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Kenya Struggles With Female Lawmaker Quota

Kenya's Prime Minister, Raila Odinga makes an address to the public as President Mwai Kibaki and other members of parliament listen after an official announcement of provisional results of Kenya's constitutional referendum in Nairobi, August 5, 2010.
Kenya's Prime Minister, Raila Odinga makes an address to the public as President Mwai Kibaki and other members of parliament listen after an official announcement of provisional results of Kenya's constitutional referendum in Nairobi, August 5, 2010.

In Kenya, a Cabinet task force is grappling with how to implement a constitutional requirement that women comprise at least one-third of the country’s Parliament.

Currently, the parliament consists of 222 members. But only 22, or 10 percent, are women.

But the country’s new constitution mandates that no more than two-thirds of members of elected public bodies can be of the same gender. The government is struggling to figure out how to comply and formed a Cabinet task force in mid-August to come up with a solution.

Ann Njogu, the director of the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness, says she thinks the problem is not as it appears.

“It is not for lack of a solution that [the] Cabinet wants to go this way. It is just because there is no political will to implement and look for a solution that is going to fill the gap that is in the constitution,” she said.

Njogu adds there have been several workable options under discussion. One plan called for arranging constituencies into groups of four. Then requiring one constituency to field all women candidates in the next election. The other three constituencies would follow suit in successive votes.

Another plan called for only women to be allowed to run in the 80 new constituencies being created in the next Parliament.

A third option was for political parties to nominate women to fill the 80 new seats. The number of seats each party would get would be proportionate to the number of votes they garnered in the elections.

But, says Njogu, all ideas were turned down.

Instead it looks like the task force is more in favor of amending the Constitution, calling the current gender requirement, quote, “technically impossible” to achieve in the current circumstances.

The main arguments are that voters should not be forced to elect women only, and that it is undemocratic to bar one gender from contesting in an election.

Even first lady Lucy Kibaki has come out against the gender quota saying it violates another part of the Constitution which grants every citizen the right to free and fair elections based on universal suffrage.

So another option under task force consideration is to hold elections and then simply add more seats for political parties to fill with women until the gender balance is achieved.

Rights activist Njogu opposes this idea calling it an unnecessary expansion of government.

“If we now take this proposition, it means that we are going to increase the National Assembly to such a level whereby the citizens will be forced to put these people in office, keep them in office through taxpayers’ money that they would have otherwise put in other areas of development," she says.

While Kenya is grappling with the issue, neighboring Uganda has successfully implemented its affirmative action mandate.

Of the 375 Members of Parliament, 130, or 35 percent, are women. This is above the 30 percent enshrined in the country’s constitution in 1995. The speaker is also a woman.

In contrast, neighboring Uganda, and the central African nation of Rwanda, report great success in implementing their constitutional affirmative action quotas.

Uganda achieved this under a plan similar to one of the ones that Kenya's task force has rejected as undemoractic.

But Ugandan Member of Parliament Betty Amongi argues her affirmative action seat was an important start and she has since run and won in elections open to both men and women equally. She says she notices a qualitative difference in women’s leadership, which tends to focus on health care, agriculture, and education, and is much needed.

“Men, when they stand to speak, they are mostly on issues of security," Amongi says. "They want to raise controversial issues of corruption and so on. But the women, the majority of them, will raise the matter of efficiency in delivering social services and re-orienting the development agenda and national development priorities.”

Uganda's quota success is attributed to several factors: support from political parties, donors and advocacy groups; getting men to design and implement the quota; and putting an option in the constitution that the quota would be reviewed after every 10 years.

But it is the central African nation of Rwanda that has shattered records. Of the 80 members of the Chamber of Deputies, 45 are women. This represents 56 percent, the highest in the world.

Rwanda’s constitution also calls for 30 percent representation. Twenty-four seats are filled through a women-only ballot.

Kareen Jabre, manager of the Gender Program at the Swiss-based Inter-Parliamentary Union, thinks that, in addition to political will, Rwanda also experienced a cultural change as a result of the 1994 genocide.

“Throughout the whole war period, the civil war, women took on new responsibilities," Jabre says. "And when it was time to reconstruct the country, there definitely were actors that you could not avoid and you could not relegate to a secondary seat. They occupied a space that they maintained after the end of the war. Also, I think there was a recognition and a will by the authorities to sort-of address inequalities of the past and make sure that women no longer faced the discrimination or challenges they did in the past.”

She says her organization does not advocate one quota system over others, but stresses the important thing is that women make it to parliament.