Kenyan MPs on Tuesday debated a bill that would allocate a third of all seats in parliament to women, with campaigners optimistic it would pass despite previous failures.
Women hold 23 percent of seats in Kenya’s lower and upper houses of parliament combined, says the Inter-Parliamentary Union – on a par with the global average, but lower than neighbours Rwanda, Ethiopia and Burundi.
Kenya’s 2010 constitution states that no more than two-thirds of any elected or appointed political bodies can be of the same gender, but does not set out a mechanism for attaining that goal.
The new legislation proposed by MP Aden Bare Duale provides for special seats to be created if parliamentary elections fail to achieve the required numbers, with female candidates nominated to fill them.
“We want to fix the historical injustices done to women in the past. And for us to do that, we need to empower the women of this country,” said the ruling Jubilee party representative as he presented the bill in the national assembly.
“We must give them the seat of leadership. Women must be present at the decision-making table – in the executive, in the legislature, in the judiciary and in the private sector.”
Kenya’s economy has grown on average by 5 percent annually over the last decade, but the benefits have not been equally shared – and women and girls remain disadvantaged socially, economically and politically.
Women make up only a third of the 2.5 million people employed in the formal sector, says the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. And while women provide 80 percent of Kenya’s farm labour, they own only 1 percent of agricultural land.
Gender experts say that a stronger women’s voice at the top would have a trickle-down effect, they say, leading to the development of policies and laws that would help women at the grassroots level fight abuse, discrimination and inequality.
Since 2012, women’s rights groups in Kenya have fought to have legislation passed and despite the supreme court directing parliament to enact a law, previous attempts have failed largely due to quorum hitches.
The bill has the backing of both President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga and its supporters say they are confident it will pass.
But it is not without opposition.
Critics said creating additional parliamentary seats would cost Kenyan taxpayers millions of dollars in extra salaries.
Others have questioned how nominations of candidates would be conducted, suggesting that politician’s wives, girlfriends and mistresses would be given seats by proxy.
Wilberforce Oundo from the opposition Orange Democratic Movement said it would be “extremely difficult to trust the process of nomination”.
“The executive, women activists and rights campaigners and must invest heavily in the capacity building of women, instead of looking for short term gains and short term escapes,” he told parliament.
This article was written by Nita Bhalla and edited by Claire Cozens for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience.