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Kenya Struggles With Women's Participation in New Parliament

On Friday, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania are taking another step toward the creation of a single market and political union for East Africa. They are launching a regional parliament. But the new assembly is causing political problems in some of the countries. Kenya's parliament voted not to allow Kenyan women to fill all the seats allotted to them in the regional legislature.

The day before the crucial vote to decide Kenya's nominees to the new East African Assembly, President Daniel arap Moi announced that he does not believe in affirmative action. He said women already have equal opportunities with men and those who believe in affirmative action are, quote, suffering from social toxin.

Three of the nine Kenyan representatives to the new East African Assembly are supposed to be women. But late Tuesday, Kenya's parliament voted to give women two seats instead of three in the new parliament.

Kenya's women-rights groups have reacted angrily to the latest moves. Jane Kiono, chair of the National Council for Women of Kenya, says President Moi's assertion that Kenyan women have equal opportunities with men is simply not true. "Would you call this equal rights? We were supposed to have one-third of the women and we did not get that. So that is sheer discrimination against the women of this country. As far as I am concerned, we do not have equal rights, especially politically. You know women are always at a disadvantaged state, right from the beginning academically. It is a very sad situation we are in," she said.

Many Kenyan women believe President Moi does not have much respect for them. They are still upset over a remark he made earlier this year, when he told a regional women's conference that, "women have little minds." Kenya's Foreign Affairs Minister, Marsden Madoka, defended the president's position.

Mr. Madoka said the government believes in the achievement of posts through merit and not affirmative action. In the future, he said, Kenya could send the highest number of women to the East African Assembly - if they deserve it.

Ms. Kiono says if women are displeased with President Moi's comments, they should express their discontent through the ballot box. Ms. Kiono welcomes this kind of challenge. As women account for 52 percent of voters, she believes they can win the majority of seats in parliament.

"President Moi says we should compete with men and I think that is what we need to do now. Think of what do we do ourselves. And I know we can make it if the women of this country work together. We can be able to get even 50 percent of that house," she said.

The regional parliament will be launched Friday in the northern Tanzanian town of Arusha, along with an East African Court of Justice.

The East African Community aims to bring its three member states together in a single market and political union, similar to the European Union. The previous East African Community collapsed in the 1970's because of political and economic differences.