Kenyan members of parliament are facing a dilemma of either passing the two-thirds gender law in the short time remaining before the elections, or risking the next parliament being declared illegal.
President Uhuru Kenyatta recently directed Parliament to ensure that they pass the law, which MPs failed to pass in May last year.
While National Assembly Majority Leader Aden Duale has promised that the two-thirds gender rule, under the Constitution of Kenya (Amendment) Bill 2015, will be passed when parliament resumes on May 9, the House might not raise the 233 MPs requirement as some MPs are opposed to it.
Article 81(b) of the Constitution states that, “Not more than two-thirds of the members of elective public bodies shall be of the same gender,” but there has been no consensus over the three proposals that have been put forward to meet the requirement.
Winfred Lichuma, chairperson of the National Gender and Equality Commission, said that her commission had advised the speakers of both Houses to consider establishing a mediation committee to develop a version of the Bill that they can pass, perhaps at joint sittings, in view of the strict timelines.
On March 29, High Court judge John Mativo ruled that the National Assembly must pass the law within two months or risk being dissolved prematurely by any petitioner.
Kenya has the least women representation in parliament in the EAC with only 21 per cent, compared with Rwanda that has the highest representation in the region at 64 per cent.
The National Assembly and Senate have a total of 86 women parliamentarians, of which 16 are elected, five nominated, 18 nominated senators and 47 Women Representatives.
Kenyans remain divided about whether the constitutional provision for special seats for women as part of affirmative action has been a blessing or a curse.
As the country heads for a general election in August, women aspirants continue to face hostility from their male competitors who want them to confine themselves to the 47 women representative seats.
In Nyeri County in Central Kenya, two aspirants — Ann Kanyi and Sheila Githaiga — were physically attacked by hired goons and told to drop out of the race.
According to Daisy Amdany, the executive director of the Community Advocacy and Awareness Trust, the reserved seats are working against women contrary to the intention to affirm the rights of women in elective politics and act as a training ground for future competition in the elective seats.
“Apart from mobilising and cheering, any woman who contests for the mainstream seats is seen as greedy and wanting more that they have been allocated,” said Ms Amdany, whose organisation had filed a case against parliament to pass the two-thirds gender rule.
Roll-out messed up
Jessica Musila, the executive director of Mzalendo Trust, which monitors the performance of members of parliament, said the Women Representative seat roll-out was messed up by the various political parties’ propaganda machinery tapping into the deeply entrenched patriarchal society.
She is concerned that many political parties have convinced the electorate that the women representative seat is the only one women should run for.
“Consequently, voters in most counties, constituencies and wards do not consider electing women to other elective seats. The moniker ‘flower girls’ or ‘Bonga Points’ has been used to refer to Women Representatives, and the public perceives the position as a waste of money and the outputs of women representatives are downplayed,” she said.
Ms Musila, however, says that research by Mzalendo Trust on the output of women MPs in parliament revealed they all make a valuable contribution to parliamentary business regardless of whether they came in via nomination, election or affirmative action.
However, some gender advocates say that having seats reserved for women has been a blessing because more are now running for elective seats this year.
Ms Lichuma told The EastAfrican that the results of affirmative action cannot be immediate, but it is encouraging that a number of women who came in on the women-only seats are now contesting competitive seats.
“Affirmative action cushions women and gives them a foundation, and even if they are told to go for women-only seats it is still okay. Lack of finances and violence have locked out many women from contesting in the coming elections. We are waiting to see how many will win the elections after moving from affirmative to competitive seats,” said Ms Lichuma.
There are indications that more women have come out to contest the elective seats compared with the 2013 elections.
The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) rules state that political parties must ensure that at least one third of women in their parties must be nominated. However, IEBC chief executive Ezra Chiloba said that the electoral body has no means to enforce the rule in elective posts, nor impose sanctions on political parties for being non-compliant.
According to a report by the Centre for Multiparty Democracy (CMD), in 2013 only 32 women made it through the party lists for competitive seats that are not reserved for women.
This year, 10 women have come out to contest for the governor seat. They are Ann Waiguru and Martha Karua for Kirinyaga County, Charity Ngilu (Kitui), Joyce Laboso (Bomet), Anne Anyanga (Migori), Margaret Wanjiru (Nairobi), Wavinya Ndeti (Machakos), Mabel Muruli (Kakamega), and Cecily Mbarire (Embu), and Atieno Otieno (Kisumu).
In the 2013 elections, eight women contested governor positions, and 19 women sought seats in the country’s senate. Some 165 women battled it out among the men for parliament’s 290 regular constituency seats, while 155 women sought one of the women representative positions.
Prof Winnie Mutula, director of the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi, said that there is still lack of understanding about the concept of women-only seats.
However, once women offer themselves for elective seats, they stand to have some leverage where they can either be nominated or given appointments to make them keep quiet.
“The women representative seats were meant to be a bridging mechanism and a medium-term approach to gender inclusivity. However, while Kenyan women have made one step ahead, there are still considerable cultural hang-ups that work against them when they contest elective seats,” said Prof Mutula.