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Male MPs kill gender bill and the dream of women, again



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In the end, the spirited efforts by the women MPs’ caucus – the Kenya Women Parliamentary Association (Kewopa) – fell short.

Ahead of the Wednesday D-Day, the ladies had thrown a dinner bash at the Norfolk hotel for their male colleagues as part of the intense lobbying to coax them to support the gender bill.

This was the third attempt to pass a bill that would meet the constitution’s requirement that at least a third of MPs be women.

Come voting day, National Assembly Majority Leader Aden Duale had no choice but to shelve the vote. He simply didn’t have the numbers. A constitutional bill like the gender bill must meet a high threshold.

At a minimum 233 MPs in the 349-member National Assembly must vote Yes. On the afternoon of the failed vote, those in the chamber were well short of that number. And nobody even knew for certain how they would vote.

Here is the routine: If on the table is a constitutional bill which as an MP you don’t particularly like, you keep off the chamber so as to deny it quorum from the outset.

You don’t have to be physically present to vote No, particularly if you don’t want the uncomfortable scrutiny which surrounds emotive bills like the gender bill.

Of course nobody – the male MPs especially – wanted to be labelled a sexist goat, and each tried hard to flaunt their supposed lack of prejudice.

It was left to the plain-spoken Maison Leshoomo, the Samburu Woman Representative, to say what her younger, more sophisticated Kewopa sisters were not saying with their earlier breezy optimism.

Addressing herself to the male MPs who were pronouncing support for the bill, she observed: “Words say Yes, but we don’t know what is in your hearts.”

She instinctively knew that many male MPs were speaking from both ends of their mouths.

Patriarchy, no doubt, was in play. It disguises itself in many forms, such as a pretended distaste for “slay queens”.

These slayers, so went a vicious smear campaign started by the gender bill’s opponents, would be the true inheritors of the enlarged quota of women MPs earmarked by the bill.

However, other more mundane problems had their share of responsibility for the demise of the bill.

At the root is this 2010 mongrel of a Constitution, which set targets that have proved to be electorally insurmountable.

It had laid out an admirable vision of gender equity for elective bodies, but left the foggiest of roadmaps on how to get there.

Since so far it has not been possible to have enough women elected in enough numbers to form at least a third of parliament and the county assemblies, the only remedy is to nominate the extra numbers.

There is a fundamental contradiction, though. The same constitution designates the number of seats in both the Senate and National Assembly.

Exceeding this number in pursuit of the magical one-third gender threshold breaches the Constitution. Yet not adhering to this principle violates the Constitution too.

As early as 2012, the then Attorney-General, Githu Muigai, sought an advisory from the Supreme Court on what to do.

Other than a vague ruling that the gender rule be implemented “progressively” toward 2015, the Supreme Court appeared as clueless as everybody else.

The latest gender bill tried to go around this problem by seeking to postpone implementation to 2022. Still, there were huge unresolved issues.

Does the one-third rule apply only for elective seats, or for the entire combined lot of elected and nominated MPs and senators, inclusive of the affirmative action slots of county women representatives?

What will be the formula – and criteria – of nomination? In fact, the game-killer for the bill was its lack of clarity on this score. Another visit to the Supreme Court for interpretation seemed inevitable.

Opponents seized on this lack of clear nomination rules to insinuate that political party “owners” would take advantage of the void to entrench a practice of nominating relatives and loyalists, if not those slay queens.

There was the additional anxiety that the beneficiaries would be the elitist, seminar-loving women and not their genuinely disadvantaged rural kin.

Affirmative action is a form of tokenism. The jury is out on whether the ingrained structures of inequality are necessarily torn down when a few top-up seats are allocated in Parliament.

In other words, do these nominated posts translate to real women empowerment?

At bottom, the gender bill’s biggest drawback was the widespread public resentment at what was seen to be a creeping culture of entitlement camouflaged as affirmative action.

“Waende debe” (ballot box) was a popular retort on social media. It expressed the irritation with women unwilling to subject themselves to competitive, meritocratic elections.

Lost in the din was the women’s cry that the ground was structurally uneven. Let’s pause and rethink if equality is being sought in the right way.