Championing the Women's Agenda Within the First 100 Days

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Question and Answer session at the Forum

“Kenyan women have the President’s ear”

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On 25th April 2013, about 180 people congregated at the Lillian Towers’ Mawingo Hall for another installment of The Gender Forum, a monthly public forum convened by the Hbs to discuss topical national issues with a gender lens.

This was the first forum since the swearing in of Kenya’s fourth President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy William Ruto under the Jubilee Coalition which campaigned successfully through a progressive manifesto for Kenya’s transformation. In his acceptance speech, as well as his maiden speech in the Parliament, President Uhuru committed to using his term in office to create a better Kenya for all its residents and to prioritizing the advancement of women to improve their status on all fronts. To illustrate his commitment to this agenda, the President promised that in the first 100 days of his term, he would ensure that a framework was put in place to re-allocate the 6 Billion shilling budget set aside for a run-off toward a fund to support business and enterprise for women and youth. He also decreed that women in public hospitals would enjoy free maternity services and that he would adhere to the no more than two thirds rule in appointments to Cabinet and other government institutions.

In demonstration of his commitment, the list of nominees to Cabinet Secretary Positions tabled by President Uhuru Kenyatta just two days prior to the forum showed that he plans to ‘walk the talk’. Out of 16 nominees to Cabinet Secretary in the new lean cabinet structure of 18 ministries, 6 nominees are women all poised to hold significant portfolios. Notable is Ms. Rachel Omamo who if confirmed suitable through a multilevel vetting and approval process and appointed Cabinet Secretary for Defence, will join the ranks of Angelique Ngoma of Gabon and Lindiwe Sisulu of South Africa as one of seven women in Africa who have held the position equivalent to the Minister for Defence, two of whom held the position in acting capacity.

However, despite the fact that the gender ministry has been scrapped in a bid to create a new lean cabinet structure, the President reaffirmed his personal responsibility and confirmed that gender matters would be handled within his office. He called on all ministries to clearly embody gender issues in their plans and structures and report to his office on progress.

With a supportive Constitution, leadership that intends to affirm women and youth, and almost 20% representation in the 11th Parliament thanks to affirmative action, could this be considered a new dawn for Kenyan women?

This was the backdrop against which the Gender Forum dialogue launched itself on the topic ‘Championing the women’s agenda within the First 100 Days’ begging the questions: What are women’s ‘first 100 days’ priorities? How is the civil society championing a gender equality agenda with the new administration? How well are women issues positioned within the new Cabinet structure? What opportunities exist for solidarity building and collective advocacy?

Kenyan women through their civil society networks and representatives have taken strides to identify priorities for women of Kenya and set key agenda for their leaders. Through documents such as the women’s manifesto of the 1990s and the latest collective tool dubbed The Kenya National Women’s Charter developed in 2012 through a collaborative effort of 42 national and grassroots organizations under the ‘Mwamko Mpya: Uongozi Bora’ initiative, women of Kenya have created a collective voice to lobby leaders into prioritizing women’s issues to bring about transformative and empowering change in their lives under the 2010 Constitution.

In giving her key-note presentation, Ms. Grace Mbugua, the Executive Director of Women’s Empowerment Link (WEL), the lead agency on the Charter, mirrored sections of the Charter against the Jubilee Manifesto, and confirmed that women’s concerted effort and collective voice through the Charter had successfully influenced the development of manifestos of political parties, particularly the Jubilee Manifesto which has now become Kenya’s development agenda for the next five years. She cited the example of free maternity care promised by Jubilee government that could be considered a response to a demand made under Article 12 of the Charter on Reproductive and Health Care Rights for women. She cautioned, however, that achieving these rights for women does not only require free maternity care but also a range of programmes, reforms, legislative and policy measures to be adopted to tackle root causes of maternal and infant mortality and morbidity including accessibility, professional services, education of women etc. (Kenya National Women's Charter; Forum Presentation attached).

This was echoed by Dr. Anne Obura, an independent researcher for the Ministry of Education who informed the forum that there was need to adopt the cross cutting instrument of change: Education. Grace also alerted the forum about the need for a clear roadmap toward placing women specific demands on the leadership as well as tools and vehicles for implementation of a specific plan of action. In setting the pace, WEL has stepped down the Charter to the next level by commencing a process of developing policy briefs which will act as lobby documents to the government for immediate demands made by women. The briefs shall provide situational assessment on the issue, rationale for its prioritization, statistical evidence of the challenge, identification of objectives, craft policy statements and give recommendations to policy makers.

“Kenya is in exciting times … and women are in a better place (than they have ever been since independence)” opined Daisy Amdany, the Chairperson of the Women’s Political Alliance – Kenya and a co-convener of The National Women’s Steering Committee (NWSC) which is a group of about 25 women rights NGOs formed to raise a strong voice for women’s inclusion in political leadership. She said that women’s status is poised to improve because Kenya has an improved legislative framework in support of gender equality, the top leadership’s spoken will to implement gender equality measures and increased representation for women in government. However, she reminded the forum of the need to strengthen the women’s movement so as to strategically agitate for action.

Warning the forum that activism has rarely worked with government, Daisy encouraged the Kenyan woman to look at the glass as half full and begin to turn challenges into opportunities so as to effectively engage with government. Daisy identified key priority areas to be championed by the NWSC; firstly, engaging on economic policy to push for women’s economic empowerment, secondly, championing reproductive health rights and women’s land rights and finally engaging with the legislature to accelerate the push for affirmative action legislation well before the 2015 deadline.

The lack of a standalone gender ministry in the cabinet structure recently unveiled by President Uhuru has generated spirited discussion in gender rights circles as well as at the forum. The forum benefitted from learning about the background and history of the soon-to-be defunct ministry of gender from Ms. Deborah Okumu, the Executive Director of the Caucus for Women’s Leadership and a co-convenor of the NWSC. Outlining the processes that Kenyan women had engaged in to push for an implementing agency and structure of government to address the 12 critical areas of concern for women identified and decreed under the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, Deborah took the forum back in time to the Conference on Women held in Nairobi in 1985 which crafted the Nairobi Forward-Looking Strategies on the Advancement of Women and the Fourth World Conference on Women of 1995 dubbed the Beijing Conference. It was out of these efforts that the Women’s Bureau was established but it was noted to have had little clout due to its placement and lack of resources; then followed the big push by the women’s movement for a standalone ministry to cater to women’s affairs. The ministry was formed but it also suffered from limitations of funding and influence. The constitutional reform period, particularly after its promulgation in 2010, also saw a push for a split of the Article 54 Commission on Human Rights and Equality into three separate commissions: The Gender and Equality Commission (to cater to matters gender and serve special interest groups), the Commission on Administrative Justice and the Kenya National Human Rights Commission.

Given this background, Deborah was categorical that the President will have to create a credible structure at the Office of the President that has clout, goodwill and resources to implement specific programmes and monitor the mainstreaming of gender in other ministries. Her sentiments were echoed by Ms. Hellen Makone, the Executive Director of the Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organization, Kenya’s oldest grassroots network of women that was formally formed after the departure of the colonial government to agitate for women’s issues with the African leadership. Hellen called for a consolidated and structured voice for women, and affirmed that her hope was that President Uhuru’s administration would jump to act because ‘The voice of Kenyan women has spoken’ rather than ‘many lone voices of women speaking’. This consolidated voice of women needs to engage with the formal (government) voice for women. Hence she opined that within the first 100 days, women of Kenya would need to be quick to pressure government to create the formal structure with which to work and to keep close to their representatives in parliament. For instance, there is the immediate need to legislate mechanisms to implement the two-thirds gender representation rule before the 2015 deadline to as directed by the Supreme Court.

The forum heard that a disempowered community cannot attain gender equality hence it would be crucial that the fight for women’s rights adopts an inter-generational, inter-gender and multi-tiered approach in pushing for equality. Connections between national and grassroots movements would also have to be strengthened as well as strategic engagement to ensure that the message is not lost in translation to policy influencers and makers. A participant drew from the Liberian experience citing the documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” and called for concerted approach to change women’s destiny.

In wrapping up the dialogue, the forum moderator Ms. Linda Musumba, a senior lecturer at the Kenyatta University School of Law, gave an anecdote as follows: “There was once a man who had worked extremely hard in the campaign for the elected leader who found it fit to reward him with whatever choice position he wished. The man had only one request, he asked to be allowed to walk up to the leader and whisper in his ear whenever the leader was addressing the public. His perplexing wish was granted, and before long, his action of whispering (nothing) in the ear of the leader created a perception that he was the brains behind the leader’s wisdom. The man gained much respect and influence with the people”.

If the Kenyan woman could recognize herself in that tale, she might just have a unique ability to use her opportunities to transform her lived realities and that of others around her. Linda reminded the forum that the citizenry must take the lead to work with the leadership and to continually hold them to account for the delivery of the transformative promises given.

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