's attempts to reverse the quota as a severe lack of courage and vision.

Most Kenyan men think that women should be content with other implemented reforms that, for example, have seen one woman, Nancy Baraza, elevated to the post of deputy Chief Justice, and another, Njoki Ndung'u, appointed as one of the seven Supreme Court judges.

However, women activists insist that they will only get off the war-path if the political elite show as much willingness as their judicial counterparts in securing their constitutional rights; a willingness illustrated when the Chief Justice Willy Mutunga exceeded the two thirds threshold after he appointed 13 women out of the 28 new High Court judges.

Jackson Njihia, a gas pump attendant in Nairobi, thinks women have become too greedy too soon. He is of the view that women are rushing the transition, wanting to grab as much as possible and therefore alienating the goodwill of men who fear getting dominated.

"The government did its part by enshrining these clauses in the constitution," he says. "Sadly, women expect these changes to be implemented overnight. This is actually harming instead of helping their cause as most men who should be partners in this struggle are getting put off by the women's illogical demands. Remember that much as women voted overwhelmingly for the referendum that led to this constitution, there are also men who helped swing the whole thing."

Moses Kamau, a matatu driver, holds the same view. He cites, as example, the decision by FIDA Kenya and six other organizations to run to court and stop the swearing in of five male Supreme Court justices this year after challenging the gender balance in court.

Kamau sees that as a direct result of women suddenly flexing legal muscles simply because they can and maintains that such acts can only be counter-productive.

"Women, all of a sudden, have so much legal power and they are using it irresponsibly. They should choose their battles carefully. They are just fighting each and every battle without worrying about the consequences in the long run. Every small thing that they think isn't pushing their agenda gets dragged to court and in the long run, this will end up costing them the goodwill of their male counterparts."

Not exactly, argues Majiwa who cautions that if women don't resort to the legal process to fight every injustice in its infancy, those charged with implementing the constitution might revert to type.

"For example, the Supreme Court nominations, where only one of five was a woman, does not meet the constitutional principle," she says. "Even though the Deputy Chief Justice [ Nancy Baraza] is part of the Supreme Court, we find there are two women and five men. We should have three versus four instead."

It's a battle of the sexes that the neutral observer hopes will end up with honours even and spoils shared.

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