Women in Kenya have been making great, if still insufficient, strides toward equality in recent years.
Many were inspired by the internationally recognized struggles for economic and social progress by the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathi. Many more felt empowered by the 2010 Constitution that explicitly guaranteed equal property rights protection regardless of gender.
As Felogene Anumo, an activist promoting women’s civic engagement in Kenya, put it, “I can say we are in the halfway. We came from far but we are going even further. (…) Women should take up their role to speak out against issues they face. Unless you speak out, we will never really know what the problem is.”
But while the new Constitution gave women the confidence to speak out, one of its well-intentioned provisions meant to boost gender equality in political representation may backfire.
Kenya’s general elections are scheduled for March 2013 and Article 81(b) of the Constitution stipulates that no more than two-thirds of members of any elective public body should be composed of the same gender. This means that for the first time in the country’s history women have a chance to become prominently represented in the National Assembly, the Senate, and the 47 new county governments that will come into force after the election.
The Constitution spells out how this rule should be achieved for County Assemblies but it does not detail how it will be realized for the Senate and the National Assembly, necessitating legislation on the issue. Under the ideal scenario, women would compete head-to-head with men and the gender rule would be fulfilled through the voters’ choice.
The problem is this: if not enough women are elected, that will amount to a breach of the Constitution.
One proposed solution would be to create special seats where, after the election, political parties would nominate additional female Members of Parliament (MPs) and Senators to meet the gender rule.
However, the idea faces stiff opposition among the lawmakers for several reasons. First, the number of additional women nominees would be impossible to determine until after the election since it depends on how many men are elected. Second, appointing women to additional seats would mean a Parliament with a sizable group of unelected members.
Finally, adding extra MPs and Senators would expand the size of the National Assembly and the Senate beyond the constitutionally envisioned 349 and 67 members, respectively. And then there is the steep price tag of that expansion: estimated Ksh 4 billion (USD 50 million) annually.
The Parliament needs to act now or face a constitutional crisis. What Kenyan women fear is politicians taking an easy way out and simply scrapping Article 81(b).
“As the debate continues, all eyes are on Kenya to see how it will deal with this considering our Constitution is the most progressive in the region,” said Rosemary Okello, Executive Director of the African Woman and Child Feature Service.
Indeed, the document is considered one of the most progressive constitutions in Africa because of its comprehensive bill of rights, including women’s rights. Yet, implementing these provisions in practice is a challenge given that Kenya lags far behind its neighbors when it comes to women’s participation in politics.
Only 9.8 percent of MPs in Kenya are women, compared to 56.3 percent in Rwanda, 35 percent in Uganda, and 30.5 percent in Burundi.
Millicent Odhiambo, a board member of Sauti ya Wanawake (Voice of Women), a local women's movement in the Coast region of Kenya, adds that women will not sit and watch as they are being locked out of leadership positions provided for by the Constitution. Quoted in The County Weekly, she says they are ready to hold countrywide protests if the Parliament scraps article 81(b).
“Fears that the one-third rule will not work are unfounded. We have competent and qualified women who can fill leadership positions as well as vie for other seats,” concludes Sauti ya Wanawake’s Chair Dorcas Gibran.
Kenyan women understand that more than politics is at stake because insufficient political representation of women translates into limited opportunities in the economic sphere as well.
National Gender and Equality Commission chair Winnie Lichuma explains, “Those calling for scrapping the two-thirds gender rule are those hell-bent on clinging on the status quo of keeping women at the periphery of leadership. They fail to understand that sidelining a section of the population from key decision-making is one way of isolating that section from wealth creation, which is counter-productive to development.”
Given the legislative deadlock, resolving the issue through the Supreme Court decision seems more likely.
But whatever the outcome might be, organizations such as the Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya (FIDA) are taking action on the ground by organizing public awareness campaigns to educate the electorate on the importance of having women in Parliament, and planning to sponsor women candidates across the spectrum of political parties.
One can only hope that with such determined women leaders Kenya is heading toward greater gender empowerment, not a constitutional crisis.