“As they walk side by side through the small town of Laare in Meru County, these fifteen women, some of them MPs, can hardly hide their joy. Even though they come from different regions in Kenya and represent parties across the political spectrum, they just succeeded in rallying the entire community of this remote Kenyan area in their fight against female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). Local leaders, elders, church representatives: they all signed an agreement to help stop the brutal practice. Quite an achievement. But there is still as long way to go. As long as women remain underrepresented in Kenya’s political decision-making, addressing women’s rights will be a slow and bumpy process. AWEPA and its partners are supporting these women to organise themselves and to make a lasting difference in society.”
Kenya’s new Constitution, passed in 2010, provides a powerful framework for addressing gender inequalities. Despite its requirement that a single gender cannot make up more than two thirds of parliament, the gender gap persists and women struggle to have their voices heard when it comes to local and national matters.
This year, there was an attempt to even the playing field: a Bill was introduced by the Majority Leader of the National Assembly of Kenya, to ensure that women would make up at least a third of the Assembly. In support of the Bill, AWEPA carried out several lobby and advocacy activities, bringing together parliamentarians across party lines to promote the vote in the House. Unfortunately, the motion failed in Parliament due to lack of quorum – three times in a row.
Ms. Anne Nyambura, AWEPA Programme Manager, explains: “It is symptomatic of the society-wide marginalisation of women. Although they play an important role in local businesses, and increasingly in larger corporations as well, they face a real lack of trust when it comes to leadership positions. The law foreseen in affirmative action on the local levels, obliging political parties to nominate women as Members of the County Assemblies (MCA). These Women MCAs are systematically stigmatised as so-called ‘flower-girls’ or ‘top-ups’! How can we expect women’s rights to advance if they are not taken seriously in politics?”
AWEPA helps these women MCAs to organise themselves and to strengthen their capacities. We do this in collaboration with the Kenya Women Parliamentary Association (KEWOPA), by setting up local KEWOPA chapters in the Counties. These should become fora for capacity building, collaboration and experience sharing among women MCAs. So far, chapters have been erected across 13 counties and we aim to reach another 9 counties at least. All chapters receive training on how to strategise and form caucuses and how to effectively lobby for women’s issues.
The activities represent a bid to strengthen women’s self-confidence and ability to build their numbers in the 2017 elections. And results so far have been encouraging. In October 2016, only one week after AWEPA held caucus training in Siaya County in south west Kenya, three women who currently hold nominated positions in the County Assembly officially declared that they would run for elective posts in the upcoming elections. In Kisii, Bungoma, Wajir, Nyeri and Nyandarua Counties, too, there have been even more cases of nominated MCAs indicating that they will go for various elective positions, ranging from Senator to MP.
This development shows that we are on the right track. It’s one of what Ms. Nyambura calls the ‘little milestones’ that highlight the importance of what we are doing.
But AWEPA’s aim is not solely to empower individual women. Through the established KEWOPA chapters, women representatives can more effectively lobby and advocate for changes they wish to see in society. Ms. Susan Chebet, MP in the Kenya’s National Assembly and actively involved in KEWOPA, has seen the potential for lobby and advocacy and has reached out to her local MCA colleagues to help her in her fight against FGM/C. In 2015, she was appointed chair of the Parliamentary Caucus on Female Genital Mutilation, a group set up as a result of a seminar organised by AWEPA on 12 June 2015. Now, she is leading parliamentary delegations which crisscross through the country to raise awareness among local communities about the need to abolish the practice.
Since girls who have undergone FGM/C are often considered ready for marriage, the practice may contribute to the sexual violation of girls, underage pregnancy and, by extension, increased school drop-outs and the disempowerment of women. And FGM/C is still on the rise in many areas in many communities in Kenya, even though the country enacted an anti-FGM Law in 2011. Currently, approximately 27% of women and girls in the country have been victims of FGM/C.
In Hon. Chebet’s eyes: “The law is not enough. We need to interact with the communities, talk openly about the dangers of the practice, and find alternatives for the rite of passage to adulthood. The law that prohibits female genital mutilation in Kenya is being frustrated. We do not see enough implementation and response in terms of prosecutions and convictions.” On the outreach activities: “When the local MP calls for a meeting and invites community leaders, it attracts a big crowd. The presence of parliamentarians from other communities where the ritual persists also helps. Colleagues from Somali origin, where 98 percent of girls are cut, tell us it is better we go with them because they fear to talk about it.”
In an outreach session to Meru County, the national women MPs teamed up with the women Members of the Meru County Assembly to reach out to women and men in the community in a bid to change local perceptions of FGM/C. They succeeded in convincing local leaders, elders and church representatives, most of them men, to help them combat the practice. The agreements signed will form the basis for continued oversight on implementation of FGM policy, at county level and at national level.
AWEPA facilitated similar FGM/C outreach mission in six other counties: Mt Elgon, Elgeyo Maraqwet, Embu, Nyamira, Kisii and Tharaka Nithi. Other visits are planned for December 2016 and 2017. In doing so, AWEPA and the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs are contributing to a strong and growing lobby for the protection of women’s rights in Kenya.
In 2016, AWEPA entered into a Strategic Partnership with the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD), to strengthen the lobby and advocacy capacities of political actors in a number of African countries. In Kenya, AWEPA has been supporting Women MPs and Local Women Councilors to organise themselves and lobby for issues that advance the rights of women in society. This is the first impact story on how the Strategic Partnership is making a difference.