Kenya’s New Constitution Protects Women’s Rights

On August 5th, jubilant supporters celebrated a new dawn for Kenya. Sixty-seven percent of votes cast endorsed the new constitution, passed more than two decades after reform was first proposed.

Soon after the results were announced, Senior Counsel Paul Muite, a former member of the Kenyan parliament, expressed joy at the victory, equating it to the jubilation experienced when Kenya attained independence in 1963. Muite said,

This is the rebirth of the state of Kenya in the sense that expectations of independence in 1963 were never realised. Those who took over then stepped into the shoes of the colonial masters and the socio-economic benefits ended up in the hands of a few…this is a dream come true for Kenya. It is the reason the Mau Mau went to war.

The new constitution has been heralded by many as a progressive document, second only to that of South Africa in terms of the rights it protects.

According to Commissioner Hassan Omar Hassan of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, the proposed Constitution has the most progressive Bill of Rights in the Continent. “As a Commission we are very proud of the broad human rights benefits that Kenyans will enjoy. The Bill of Rights will protect and empower Kenyans,” Hassan said.

The new constitution guarantees the rights to security, housing, food, life, freedom from discrimination and freedom of expression, among others.

Certain provisions in the proposed constitution will dramatically alter the status of women in Kenya.

The executive director of Kenya’s Federation of Women Lawyers, Grace Maingi, said the new constitution includes affirmative action to achieve gender parity in parliament. Women are guaranteed a minimum of one-third of elected and appointed posts in government. Maingi remarked,

Under the proposed Constitution, 47 special seats have been set aside for women in Parliament…when political parties are nominating 12 members to the August House, they will have to pay special attention to gender parity–an obvious departure from what has been the norm.

Dr. Joachim Osur, a reproductive health expert, says the proposed constitution will guarantee better health for the people of Kenya and women in particular;

Health services have been centered in the urban areas. And with devolution that comes with the proposed Constitution, services will be moved closer to the people, through the creation of Counties which will have their own budgets including a health budget…We expect better deployment of health workers in all parts of the country, better nutrition and provision of health services. We expect more women to deliver in hospitals and a sharp improvement of family planning services.

While most Kenyans are jubilant, Muite warns vigilance will be needed to ensure laws are formulated to implement provisions of the proposed constitution. Further,

We now need to shift gears and focus on the truthful implementation of the proposed Constitution. Kenyans need to keep Parliament under watch to ensure they enact the 50 or more legislations that are required to operationalise the new Constitution.

While the Kenyan parliament is expected to immediately begin passing legislation to give practical force to the new constitution, he warned that Kenyans should not expect immediate results. The full implementation of the new constitution will be spread over a period of five years.

The first step is for the president to declare the proposed constitution the new law of the land. This is expected to happen in the next 14 days.

Politicians opposed to the new constitution, led by higher education minister William Ruto, conceded defeat and lauded the Interim Independent Electoral Commission for having done fairly well. However, others in the ‘No’ camp, such as the clergy, said the vote was marred.

Canon Peter Karanja, the secretary general of National Council of Churches of Kenya, called for consultations over the proposed constitution on specific contentious issues.

The NCCK opposed the draft constitution on the basis of Article 26 on the right to life. Of particular concern to the churches is Clause 4, which states that abortion may be carried out when, in the opinion of a trained health professional there is a medical emergency, or the life or health of the mother is in danger.

The church also opposed the recognition of the Kadhi courts‘ jurisdiction over questions of Muslim law. Muslims may now choose this parallel court system to resolve matters of personal status, marriage, divorce or inheritance.

For the moment, Kenyans are engulfed in a spirit of celebration anticipating a better future.

ABOVE: Image of an HIV/AIDS Women’s Support Group in Kenya, courtesy of Flickr user khym54 and CC 2.0

Reprinted from IPS News.