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Yes, we must support women to occupy rightful space in society


This was International Women’s Week. As a committed believer in gender equity, I want to say this; we cannot be a fully developed society, calling ourselves civilised, when by culture, tradition, policy and law we keep one half of our population in the margins. Women in this country and continent remain by and large second-class citizens.

No one dissects this issue better than Njonjo Mue in his blog piece “Children of a lesser God” which includes his twin sister’s story. Because of discrimination’s historical and culturally entrenched roots, allowing women their rightful space in society requires deliberate constitutionally grounded affirmative action but also a reformation of societal views on women. Few of us are aware that our old constitution, celebrating our traditional attitudes towards women, permitted discrimination based on gender. In contrast, the 2010 Constitution is unapologetic in its support for gender equality. It constitutionalises affirmative action allowing special seats for women in various legislative bodies and requiring that in all spheres of life, Kenya ensures no one gender has an unreasonable access to public resources and opportunities; the now famous “not more than two thirds” principle.

Seven years into the implementation of the Constitution, there’s no doubt we have made significant strides in women empowerment. Representation of women in elective and appointive positions has increased tremendously. In the economic sphere, there have been several affirmative action opportunities for women, including enhancing budgetary allocations to the Women’s Fund and affirmative action in government procurement. After years of investment in the girl child, girls performance in education has improved.

It is clear that our support for women empowerment is granted grudgingly which is why we never go beyond the most restrictive interpretation of the Constitution. While for example, the new order required that in appointive bodies no gender got more than two thirds membership, Kenyan leaders have interpreted this to mean that women are entitled to only one third of the appointive positions! Sadly even this erroneous “quota” has not been met in critical positions.

The Judicial Service Commission could not even manage this “quota” for the Supreme Court! Even President Uhuru Kenyatta’s reshuffled Cabinet fell below this bare minimum though to his credit, he appointed women in fairly senior Cabinet portfolios. In the elective positions, we refused to elect women, leaving counties to nominate almost 900 women to fill the gender deficit. In Parliament, there was no gender top-up mechanism so we operate unconstitutionally with men being an average 80 per cent in both Houses, way above the 67 per cent maximum. There have been numerous attempts at correcting this gender imbalance in Parliament but even the courts have been careful not to push this envelope, recognising perhaps the social dimensions of our failures. We are therefore going into elections with no legal means of ensuring we meet this constitutional imperative.

When I lived in fantasy land, I believed that we could use the law to force us into implementing this constitutional edict. I hate to admit it but I have come to the sobering acceptance that the law has taken us as far as it can. Indeed, my fear is that attempts to reopen this issue to create mechanisms to force the principle may boomerang and take away even the little space already created. The priority is to ensure we protect the gains so far made. And to excite the imagination of Kenyans that there is value in pursuing equal rights. For the women in appointive and even elected positions, this places a tough obligation.

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