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Kenyan Women Outraged Over Comments During Debate On Sex Offenses Bill

Women's groups in Kenya Thursday expressed outrage over comments made the day before in the country's legislature during debate on a bill that would boost penalties for rapists and other sex offenders, and would outlaw forced cultural practices such as female circumcision deemed harmful to women.

The executive director of the CRADLE Children's Foundation, Millie Odhiambo, told reporters in Nairobi she and her colleagues were stunned by the attitudes of some lawmakers during Wednesday's debate of the Sexual Offenses Bill.

"Despite the fact that national statistics show alarming increases in the number of defilement, rape and sodomy cases of children, women and men in the country, some parliamentarians chose to trivialize the debate on the Sexual Offenses Bill by poking fun at the pain victims have gone through," she said. "We were even more utterly shocked by pretenders who were less brave to air their views but cheered their colleagues [on] with glee."

Odhiambo was referring mainly to comments made by Member of Parliament Paddy Ahenda, who objected to a section of the bill that proposes to criminalize unwanted sexual advances towards women.

He described African women as being "shy creatures" who do not make sexual advances. He said in African culture, when a woman says "no," she really means, "yes," unless she is a prostitute.

During the debate, other male lawmakers objected to certain sections of the bill, saying that the proposed legislation goes against African culture, would discourage or prevent marriage, or would be used to revenge or unfairly punish men.

The Sexual Offenses Bill seeks to impose minimum sentences for rape and defilement, outlaws women being forced to undergo cultural practices deemed harmful such as female genital mutilation and wife inheritance, and provides counseling and medical treatment for victims and perpetrators of sexual violence and abuse.

It also outlaws sexual harassment, makes it an offense to deliberately infect someone with HIV/AIDS, and says there is no time limit for a victim to pursue a sexual offense case.

Jane Onyango is the director of the Kenyan office of the Federation of Women Lawyers. She tells VOA she thinks the male legislators' comments and reactions when lawmaker Njoki Ndungu presented the bill Wednesday will make the bill's passage highly unlikely.

"They are not taking it seriously," she said. "They were very noisy when Njoki was moving the motion. Some were even whispering from the floor that she ought to withdraw it. So I'm seeing a situation where even if it's passed, which is doubtful from the debate so far, they will want to pass a watered-down bill, one that almost just amounts to what we have in the current law, which will not be of any use to us."

The incidents of rape are increasing in Kenya. According to a report by the U.N. news agency, there were 2,800 rape cases reported in 2004, an increase of 500 compared to the year before.

A group of Kenyan and international aid agencies released a report last year saying that rape, incest, and indecent assault had increased four times over the past four years.

The Kenyan Demographic and Health Survey says that one in every two Kenyan women experience sexual and other violence, and that Kenyan women between the ages of 15 and 24 show four times the rate of HIV infection of men the same age.

CRADLE Children's Foundation executive director Odhiambo says the youngest recorded rape victim in Kenya is five months old, and the oldest, more than 80 years of age.