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Last update: 1 July 2022 h. 10:44
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Relegated to second class citizens

A biased constitution and outdated customs have denied women a chance in the social and economic spheres of the country, despite their significant contribution. To add insult to injury, violence visited on women continues unabated, courtesy of a lenient law.
Zachary Ochieng

From domestic work to farm labour, women's contribution cannot be ignored. Sadly though, their contribution is hardly recognized as the laws and customs have virtually relegated women to the position of second class citizens. Much of the gap between men's and women's economic and social statuses is embodied in laws that deny women equal opportunity with men in their rights to own land, borrow money and enter into contracts.

As regards the law, the current constitution denies women the right to pass on citizenship to their foreign husbands or children born in those unions. However, the Draft constitution prepared by the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) provides a ray of hope.

The draft prohibits any law, culture or custom or tradition that undermines the dignity, welfare, interest or status of women. "Women have the right to equal treatment with men including right to equal opportunities in political, economic and social activities. They have equal right to inherit, have access to land and control property", states the draft.

Ms Judy Thongori, the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) Kenya Deputy Director identifies the problem with the Kenyan constitution: "Kenya lacks an automatic domestication clause, which provides ways for ratifying and implementing international covenants and charters. Thus, international agreements such as the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and the Beijing Platform for Action remained undomesticated", she says.

Addressing a forum for the National Council of NGOs early last month, Thongori described women's "very minimal" participation in political, social and economic life of the country - a legacy of the current constitution as "the greatest concern to women". In a paper titled "Gender and women's equality in the draft constitution", Thongori praised the affirmative nature of the draft constitution which requires political parties to ensure that at least one third of their candidates for direct elections are women.

A major problem that women continue to face is their inability to afford legal representation, due to their poor economic status. It is on account of this that Thongori praises the establishment of the Public Defender in the draft constitution. "Provision of free legal advice to the needy is a welcome move as is the requirement that parliament enacts a law providing for the managing of the scheme", she said.

Ms Cecilia Kimemia, the Executive Director of the League of Kenya Women Voters is equally happy. "What immediately strikes us is the space that is being created by accommodating affirmative action. The changes proposed in the electoral system will definitely ensure that we have more women in leadership than before" she says.

But even as women celebrate the launch of the Draft Constitution, deep-rooted cultural norms that impede social, economic and political advancement of women have apparently refused to die. Last month, women in the western Migori District did not believe their ears when a senior civic leader vehemently opposed a proposal allowing women's right to land ownership and inheritance.

The Migori County Council Finance Committee chairman Ooko Atonga told the CKRC commissioners who had gone for a public discussion on the draft constitution, that by allowing women to claim ownership to land, the new constitution was advocating for the formation of a parallel society. Said he: "Such powers will create a serious conflict with cultural land tenure and laws". Atonga further argued that the draft ignored biblical and historical authority on land bestowed on men as the key to a united family unit.

Gender discrimination and disparities are well chronicled in a report of a baseline survey conducted jointly by PriceWaterHouseCoopers, a leading firm of management consultants and Research International East Africa and Strategy and Tactics (both research organizations) in July 2002. The survey details gender disparities in terms of education and employment among others. A total of 8000 respondents were interviewed for the "Kenya: State of the Nation" survey.

According to the survey, 22 per cent of the women had no formal education as compared to 14 per cent of the men. The report adds that analysis of education level attained by gender reveals interesting differences. Within each age cohort, women are likely to be less educated than their male counterparts.

While the national rate of unemployment was 31 per cent, for young men it was 57 per cent while their female counterparts had an unemployment rate of 64 per cent. According to the report, women have far fewer job opportunities than men and are disproportionately found in lower paid and less prestigious occupations. "Women hold only a small proportion of management positions and are seldom in the leadership of trade unions, which may explain partly, women's weak position in regards to rights such as maternity leave and job security", the report says.

Women's position is complicated in that those who work outside the home are still responsible for the domestic work of the household and thus bear a double work burden, which is an obstacle, both to better employment opportunities and social and political participation. "My husband and I both work in town but when we come back in the evening, it is me to go to the kitchen because customs forbid married men to do so. I do not even have time to further my education", laments Mrs Rose Olendo.

Dr Lucy Kibera, a scholar at the University of Nairobi echoes similar sentiments. She says that due to their disadvantaged position in education and also as a result of their unfavourable social attitudes, women have been slow in rising to prominent positions in the political front. In a paper titled "Women education in Kenya" presented last month at a UNESCO strategic planning workshop in Nairobi, she laments that "although women are franchised, they are yet to make a lot of impact in the political arena."

Kibera cites the case of Mrs Nyiva Mwendwa, who has been the only female cabinet minister in Kenya since independence, not to mention that she was only given the lowly culture and social services portfolio. She adds that retrogressive cultural practices such as early marriages, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and preference to boys than girls have contributed to the sorry state of women's education in the country.

Gender discrimination in the political field also reared its ugly head during nomination of members to represent Kenya at the East African legislative Assembly early this year. The ruling party KANU, which had two slots for women only nominated one. Similarly, opposition parties, which had a chance to nominate at least one MP only nominated men, with the exception of the Democratic Party (DP), which nominated Mrs Rose waruhiu.

Women's low level of participation in politics is also highlighted in a study conducted by the Institute for Civic Affairs and Development (ICAD) between 1998 and 2001. It shows that in those years, there were 225 MPs in Kenya's parliament but only 8 were female.

Besides gender disparities in various spheres, gender violence continues unabated, courtesy of lenient penalties meted out to offenders. Ms Fatma Abeyd Anyanzwa, the chairperson of the Kenya Anti-Rape Organisation, says she founded the organization after rape cases escalated in her Kibera neighbourhood. "Not a week would pass before hearing that a neighbour's daughter or a woman in the neighbourhood had been raped, maimed or killed", she recalls.

Anyanzwa decries harassment by police whenever rape cases are reported. She cites a 1993 case when she was arrested and detained during a weekend for protesting at the release by police of a man who had allegedly defiled three schoolgirls after kidnapping them in Kiambu and bringing them to Nairobi. She says her organization receives complaints on the mistreatment of rape victims by police from all parts of the country.

The anti-rape crusader also blames the rising cases of rape on the judiciary, noting that courts hand down light sentences to rapists. "I think there should be a minimum sentence a rapist should receive since judges in Kenya have opted, in most cases, to hand down light sentences including probation". Ms Ann Gathumbi, coordinator of the Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW) Kenya concurs: "In most cases, there are no minimum sentences. The penal code for example only talks about a maximum life sentence for a rapist. It is therefore at the discretion of a judge or magistrate to hand down a minimum sentence. Consequently, some offenders get away with very light sentences".

Although many victims of gender violence suffer in silence, there now appears to be some respite. Mrs Ann Njogu, Executive Director of the Centre for Rehabilitation and Education of Abused Women (CREAW) told Africanews that an emergency asylum for victims of domestic violence is to be established in January next year. "Women are the most hurt by domestic violence. After creating awareness, we can now see a change as women are able to speak out against the vice", she said. Njogu said the organization also planned to establish children referral centres to provide counselling and medical services to children victims of the violence. "Domestic hostilities subject innocent children to untold psychological stress and physical injuries", she said. But in their quest to help and protect victims of domestic violence, Njogu - whose organization also provides free legal services to the victims - says they are occasionally threatened by their clients' husbands. "At times husbands of our clients storm our offices and threaten us for advising their wives to walk out on them. This is a major challenge we have to contend with".

Hopes that cases of gender violence could reduce were dashed when two important Bills pending before parliament - The Domestic violence Bill and the Criminal Amendments Bill - became moribund following the dissolution of the House. But Njogu is confident that the 9th parliament will enact the Bills and provide a ray of hope to the suffering women.

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