With five new laws to protect women, why is gender violence still prevalent?

NAIROBI: The National Assembly has in the last two years approved five key laws to shield women and children from abuse and trafficking, and to create a level playing field in nation-building. One more law is in the legislative pipeline, and once enacted, will help deal with how to protect women, and some men, who are abused in their homes. Another one, to give the fairer sex a numerical boost in male-dominated elective politics, is still a scary proposal that the men won’t touch.

The Victims Protection Act, the Marriage Act, the Matrimonial Properties Act, the Counter-Trafficking in Persons Act and the Treaty Making and Ratification Act join the Sexual Offences Act as part of the legal arsenal that women in Kenya can now rely on to fight off abuse, violence, and general injustice meted out on them just because of their gender.

There was also that critical amendment to the Penal Code to jail for up to 20 years “a person who intentionally insults the modesty of any other person by intruding upon that person’s privacy or strips such person".

The law was part of the cocktail of amendments in the Security Laws (Amendment) Act, and it was introduced to stem a rising tide of men attacking women in miniskirts, tearing their clothes off and indecently assaulting them.

If the numbers told the true story, the huge increase in the laws to protect women and children should lead to a reduction in gender-based crime. But a look at the annual crime report from the National Police Service shows an increase in cases of defilement and indecent assault. It also reveals a marginal drop in the number of rape cases in the country.

Acting Inspector General of Police Samuel Arachi noted a week ago that in 2014, there were 893 reported cases of rape – a drop of 60 cases compared to the 953 in 2013. The statistics also show there were 399 new cases of abuse and 25 cases of indecent assault last year.

The good news is that the Vice Chairperson of the Justice and Legal Affairs Committee in the National Assembly, Priscilla Nyokabi (Nyeri), believes the rise shows that the laws have given women, often the victims of abuse, the wherewithal to file reports with the police.

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REAL BATTLE

In an interview with The Standard, Ms Nyokabi said laws like the Victims Protection Act, which was sponsored by her Opposition colleague Millie Mabona (Mbita), have helped deal with some aspects of violence against women, but the real battle lies ahead.

Ms Mabona also sponsored the Counter-Trafficking in Persons Act and the Treaty Making and Ratification Act.

“The country is battling terrorism and violence outside the home, but it has been sad for women, and even some men – especially in Nyeri County where I come from — that you escape violence outside the home and find terror inside it. You escape Al-Shabaab and you come and find a lone terrorist inside the home,” said Nyokabi, the Nyeri County Woman Representative.

The Protection Against Domestic Violence Bill is the next battle for women lawmakers because their male colleagues in the House have already dismissed it as a “threat to the family unit”. But to the women MPs, this is a crucial bill that will help shield women from harassment and beatings at home.

“In my own culture and in some other cultures, slapping a woman is not considered violence, it is seen as chastisement – a husband chastising his wife. That is not acceptable. We cannot continue as a 21st century economy with such medieval practices. If your wife doesn’t want to live with you, there are better ways to deal with that issue,” Nyokabi said.

But while the laws might be good for women, the battle to make the men in Parliament understand this is Herculean. Notably, there are only 68 women in the National Assembly out of a total membership of 350, and 18 women in the Senate out of 68 senators.

Beatrice Elachi, the most senior woman in the Senate hierarchy – Chief Whip of the Majority Party - told The Standard that while laws exist, women lawmakers must flex their muscle and raise their voices more for their issues to be heard.

“We have to fight for the political space and platform to get women's issues addressed. In a Senate where all elected senators are men, and some of them are former Cabinet ministers, it does take courage. We really fight!” said Ms Elachi, a nominated senator.

The biggest battle she faces is ensuring gender parity in law making. She says the women will have to “negotiate, lobby and do everything to make sure we find a formula".

Just because women MPs are in Parliament does not shield them from abuse. For instance, when the National Assembly descended into chaos in the acrimonious approval of the security laws, Mabona was “punched” and one male MP allegedly attempted to “pull down her panties”.

Deputy Speaker Joyce Laboso (Sotik) was pushed off her seat and forced to seek refuge in her office. Incidentally, it was a fellow woman, Gladys Wanga (Homa Bay), who showered her with bottled water.

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