Constitutional Change Empowers Political Women in Kenya

The August 2012 elections in Kenya will open doors to massive political participation by women for the first time ever, and the new constitution in effect since August 2010 contains a provision that should radically change political representation for women in this East African country.

Women’s rights activists in Kenya are confident that as a result of constitutional Article 81 (b), which states that “not more than two-thirds of the members of elective public bodies shall be of the same gender,” their problems of under-representation in key government bodies will become a thing of the past.

Kenya is a patriarchal society where women only gained equal rights to inherit land when the new constitution entered into force. And women who speak out are often seen as social misfits.

For example, when the late Prof Wangari Maathai opposed the construction of a 60-story building in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, senior male political leaders of the government of then president Daniel arap Moi called her a madwoman.

But a radical change is in store, because now women must form one-third of any elective public body.

And the principle of two-thirds gender equilibrium has already been implemented in some key appointments made since the new constitution was promulgated. In all the commissions and other constitutional offices that have been formed, the rule has been followed.

For the first time in Kenya’s 48 years of independence, one-third of the members of the Supreme Court, the commission on revenue allocation, the commission for the implementation of the constitution and the salaries and remuneration commission are now women.

But the real windfall will come with the August general elections.

In the new constitution, Kenya adopted a devolved government made up of the national and county governments. And instead of a 224-member single-chamber National Assembly, there will be a National Assembly as well as a Senate representing the 47 counties into which the country has been divided. There will also be a County Assembly.

In the National Assembly, where there are currently 210 popularly elected members, 12 members nominated by the parties, and the attorney-general and house speaker as ex-officio members, there will be 290 elected members, 47 female county representatives, and 12 nominated members, bringing the total to 349.

And the new Senate will be made up of one person elected from each county, as well as 21 nominated members, including at least 16 women; two members representing young people – a woman and a man; two members representing people with disabilities – again a woman and a man; and a speaker.

The 47 representatives of the counties are elected members and can be either men or women, while the nominated members are picked by their parties.

The constitution commits political parties to ensure that for every three party members presented to vie for political office, one must be a woman. And if she fails to be elected, a woman must be nominated by the party.

Women currently hold fewer than 10 percent of the seats in parliament, with just 22 women out of 224 members – although that is the largest number ever. And in the cabinet, there are only six women out of a total of 40 ministers.

Meeting the one-third goal easier said than done

A proposed amendment drafted by Justice Minister Mutula Kilonzo offers a formula to be adopted if the elections fail to yield the requisite number of women to ensure that not more than two-thirds of the members of parliament are men, as stipulated by Article 81 (b) of the constitution.

If not enough women are elected and nominated, the bill proposes increasing the number of legislators from 349 to 449 in the National Assembly, and from 67 to 90 in the Senate.

Thus, Kenyan taxpayers would end up paying more, in order to fulfil the gender rule, if the elections fail to yield 100 women plus the 47 who must be nominated to represent the counties.

Minister Kilonzo says money is not on his mind now. “If Kenyans don’t want to spend extra money, they should vote in 100 women during the elections, which will add to the 18 who will be in the Senate and 47 who will be automatically elected to represent the counties. If not, we shall have to work with this temporary measure to top up (the number of) women.”

Welcomed by women

Many women leaders, both in government and civil society, are happy with the constitutional provisions.

Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings’ a motivated woman of politics from Ghana recently announced that she will contest President John Atta Mills’ candidacy in the National Democratic Congress' (NDC) presidential primaries. A paramount chief called on her husband, former president Jerry Rawlings to stop his wife from pursuing the presidency in order to save his reputation.

“We have been called names and struggled to make a mark in this male-dominated society, but now it is upon us to come out in large numbers and vote in women leaders because we have suffered a lot. After all, we are the majority,” says Water Minister Charity Ngilu, the first woman to run for the presidency in Kenya, in 1997. She emerged sixth, behind five men.

MP Martha Karua, who is vying for the presidency this year, shares Ngilu’s sentiments. “Women understand the problems in this country, they are not corrupt and they want to change the way Kenya is governed. The constitution is our stepping stone; let us use it to bring prosperity to our beloved country,” she told IPS.

Former MP Paul Muite, a prominent Nairobi lawyer who is also gunning for the presidency, welcomes the provision but is worried that men might now find themselves in a similar situation of under-representation.

“Given the history of this country, women might vote in very many of their own to outnumber the men. But we shall apply the same law if that happens. But for now, let us do what the law says, because that is the price for democracy,” Muite told IPS.

Priscilla Nyokabi, the director of the Kituo Cha Sheria (Centre for Legal Empowerment), is urging other civil society activists to be vigilant and make sure that the government follows the new law. “This will bring development to all Kenyans because men are selfish and only think about themselves,” she told IPS.

And Rael Masimba, a divorced woman who lives on the streets of Nairobi, is planning to go home and sue her cousins for her father’s land, which she had been denied when her parents died because she is a woman and was married at the time.

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By Protus Onyango

Source: IPS News

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