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Year Of Landmark Gains For Women

By Jacinta Sekoh-Ochieng, The Nation (Nairobi), 28 December 2000

Nairobi - The year marked a watershed in gender activism, with major political breakthroughs for women and a major split in the ranks of leaders of the movement.

Sustained campaigning around women-friendly legislation saw Parliament pass the Affirmative Action motion in April, only for the original Kenya Women's Political Caucus to split wide open in July.

But while the Affirmative Action motion brought out the best in non-governmental organisations working in the area of women in political leadership and decision-making, the launching of the Equality Bill later in October nearly scuttled all the gains made as Muslim women took to the streets in protest at provisions they considered anti-Islamic.

In a prime example of collective action, women's groups countrywide rallied behind the Affirmative Action motion, soon to be presented to Parliament as a Bill, thus ensuring that Parliament passed the motion it rejected in 1997. On the day of reckoning, women from all parts of Kenya turned up at Parliament Buildings to give moral support to the mover of the motion, Social Democratic Party's Beth Mugo of Dagoretti.

The campaign outside Parliament was spearheaded by the Kenya Women's Political Caucus chaired by Mrs Phoebe Asiyo, who moved the 1997 motion.

But the victorious women had barely settled down to sort out the nuts and bolts of turning the motion into effective legislation when a leadership wrangle erupted at the Caucus, pitting groups allied to Mrs Asiyo against a rival camp centering around Dr Wanjiku Kabira, the convener of the Caucus, and Kitui Central MP Charity Ngilu.

Despite calls for reconciliation, the latter two moved on to form the Kenya Women's Political Alliance - whose members form the backbone of women's representation on the Ufungamano Initiative's constitutional reform commission.

The women's movement suffered yet another setback when Muslim women, with substantial backing from leading Muslim public figures, began what appeared to be a pre-emptive strike against the Equality Bill fronted by the Federation of Women Lawyers, Kenya, and the Attorney-General's office.

Confusion reigned as Kenyans tried to come to terms with both the proposed Affirmative Action Bill and the newcomer, reopening the controversies that have dogged the pursuit of women's rights.

Significantly, even though the Equality Bill covers the entire canvas of social life, it is only the provisions touching on women's lives that kept cropping up as subjects of controversy.

In subsequent consultations, the Muslim women made an about-turn and declared their support for affirmative action, subject to their being exempted from provisions already covered by the Koran.

The Equality Bill, which has since been tabled in Parliament, has its roots in a motion passed in Parliament in December 1999 allowing Gichugu MP Martha Karua to introduce legislation on equality. Fida, the AG's office and the Ministry of Home Affairs, Heritage and Sports formulated the draft Bill which seeks to prohibit discrimination and promote equality of access and opportunity for all people.

Among the key opponents of affirmative action and the Equality Bill are President Moi, who argues that this legislation is not necessary as Kenyan women are well provided for. There are only nine women in the current Parliament, five of them nominated. Indeed, women's representation in Kenya's Parliament has never risen above four per cent. The situation is no better in local authorities. There are only 300 women against 3,392 men councillors countrywide.

The Affirmative Action Bill, nevertheless, received the backing of Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a'Nzeki of the Catholic Church.

Another significant breakthrough came at the end of April when Attorney- General Amos Wako published the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, 2000. If enacted, it will be a boon for girls and women seeking redress for sexual violence, particularly minors.

Media coverage of women's issues has come a long way. During the International Women's Day, Nation Editorial Director Wangethi Mwangi acknowledged that media houses had not given women their rightful attention. He said the Nation had broken the mould by publishing a 40-page pull-out: "Our Voices, Our lives".

Mr. Wangethi pledged to step up the momentum and give readers more in-depth features, analyses, comments and news of interest to women.

And the much-awaited Family Court was finally launched on December 31 by Chief Justice Bernard Chunga. The Court, a division of the High Court, will handle cases related to custody of children, divorce, separation, burial disputes and legitimacy.

It will also handle petitions for probate and administration, the guardianship of children, issues arising from the Married Women's Property Act and application for maintenance and alimony.

The division will be headed by High Court Judge, Lady Justice Joyce Aluoch, two other judges who are yet to be named and a deputy registrar.

The division was formed after recommendations by an 11-member committee appointed in June by the Chief justice. The Judiciary, State Law Office, the Law Society of Kenya, Federation of Women Lawyers and the Children's Department were represented in the committee.

And in November, the Domestic Violence Bill, which was long overdue, was published by the Attorney General.

If the Bill becomes a law, wife beaters risk up to a year in jail and a Sh100,000 fine. The Bill aims at stamping out abuse in the home and seeks to protect husbands, wives and children.

Some gains were also made in the female genital mutilation (FGM) front. It is estimated that more than two million girls undergo the rite every year. Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Sudan account for roughly 75 per cent of all cases.

In Kenya, the average age of circumcision is seven to 14 years, although trends are changing because parents are performing it earlier to avoid government interference and possible resistance from girls.

FGM causes irreversible and life-long health risks during menstruation, sexual intercourse and childbirth.

The highest maternal and infant mortality rates in Kenya are in FGM practising regions, more than 50 per cent of Kenya's administrative districts.

There is no legislation against FGM although Kenya is a signatory to international human rights instruments that call for enactment of legislation against harmful traditional practices.

Efforts by the government to curb FGM have fallen short of a legal ban. In 1998, National Focal Point, a collaborative and coordination centre for anti-FGM efforts, activities and programmes was formed. The 20-year Plan of Action (1999-2019) was launched on November 12, last year, with the objective of speeding up the elimination of FGM.

On December 26, President Moi called for an end to FGM in Kenya. He said the rite was outdated and had no role in modern society.

Access to land by women is a thorny issue that received great attention this year. Research has shown that less than four per cent of Kenyan women have title deeds registered in their names.

Although women's right to own land is legally recognised in Kenya, the application of various statutes and laws often renders this right nugatory.

In November, 1999, the President appointed a commission to inquire into the land law system of Kenya under Gazette Notice No.6593. In May, Fida hosted a regional conference on women's access to land and property.

It is the hope of Kenyan women that the commission will look into issues affecting women's land rights.

Last month, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged that all forms of violence against women be eliminated.

He called on member states, the civil society and individuals to intensify efforts to curb violence, saying the vice was detrimental to development and peace and a hindrance to human rights.

Another plus is the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, which will be a boon for girls seeking redress over sexual violence

This week, President Moi called for an end to FGM in Kenya, saying the rite was outdated and very dangerous.

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