Failure to fully implement laws standing in way of girls' rights

Kenya joins the global community today to mark yet another International Day of the Girl Child to celebrate her rights and recognise the unique challenges girls face.

For this celebration to be justified, the following question must be answered in the affirmative. Are girls in rural and urban Kenya facing fewer challenges today than they did 12 years ago when the UN christened this day? There are indeed gains to boast of, but girls still face barriers to full enjoyment of their rights. The 2019 census indicates that Kenya has 49 per cent girls in school, a whole percentage point progress compared to the 2009 census.

The Public Service Commission notes that public offices are occupied by 38 per cent women. Moreover, the establishment of the National Gender and Equality Commission in 2011, more meaningful participation of girls in mainstream and social media, as well as the election of the youngest woman to the national assembly in 2022, are such achievements.

Some of these gains are a result of spirited campaigns for gender parity and girl child empowerment that should only be reinforced with bolder policies, political commitments, institutional leadership and resources. Moreover, gains are based on significant progress in constitutional, legislative and institutional efforts to promote gender equality.

The Constitution provides a robust legal foundation for the advancement of gender equality and freedom from discrimination. It also informs the enactment of many other laws and policies with the same goal in diverse areas such as sexual reproductive health rights, politics, economics, domestic violence and employment, among others.

The Constitution also lays ground for the acceptance and supposed implementation of international and continental instruments that promote the rights of girls. Kenya has ratified the UN core human rights instruments, notably, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which promotes non-discrimination against women and girls in political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other fields.

In compliance with the reporting obligations, Kenya submits reports to the CEDAW Committee every four years on implementation of the convention. The country has also subscribed to the UN SDGs whose central promise is to leave no one behind.

Nevertheless, translating these legal, policy and institutional efforts into tangible advances in girls’ lives is undermined by weak implementation and minimal resource allocation fed by a mean political will from the male-dominant political cohort.  This patriarchal cloud feeds harmful stereotypes and social segregation.

It is 2023, yet Kenya still faces the threat of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Kajiado, Narok, Samburu and West Pokot, among other counties. Unfortunately, FGM comes with siblings, namely, dropping out of school, early marriage soon after the ‘cut’, and subsequent health problems. While the sanctity of culture should be maintained, harmful practices like FGM should be uprooted as they starve girls of opportunities to explore their full potential.

Suffice it to say that there are many other cultural-related forms of discrimination against the girl-child across various Kenyan communities. However, war is not only being fought at the behest of culture. In modern society, the girl still faces ardent discrimination.

For example, employment laws in Kenya are gender-neutral and blind to intersecting challenges that female workers, including girls, encounter, which exacerbate their vulnerability to male chauvinism and other forms of discrimination.

When walking along Tom Mboya Street, one cannot help but notice young women with children vending their goods. But when the law places stiff punishment on hawkers, for instance, imprisoning those unable to pay fines, it is likely ignoring the impact that jail term has on the accompanying child. Such discrimination influences enjoyment of other rights like food security, nutrition and access to essential services, including education and health.

Even as a technology hub in East Africa, many girls in Kenya still lack access to technology. Yet those who do are often exposed to the dark side of the internet. Still, this problem cannot be quantified since there is no national database for recording such cases, if and when they are reported.

Even with the Children Act (2022) and the National Plan of Action to Tackle Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (2022-2026), effective response to this problem will only be reached when resources are allocated to implementation and efforts are multi-sectoral in nature, bringing the government, civil society and the community together. If the key motivation to enact such laws is not to tick some international checklist, then there is need to rise above these risks.

It is worth noting the complaints in the public spaces indicating most interventions to be girl-child focused, yet men still occupy 76 per cent of Parliament. As noted earlier, lack of political will is the greatest barrier to gender equality. So, what should be done?

To fast-track the journey towards gender equality for the Kenyan girl, the government must be at the forefront of law reforms to make them more gender-responsive and to put greater emphasis on implementation of existing laws through gender budgeting.

In addition, civil society voices must continue to lobby for accelerated gender equality. Citizens also have their part to hold the government accountable for the promises of democracy and to promote and protect the rights of the girl-child.

Dr King'oro is the awardee of the 2023 Presidential Trailblazer Award in Women, Peace and Security. [email protected]