About two weeks ago, the National Commission on Gender and Development hosted several MPs and other stakeholders to a meeting in Mombasa. The main agenda was to lobby for the separation of the Gender Commission from the Kenya Human Rights and Equality Commission (KHREC) as created by the new Constitution.
Officials from the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) attended the seminar to express opposition to the separation.
The main arguments for and against the separation revolved around resources and mandate, with the human rights officials arguing that merging all the commissions, including the Ombudsman, would help the government cut operational costs and streamline activities in order to stop duplication.
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KNCHR boss (and chairperson of the newly created commission) Florence Jaoko and commissioner Hassan Omar put forward compelling arguments that maintained that the deliberations at the time were null and void as KHREC was not yet fully structured, thus the need for separation had not yet been determined.
The human rights officials and their supporters also reacted strongly to the impression that they were unable or incapable of dealing with matters relating to gender, social, cultural and economic rights and justice, as they were perceived to focus mainly on issues touching on political and civil rights.
This being a meeting convened by the Ministry of Gender led by the able minister Naomi Shaban and the Gender Commission chairperson Dr Regina Mwatha, the representatives and supporters put up a spirited fight.
Their argument was pretty simple to understand — that by merging all the commissions under one umbrella, the move was tantamount to erasing the gains made for women, children and the public in general who found it easier to go directly to the offices that best met their needs.
Consequently, therefore, establishing the KHREC was like taking several steps backward after making so many steps forward.
Since their formation through Acts of Parliament, the gender and human rights commissions have recorded tremendous successes and, as such, would prefer to continue operating independently to ensure their mandates remain sacred.
The good news for both commissions is that their proposed Bills have gone through the second reading in Parliament and are currently undergoing amendments for the final reading.
Acts of Parliament
However, what I found uncomfortable during the deliberations in Mombasa was the acrimony evident between representatives of the two commissions. The arguments almost degenerated into verbal abuse, with officers and supporters from one commission not wanting to listen to officers and supporters from the other commission.
What was worse was when the head of one commission referred to supporters of the other with insults.
The 20 or so MPs who were in attendance were both surprised and amused by the display of emotion when making presentations, and some were bold enough to express their dismay at the way delegates from the two commissions conducted themselves, to the extent that some MPs felt like they were being threatened to support one group over another, instead of being lobbied or seduced by sober arguments to lean to one side.
In all this, Gender Minister Naomi Shaban, under whose docket the Gender Commission falls, was calm throughout the proceedings and made her arguments in a composed manner.
And it was from her and Justice-to-be Njoki Ndungu that I began to appreciate the importance of the two commissions operating independently.
If officers from the two commissions cannot see eye to eye in as far as working together is concerned; and if they find it hard to engage in respectable dialogue, then it would be unwise to force them to work together.
The scenario, at best, would be Kenyans being shuffled from one agency to another in search of justice or a hearing as commissioners and their agents desire to prove a point to God knows who.
Fortunately for Kenyans, the Bills from both commissions may very soon be Acts of Parliament and all will be well, again.