Last summer the world watched as Kenya established its new Constitution, more than two decades in the making. The Ms. Blog, in fact, posted a celebratory article last August highlighting the ways in which the new constitution protects women’s rights. One of the keys to this progressive change for women was a constitutional guarantee that no one gender would hold more than two-thirds of the seats in Parliament.
But now, the Kenyan president’s cabinet has resolved to remove the provision.
Kenyan women immediately began to organize and protest this attempt by the government to repeal women’s equity. There were protests by women on the street, as well as by women members of Parliament and leaders of women’s civil society groups.
MP Martha Karua–a leading political figure in Kenya, a champion for women’s rights and a serious contender in the campaign for the presidency–has vehemently defended the Constitutional requirement. Karua, along with fellow MPs Olago Aluoch and Eseli Simiyu, voiced objections to the so-named “Political Parties Bill.” She indicated that even if it passed she would take the fight to the courts to protect the Constitution.
The First Lady of Kenya, Lucy Kibaki, has responded by telling women that they have to get privileges through “hard work” rather than it being handed to them on a “silver platter.” The First Lady neglects to urge men to “work hard” rather than rely on deeply entrenched systems of patriarchy and male privilege. Maria Nzoma, the first Kenyan woman to receive a Ph.D. in political science, writes:
It has taken Kenyan women nearly three decades of struggle for rights, activism, gender sensitization, capacity-building, lobbying and mobilizing to take up various political leadership positions.
Whereas civic, gender and human rights awareness has improved significantly, progress towards access to political leadership positions has remained painfully slow due to a combination of structural obstacles.
These include deeply embedded patriarchal socio-cultural values that pervade all institutions of governance and lack of political will to fully embrace gender equity and equality.
More than 90 percent of current parliamentary representatives in Kenya are men. This puts the nation far behind neighboring African countries such as Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda. Those countries have increased their proportion of women in Parliament through electoral reforms that have measures to include more women representatives. One of the ten recommendations to make justice systems work for women listed in the United Nations’ 2011 Report Progress of the World’s Women [PDF] is to support increased numbers of women in Parliament–and to do so by using quota systems. The report states:
“[When] quotas have been used to boost the number of women legislators, progressive laws on violence against women, land rights, health care and employment have followed. … Of the 28 countries that have reached or exceed the 30 percent critical mass mark in national parliaments, at least 23 have used some form of quota.
As this debate about women’s inclusion in the political sphere heated up, Kenyan professor Keguro Macharia pointed out that the recent article “Honey, You’re A Nag” was one of the most-read articles on Kenya’s main newspaper’s site. He writes,
What does it mean that we understand women’s entry into and participation in the public as a form of nagging? … Before one reached the very serious debate on women’s representation, one would have learned that women are nags. We might call this salted earth. Still in the realm of the obvious, it’s worth noting that many of the articles on male leaders have focused on anger and rage. Women nag. Men rage.
Apparently, this time the “nagging” for women’s rights appears to be working. Yesterday, Cabinet members started to back down from their bid to drop the gender quota. Public opinion is on the side of women, with a recent political opinion poll indicating that 74 percent of the Kenyan public is in favor of the quota. Kenyan women will undoubtedly have to continue to struggle for inclusion and equity as Kenya continues to adjust to its new constitution and the 2012 elections draw closer.