Sunday, July 24, 2011

A modest proposal on women’s representation

Sunday Nation 24 July 2011

Last week, a lobby representing women’s interests presented the Interim Independent Electoral Commission with a proposal to guarantee that the constitutional caveat against any elective or appointive body having more than two thirds representation from one gender is respected.

The commission seemed to have given the proposal a sympathetic ear, and it is possible the proposal will be implemented in some form or other ahead of the next General Election.

The formula is intended to force some constituencies, on a “rotational basis”, to vote for women to ensure the constitutional requirement is met for the National Assembly and Senate.
While the idea of women’s empowerment is welcome and long overdue, the way we are going about it is all wrong.

The assumptions being made about the Kenyan voter are insulting at best, and disenfranchising at worst. The worst of these is that we cannot wilfully elect a female candidate when presented with an opportunity to do so.

The proportion of elected women in Parliament has been rising since independence when there were none up to the present time when 7.6 per cent of elected MPs are women.

Between 1997 and 2007, the proportion of elected women MPs quadrupled from 1.9 per cent to the current 7.6 per cent. More women are expected to vie and be elected next year due to the overall increased gender awareness and other equality requirements enshrined in the Constitution.

Article 93 of the Constitution establishes the Parliament of Kenya, consisting of the National Assembly and the Senate. For all intents and purposes, this is one body with the primary functions, as enumerated in Article 94, of making laws, representing the people and protecting the Constitution, among others.

For the purposes of calculating proportions of representation, this arm of government may be considered as a whole, instead of unnecessarily concentrating on the constituent parts. Parliament, therefore, would consist of 337 elected members (290 in the National Assembly and 47 in the Senate).

Another 79 members would be nominated as set out in Articles 97 and 98, and the speakers of the two houses would bring the total number to 418.

Without using the disenfranchising model proposed by the women’s lobby, how is it possible to fulfil the constitutional requirement that the National Assembly should not be dominated by over two thirds of one gender?

The first step would be to reserve all discretionary nominations for the “minority” gender in Parliament.

Assuming that this would be women, they would get a total of 77 seats reserved for them (59 in the National Assembly and 18 in the Senate). If we were to also reserve the positions of speaker of both houses for women, the number of female MPs would be 79 even before considering the elected ones.

The number needed to prevent a greater than two thirds majority for one gender would be 140 (just over a third of 418), meaning that Kenyans would only need to elect at least 61 women MPs out of the total 337 to meet the constitutional minimum.

Here, then, is the challenge: Is our political scene so barren that we cannot elect 61 women to Parliament in 2012?

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s school of medicine

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