Storm rages over proposal to drop women seats

Friday August 19 2011

By JULIUS SIGEI [email protected] and Lillian Onyango [email protected]

The storm started by a Cabinet plan to drop a requirement that a third of elective posts be held by women raged on Friday, with their leaders vowing they would not budge an inch. (Read: Plan to drop women seats from new laws)

Speaker after speaker at a national women’s constitutional conference at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre attacked the proposal.

Fida-Kenya executive director Grace Maingi fired the first salvo: “Despite the Cabinet discussion yesterday (Thursday) the Constitution is clear on what women are getting,” she said.

Catherine Muma of the Commission for the Implementation of the Constitution took the meeting through the provisions of the Constitution which she said would require a referendum to amend and tore apart a suggestion that implementation would be progressive and that it needed a parliamentary majority.

“The drafters were very clear. On more than four areas they used the word progressive in regard to socio-economic rights (article 21), disability (article 54), article 82 on citizenship. What difficulty was there in using the word with regard to the current question?” Ms Muma asked.

Given free seats

She said the CIC was calling on the public to suggest how the threshold could be met.

“We are jittery because we fear it will open the floodgates to amendments which could mutilate the Constitution,” she said.

Supporting the women leaders was University of Nairobi lecturer, Prof Karuti Kanyinga, who said the issue was not about chairs, but representation of hitherto marginalised sections of society.

“Some are saying why should women be given free seats. I say it is not about seats or chairs but about an opportunity to articulate the concerns of society in an inclusive manner,” he said, adding that the women’s demands had the support of the public, civil society and the international community.

He said the principle was the foundation for a strong social justice system.

While speakers agreed on the need to find a way of implementing the principle, they said that the problem arose because the new Constitution was a highly negotiated document.

“The problem is that the Constitution is a modern, liberal and progressive document while we are a very conservative society. We need to move fast as a country to catch up,” said Prof Kanyinga.

A former commissioner in the committee of experts on the constitutional review, Mr Bobby Mkangi, said they had anticipated the difficulty in implementing the clause.

“We knew the clause was not clear on the manner the threshold would be achieved but we knew that if we put our heads together as a country we would find a way out,” he said.

The chairman of the National Council of NGOs, Mr Ken Wafula, proposed that all new constituencies be set aside for women.

ODM nominated MP Sofia Abdi Noor and vice chair of the Women Parliamentary Association came out fighting, saying it was hard for women to compete with men on an equal footing because of socio-cultural issues.

She said most women did not have the financial muscle to sustain a campaign as they had been marginalised for a long time.

“Women have only just started getting small opportunities and it is hard to get several of them to contest because of the costs. This discourages women from offering themselves for elective seats,” said Ms Noor.

Moi University don Solomon Waliaula, who has done extensive research on feminism, said implementing the clause to the letter was tantamount to reverse discrimination.

“We are acknowledging that they are lesser beings. What we should do, instead, is to continue empowering women so that over time they should be able to catch up in a more natural and gradual manner,” said Mr Waliaula.

His sentiments were shared by University of Nairobi political science lecturer Adams Oloo, who said there is a disconnect between the political aspirations anchored in the Constitution and social reality.

“The drafters meant well but there needs to be a balance between the letter of the law and its spirit,” said Dr Oloo.

In a related development, women MPs yesterday accused the Cabinet of using the debate as a smokescreen to shift the General Election date.

Nominated ODM MP Rachel Shebesh said she was aware of the “shenanigans” in Cabinet.

“The real thing is that they want to amend the election date. They want to sneak in the change by claiming they want to amend the affirmative action principle as it cannot be implemented,” she said.

Ms Shebesh told the media at Parliament Building that the plan was to push the election from August to December.

“We will not be used and they should know that Kenyan women are awake,” she warned.

Ms Shebesh said Cabinet was stuck between a rock and hard place as it was hard-pressed in meeting deadlines to pass bills.

“It has found itself in a fix because it did not bring bills to Parliament in time for us to debate them,” she said.

The MP said the time was just right for affirmative action to increase the number of women in public posts.

A Cabinet meeting on Thursday resolved to remove the provision which requires that not more than two-thirds of members of elective public bodies shall be of the same gender.

The meeting, chaired by President Kibaki, heard that the idea came about because of difficulties in ensuring that at least a third of all persons elected are women.

“It is an unconstitutional, unacceptable and barbaric decision,” said Nominated MP Sophia Abdi.

Ms Abdi cited Articles 27(3), 97(2), and 81(b), which state that not more than two-thirds of members of elective public bodies shall be of the same gender.

She said it was the Government’s responsibility to find a solution to the impasse.

“Otherwise, this means it does not have the political goodwill to implement the Constitution,” she said. “And the first thing they want to throw out spanner is the gender issue, which we will not take lightly,” she said.

Female MPs had proposed that the 80 seats created in the Constitution be ring-fenced for women.

Sotik representative Joyce Laboso said this should be done “before the 80 constituencies are felt or belong to anybody.”

“Why won’t the Government express its goodwill in implementing the Constitution to the letter?” she asked.

“We can use the seats guaranteed in the Constitution, this way we won’t overburden the taxpayers who already have enough on their plate,” said Ms Laboso.

The MPs warned that if the bill went through Parliament with the contested provisions, they would seek legal redress.