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EAST AFRICA: Increasing Women's Participation in Government

Joyce Mulama

NAIROBI, Jan 31 2009 (IPS) - Kenya’s poor record of improving percentage of women in decision making positions has come under scrutiny, but its neighbours are doing significantly better.

President Kibaki and prime minister Odinga - signals from the highest levels suggest much to be done to ensure women's representation in government in Kenya. Credit:  Manoocher Deghati/IPS

President Kibaki and prime minister Odinga - signals from the highest levels suggest much to be done to ensure women's representation in government in Kenya. Credit: Manoocher Deghati/IPS

In 2007, a constitutional amendment that would have created 50 special seats in for women in parliament was thrown out due to lack of quorum to vote on it.

The country came close to passing a law reserving positions for women at all levels of decision-making when such measures were included in a draft constitution drawn up by a National Constitutional Conference in 2003 and 2004. But the draft document was rejected in a 2005 referendum – due to widespread dissatisfaction with the Kibaki government of the time rather than specific opposition to the clauses on women.

While Kenya continues to perform dismally where increasing the number of women in key positions of leadership is concerned, neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania have made giant steps in this area.

Uganda’s constitution has enshrined an affirmative action measure to boost female representation in government and public service. Through the system established in 1995, special seats for women were created in parliament, increasing the percentage of women lawmakers to about 25 percent, according to government figures. The same system specifies 30 percent representation of women in the public service.

Similar initiative has been shown in Tanzania where parliament in 2000 passed a bill to increase seats for women in parliament and public service to at least 30 percent.

Rwanda’s case has been the most spectacular, which now has the largest number of women in parliament – 56 percent – in the world. The country’s constitution provides for a quota system that reserves 24 out of 80 seats in the Lower House and six out of 20 in the Upper House for women. The constitution also requires that women fill 30 percent of policy-making posts in the public service.

"I think in Rwanda the gap that was there between men and women is closing up; like you may realise, our percentages are at an all time high compared to years back, so for us, we are winning the fight for equality," says Winnie Muhumuza of the Rwanda Women’s Network.

Rwanda’s experience demonstrates that quotas are a starting point for bridging the gender inequality gap in leadership.

Despite this lesson, Kenyan authorities have reneged on their pledge to reserve quotas for women in the public service as well as parliament. A presidential declaration in 2006 that women would be allocated 30 percent of appointments in the public service has not materialised.

Three years later, women leaders are accusing authorities of lacking commitment to achieving this figure. Their displeasure intensified following the appointment of a 12-member team to help resolve disputes that have engulfed the ruling coalition government. An all-male team was appointed by the president Jan. 15 to the chagrin of women leaders who complained of being marginalised. Two women have since been added to the list following public outcry.

But there is dissatisfaction still, as this is way below the promised target of 30 percent.

"There is need for the presidential directive to be translated into a law, and mechanisms for implementation clearly stipulated," said Professor Wanjiku Kabira, a gender consultant with the Nairobi-based Collaborative Centre for Gender and Development.

"Until this happens, the appointment of women will depend on the goodwill of those in power. The number of women in cabinet speaks for itself," she added. Currently, only seven out of a total of 37 ministers are women while out of 53 assistant ministers, only 6 are women.

Learning from Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, female parliamentarians and women activists in Kenya want to re-introduce debate on affirmative action and have it tabled before parliament. "We want to present it as a Bill but before that we would have to lobby our counterparts to support such an initiative," nominated Member of Parliament (MP) Millie Odhiambo told IPS.

Passing such a bill, analysts say, remains a monumental expectation given that majority of MPs are men. Of the total 222 MPs, only 21 are women, an increase from 18 in the previous parliament .

Kenya first attempted to introduce affirmative action legislation in 2000, in a bill that was subsequently rejected by former president Daniel Arap Moi.

As debate on affirmative action for women heightens, it is becoming clearer that meeting MDG – Millennium Development Goals which stipulate gender quality in the political stratum may not be an easy task for Kenya.

"With only a handful of women in politics, we have not made any progress in achieving MDG 3. It is a pity and it is shameful that we are lagging behind our neighbours, all who have made giant steps in this area," Monica Amolo, executive director of the Kenya Women Shadow Parliament noted.

The MDG in question is one of eight United Nations goals and seeks to promote gender equality and empowerment of women. Under this goal, countries are expected to formulate policies and legislation that ensure equal representation between men women in all decision making levels including politics.

Some MPs as well as activists have stated that creating special seats for women in parliament does not comprehensively ensure political equality between genders, arguing that women must strive to win more elective positions.

"Women must also be encouraged to seek elective posts even though they face serious challenges as compared to male politicians," Amolo said.

But female candidates who have attempted this in Kenya, including Amolo, face a host of obstacles, not least a lack of campaign resources, and traditional views of women that make little allowance for activities outside of the domestic arena.

(Eunice Wanjiru in Kigali contributed to this report.)

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