Smiling with one eye, crying with the other

Even where legislative frameworks are in place, this is only part of the solution. This is also the budget month and Kenyans will be waiting to see if the budget will include the resources needed to make this Bill a meaningful reality. Gender activists in countries such as Zimbabwe have pointed out that if there is not enough money and the political will to provide the services, these Acts mean nothing because there are no implementing structures.

While the jury is still out on the merits or demerits of the Sexual Offences Bill passed by the Kenyan Parliament at the end of May, few are aware that, despite several attempts, this is the first such law specifically addressing gender issues in the country.

Unfortunately, in its present form, the watered down Bill leaves Kenyan women and girls smiling with one eye and crying with the other, because they had expected better.

Though the new Bill provides for harsher punishment for rapists and sexual offenders, as well as provisions for sexual harassment, it also states that marital rape will not be an offence. Under the new Bill anyone who makes false allegations of rape is guilty of an offence equal to that for the offence complained of, a clause many argue will deter women from coming forward with information.

Nevertheless, Hon. Njoki Ndungu, nominated Member of Parliament will go into Kenya’s history books as the first woman to have ever asked for leave of the House to introduce a Private Members Motion and ensuring the passing of a Bill affecting a very intimate, yet very public, issue about women’s lives.

This sterling performance follows a history of lacklustre treatment of women’s issues by her gender insensitive male counterparts. In 100 years of Parliamentary history, Bills targeting women have been repealed, not passed or just passed as Motions without them becoming laws, consistently pushing women’s issues to the periphery.

Take the case of a Member of Parliament in 1969 who argued that wedlock was a foreign word that would “mislead us forever.”

He went on to say, “This Bill must show an African outlook, African custom and African tradition and it must also have some element which will restrict the women in their present free movement. They must also be curbed.”

The discussion that saw the repeal of the Bill frequently included words like “prostitution” and “make men slaves of women”. The Affiliation Bill was repealed and the Marriage Bill met with the same fate when introduced by the Attorney General in 1979.

In October 1996, Hon. Charity Ngilu, introduced a Bill on the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) to make government adopt the recommendations contained in the BPFA in recognition of the great need to enhance the political and economic empowerment of women.

Though adopted in November 1996, the Bill has never become law. The same week Parliament adopted the BPFA motion; members resoundingly rejected a motion that would have made female circumcision (FGM) illegal, in direct contravention of the Beijing Platform for Action that observed the dangerous health repercussions of FGM.

The Affirmative Action Motion put forward in 1997 sought to make political parties and government agree to a policy for the nomination of at least one-third women candidates to participate in the National Assembly as well as local authorities.

Supporting the Bill, Hon. Mukhisa Kituyi argued that affirmative action policies sought to remove hurdles in the path of the majority.

Yet, the Affirmative Action Motion was defeated; evidence that after 34 years of independence, Parliament and the Government did not take seriously the issue of the gender equity and equality

Hon. Njoki Ndungu’s introduced the Sexual Offences Bill as a Private Members Bill, on 27th April 2005, and judging by history on the treatment of gender-related Bills, it has made record time and is only awaiting presidential assent.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen to what extent this Bill will make a difference to the lives of women in the country.

That is why even though women are happy with this landmark Bill, they are crying with another eye, simply because implementation of this Bill might take a long time.

l Rosemary Okello is the Executive Director of the African Woman and Child Feature Service in Nairobi, Kenya. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

July 2006
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