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Tokenism won’t help in the pursuit of gender parity

By John Obiero
Thursday, October 29th, 2020
National Speaker Justin Muturi. Photo/PD/SAMUEL KARIUKI
In summary

Activists and women’s rights advocates have trolled Speaker Justin Muturi for saying “You cannot compel citizens to elect either men or the other gender” at a parliamentary retreat.

Muturi, the Chief Justice and the President have each found themselves in the unenviable situation of having to pronounce themselves on implementation of the two-thirds gender rule on elective office. 

After a period of push and pull, the CJ was compelled to advise the President to dissolve Parliament for failing to enact the requisite law underpinning inclusive legislative leadership.

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 why hasn’t this rather straight forward law been passed? Why are MPs stubborn? And why is the President reluctant to dissolve the Parliament?

Global facts and figures on leadership and political participation of women paint a grim picture.

Except in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Greenland where women in Parliament account for 42.5 per cent, the average percentage of women parliamentarians was as low as 30.6 per cent in the Americas, 27.2 per cent in Europe, 23.9 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa, 19.8 per cent in Asia, 19 per cent in the Arab states and 16.3 per cent in the Pacific region.

This means all the regions of the world have failed to implement the 33 per cent threshold envisioned at the women’s conference in Beijing in 1995.

In East Africa, Rwanda tops the region with more than 60 per cent representation for women while Kenya emerges last!

Regardless, Kenya has made giant steps towards gender parity in many spheres.

An increasing number of girls and women are actually in school, have joined training programmes, are in employment and participate in enterprise thanks to progressive policies, administrative provisions and legislative frameworks.

The elephant in the room is how to break the jinx of ensuring gender equity in the elective system. 

Persuaded that women in politics face more hurdles than their male counterparts when competing for elective seat, Kenya opted for top-up or reserved seats for women.

By this token, Kenya hopes to raise the threshold numbers to meet the two-thirds constitutional threshold. 

Fair enough, but the reality tells another story. After 2017 elections, and in addition to the 47 reserved seats for women and party seats for nominated women, there are still only 76 (22 per cent) women in the National Assembly.

At Senate, 21 (31 per cent) out of 68 representatives are women; however, 18 of the 21 are top-up seats allocated to women – 16 being party nominees while one seat is set aside for a youth and another for a woman living with disability. 

The BBI brigade doesn’t change this narrative because it sticks to the top-up idea by creating reserve positions for women in Senate and alternate positions for women at the county government levels.

I am opposed to the idea of additional seats because the national wage bill blew the limits years ago! 

No doubt, Kenyans are over-represented and over-governed already?

But as much as we need to implement the two-thirds gender rule, there are reservations.

Though women participate in development, shoulder greater workloads, are likely to be poorer than men and still experience hurdles in accessing education and healthcare, reserving seats for them is a clumsy attempt at achieving gender equity.

We cannot minimise barriers to opportunity by making “equal opportunity” available to one segment of the society and not the other.

We must adhere to the “equal opportunity” principle for all Kenyans, no matter their gender. 

And, like Muturi has argued, the clamour to pass legislation to ensure the gender principle potentially violates the sovereign will of the electorate.

Without clear guidelines and rules on gender representation, we are headed nowhere with the gender inclusivity.

There must be other proven means of balancing representation than the sense of tokenism provided for in the Constitution.

Is it even possible for a free and fair elective system to yield proportional results?

Reserving elective seats for women in pursuit of gender parity comes with the backlash of excluding women from fair competition, thereby diminishing the value of the special seats.

Let’s emphasise women’s true empowerment and capacity building through education, training and access to resources. 

— The writer is a senior lecturer, department of Linguistics and Literature, JOOUST

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