Ignorance, male chauvinism block Kenyan Sexual Offences Bill

Sexual offences in Kenya have come under the spotlight as a private motion for a Sexual Offences Bill has sparked vigorous debate both within the country’s parliament and amongst ordinary Kenyans. The motion was put forward by a woman Member of Parliament (MP), Njoki Ndung’u, who has been left speechless by the reactions from her colleagues. Quoted in Kenya’s The Sunday Nation, Ndung’u said: “I am deeply shocked by the passionate reactions this Bill has attracted. I have amended it twice and I am not sure any more what exactly my (parliamentary) colleagues want.” During the first reading of the Bill, all female MPs with the exception of the mover and the seconder, the Minister for Justice, Martha Karua, walked out of parliament to protest snide remarks by one of the male MPs who termed women “creatures” and argued that they are “somehow shy” and “not as open as men are” with reference to courtship. During its second reading, after some amendments, The Sunday Nation reported that out of the 13 MPs who contributed during its debate, eight ‘ all men ‘ flatly refused to support it; demanding further amendments or total withdrawal. But why is this the case when the current ruling party came to power in Kenya on the back of promises to restore human rights? As it stands, the Sexual Offences Bill simply seeks to improve on the Penal Code which does not sufficiently address sexual offences as such rape, sexual harassment, and defilement of minors or the organised exploitation of prostitution for monetary gains. Ndung’u’s bill goes further to include such offences as marital rape and female circumcision. Several male MPs have reacted strongly to these two elements and have argued that criminalising marital rape and female circumcision undermine both private and community rights. However, recent evidence indicates that rape is on the increase in Kenya; that it is underreported ‘ with marital rape possibly not being reported at all; defilement of minors is common; and several communities continue to circumcise girls and women. This is despite interventions by many non-governmental organisations. For those who have been following the rape trial of Jacob Zuma in South Africa, it will be interesting to read that many of the Kenyan MPs are concerned about a clause in the Bill that protects a rape accuser having his or her sexual history dredged up in court. Just like some of the reported reactions to the Zuma case, the arguments for or against the Bill have invoked terms and phrases such as “African cultures” or “alien and foreign practices” either to reject some of the clauses or to oppose it. What is lost in these arguments is the essence of the Bill, what its Ndung’u has called “insecurity at home.” Backed with statistics she argues that “Kenya is a country at war,” not in the conventional sense, but in the sense of sexual violence. These are sentiments that resonate in many parts of the continent where women continue to be victims of either religious laws or some residues of “traditional” cultural practices perpetuated by men and male-controlled institutions. Some of these laws and practices are at times out of step with real life experiences or are unjustified. Examples include the recent invocation of the Sharia law in some parts of Nigeria to punish women offenders only while absolving the men of any blame in the assumed transgression and the continued practice of female circumcision in many parts of Africa. Indeed, gender inequality and violence will not realistically disappear overnight. But is it possible to dream of the attainment of parity between men and women when most men would rather ridicule, mock or laugh away such a serious issue as gender violence? In Kenya’s case, it seems the struggle is still a long way from even starting. Women, who constitute the majority of the population, must aspire more to public office and power. The insignificant number of female MPs in the current Kenyan parliament means that issues affecting women will continue to be marginalised. If there is one other significant issue that the drama surrounding the reading of the Sexual Offences Bill highlights, it is that of power. That the Kenyan parliament and most of the public offices are still a male domain simply means that men control and exercise immense powers over several public institutions and everyday life. It is therefore important that women claim an increasing stake in public life in Kenya. Indeed a campaign such as the Sixteen Days of Activism Against Gender Violence which have received much more serious attention in South Africa need to be spread across the continent. It is only through perpetual activism that women will be able to attain some amount of respect of their identities and lives from their men-folk. The ignorance and male chauvinism that Kenyan parliamentarians have exhibited over the Sexual Offences Bill is not merely about the Freudian symbolic fear of castration or the physical castration that the Bill initially proposed ‘ which was later amended to chemical castration ‘ as it is being jocularly described. This is a case of blatant sexism with no regard for the rights of women and children. l Dr Tom Odhiambo is a researcher at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of the Witwatersrand. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

May 2006
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