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Women’s representatives are an unmitigated disaster: Has quantity trumped quality?

Thursday March 27 2014

Dr Eddah Gachukia PHOTO: NATION FILE

Dr Eddah Gachukia PHOTO: NATION FILE 

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Events surrounding the passage of the Marriage Bill through the second reading in the National Assembly last week have confirmed every fear I had about women’s representation under the new dispensation: It is dull, discordant and diversionary– just like our weaves!

We fell for the common fallacy that by having more women in Parliament we would automatically achieve agency and better representation on (women’s) issues.

Wrong! Quantity does not always translate into quality. To test this adage, ask Ugandans to narrate their experience with women’s representation.

Those of us old enough to recall Phoebe Asiyo’s contribution to the parliamentary debate on the dangers of the contraceptive, Depo-Provera, know that there was a time when our Legislature comprised self-respecting women of substance and superior acumen.

Mrs Asiyo, single-handedly, held the House in rapt awe and attention with facts, personal experience and reasoned eloquence. She left no doubt in anybody’s mind that she had done her home-work on women’s reproductive health. Her presentation was a memorable lesson in altruism.

Mrs Asiyo had neither a budget to work with nor swarms of so-called women’s rights NGOs to beat her drum in the media. And still, she got the job done for the thousands of women who were being subjected to ill-conceived family planning schemes. Take a bow, Mrs Asiyo; we miss you!


What of the stellar work on education and children’s rights that Eddah Gachukia undertook in her time as a nominated MP? What budget did she have and which children’s rights NGO supported her research and advocacy?


Like Grace Onyango, the first elected female member of Parliament, Dr Gachukia, and Mrs Asiyo had hands-on comprehensive understanding of women and rural folk.

They were not insulated by bodyguards 24/7 like their lives were in a permanent state of danger. They didn’t need seminars at Whitesands to educate them. They understood what they campaigned about inside out. That is why they are missed.

It is time we outgrew the pretence that the solution to every problem in this country is money and more money. Some problems simply need good brains, focused attention and a public service mentality.

The dissonance with which our women leaders approached the Marriage Bill suggests that these credentials are in short supply in the 11th Assembly.

It turns out that the activists amongst them had gone off to New York to attend the two-week annual fete known as the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women. Their constituents should see the photographs of iconic moments the MPs posted on social media to confirm that this trip was a true “mickey mouse”, time- and money-wasting junket!

Did these activists not smell a rat when the male-dominated administration in the National Assembly made the tickets for that New York trip so readily available? Pray, how did they miss out on the notice for the second reading of the Marriage Bill?

Didn’t any amongst them consider that Bill important enough for them to take an early flight home from the festivities in New York? What tutelage had the activists imparted on their less vocal sisters in the House before they left?

Or was their strategy limited to bailing out the water after the storm through long-winded public interest litigation that serves dubious causes?


There is real power in the grassroots appeal of Rukia Subow, Naomi Shaban and Alice Ng’ang’a, amongst a few others. How was it harnessed for this Bill?

Clearly, it is time our current crop of Women MPs spent some time doing their homework on the history of the women’s movement. To be professional does not mean knowing everything. It means knowing who to ask and where to look.

So let this new crop humble themselves enough to sit at the feet of Mrs Grace Onyango, Mrs Phoebe Asiyo, Mrs Rose Waruhiu, Dr Eddah Gachukia, Dr Julia Ojiambo, Ms Martha Karua, Ms Agnes Ndetei and Ms Njoki Ndung’u. They might pick up some lessons on strategy, research and mobilisation.

Please don’t snub your noses up at these old girls. For all the shrillness of merchants of change, institutional memory is, in fact, the cornerstone of real development. It saves us tons of resources when we know what worked in the past, what didn’t, and why.

Meanwhile, we must reconsider the whole function of Women’s Representatives. Maybe, like all affirmative action, this one has become a site of tokenism. The kind that, sadly, breeds mediocrity and entitlement in equal measure.

Dr Nyairo is a cultural analyst ([email protected] Twitter: @santurimedia)