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Why we need more than just law to truly empower women

By Kamotho Waiganjo | March 13th 2021

This week the International Women’s Day was marked with pomp in many parts of the globe. For a few countries like Kenya, there were at least few reasons to celebrate. While we have far to go, we have definitely made some strides in gender equality and women’s rights since 1995 when Nyiva Mwendwa was appointed as Kenya’s first and only woman minister.

In the 1980s, Dr Julia Ojiambo had been the only cabinet member as an assistant minister. Notably, the two had been relegated to the Ministry of Culture and Social Services in which women issues were lumped.

We only had a sprinkling of women parliamentarians though many like Chelegat Mutai left an indelible mark. The first woman permanent secretary Margaret Githinji was appointed in the early 1990s.

Compare that with today where we have seven women in senior cabinet positions and numerous permanent secretaries. In the last election, we even managed to elect two women governors, a feat not accomplished in our first gubernatorial elections.

With the impressive performance by the two female governors and the requirement in BBI that a candidate must “consider” the opposite gender for running mate, we expect this number to rise.  

In parliament, while we have not attained the elusive “not more than two thirds” gender principle, our numbers have increased to about 23 per cent from a measly 10 per cent before the new Constitution.

The BBI constitutional amendment finally cures this malady by requiring nominations to reach the 33 per cent minimum number of female MPs if we fail to elect women.

Instructively, it provides that only women who have stood for elections and performed well will be entitled to the nomination slots which will no doubt encourage more women to stand for elections even if they lose. In education, girls entering secondary school overtook boys for the first time in 2019.

Unfortunately, the relative number of girls joining university decreased in 2018/19, a challenge being aggressively addressed by the Ministry of Education along with the twin challenge that girls are largely enrolled in the general liberal arts and not the more lucrative technical and professional courses.

While there are these little gains to celebrate in Kenya, we know there is still so much to do and we know this positive progress is not replicated in most of the world.

The UN report on the status of women released to commemorate the International Women’s Day is depressing in its content.

Coming 25 years after the Beijing Platform of Action, it warns that progress in achieving true gender equality has been slow and that in some instances hard fought gains are being reversed. 

The report records that globally, 98 per cent of presidents are men. Only 8 per cent of Heads of Government are women.  75 per cent of parliamentarians are male. Men hold 73 per cent of managerial positions in the workforce.

Women shoulder the bulk of unpaid care and domestic work and are on average paid by up to 35 per cent less than men.

At a more worrying level, nearly one in five women face violence from an intimate partner with new technologies such as cyberbullying accentuating the diversities of violence. In Kenya, stories abound of gross gender based violence. Only last week, during the by-elections we watched a woman being threatened with sexual violence in broad daylight without even minimal repulsion from men in the vicinity.

Most of us therefore celebrated the one-day jail term   accorded to a woman who killed her husband in self defence after years of grievous sexual and other violence.

These realities are a call to action for those that care for equality and equity on the gender question. There can be no optimal growth, socially and economically, for societies that subjugate women and deny them their rightful place in society.

While the law will take us some distance in ensuring gender equity, it will take fundamental re-engineering of our world view for true empowerment of women to be achieved in all spheres of social and political life. Let us hope that the next 25 years will paint a more encouraging picture.

-The writer is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya

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