Recently, there has been a lively debate in Kenya on whether the principle (article 81) in the new constitution that states “not more than two thirds of the members of elective bodies shall be of the same gender” can be achieved, without some form of affirmative action.This is because at the same time, the constitution restricts the number of constituencies in Kenya to 290 seats, with 59 nominated seats of which 47 are reserved for women, and 12 for special interests including the youth, persons with disabilities and workers (article 97). Hence, the political class cannot “nominate” their way out of this quagmire. The number of women elected to the national assembly next general elections must rise substantially if a constitutional crisis is to be avoided.
The general consensus, in my view, is that this numbers cannot be achieved unless some formula is devised to restrict some posts for women. Hence the cabinet last week decided to scrap away this principle by amending the constitution. This raised a lot of anger from quarters of the women’s rights movement, which said it had not been consulted in this decision yet it was their lot that was to be directly affected.
These groups, supported by most of the women nominated members of parliament, want a system of affirmative action devised, whereby a good proportion of constituencies are reserved for women, so that to ensure the constitution is not violated after the next general election, leading to a constitutional; crisis. But what is affirmative action? The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy defines affirmative action as the “positive steps taken to increase the representation of women and minorities in areas of employment, education and business from which they have been historically excluded. Some of the ways in which affirmative action can be carried out is through quotas, where a specific number of positions in the school, organization or indeed, parliament are set aside for the minority group.
But this idea has not been received well, to say the least, by a good majority of Kenyans. Every voter has a right to choose his favored candidate, as long as he/she complies with the code of conduct, and article 99 of the constitution. How will vetting candidates according to gender improve service delivery, accountability, good governance and responsibility among members of parliament?
That question brings me back to the real issue in this argument: why cant women achieve a third of the seats in parliament without any special considerations or affirmative action?
Some of the reasons include:
• Lack of economic resources to compete with their male counterparts in political campaigns.
• The irregular and highly corrupt methods of political recruitment by political parties that are mostly headed by men hinder women (as well as the physically disabled, youth and other minorities)
• Chauvinism and lack of education that views women as incapable of doing well in such positions
• Political culture that favors violence, militias and voter bribery which are conditions that favor the men
• Lack of political mentoring and role models in the political field
• “jealousy” from the women voters that would rather vote for a man (I have never bought this one)
Hence to even out this unbalanced playing field, affirmative action should be done to ensure that women are well represented in parliament, as well as fight these institutional problems to make it easier for women and even other minorities to vie for and clinch the positions in politics.
Yet there are persuasive arguments AGAINST affirmative action. These include:
o It may not lead to true diversity of opinion which is so important in a national assembly
o It leads to reverse discrimination( discriminating against men while fighting discrimination against women)
o Lowering standards of accountability needed to push women politicians to perform better. ( a recent study by Stanford university indicated that the women representatives in America tend to bring in more money to their home districts, attract more sponsors and introduce more bills than their male counterparts. Of course this may not be true for Kenyan women parliamentarians, but it is obvious that women who succeed in politics, in Kenya and America alike, are ‘the most politically ambitious and talented of their pool, having potentially overcome hurdles including voter bias and self-doubt about their ability to win.” Open up “special seats” for women and the caliber of women getting seats to parliament is likely to suffer as a result.
o Once enacted, affirmative actions are tough to remove, even after the underlying discrimination has been eliminated.
In my conclusion though, I would say that as long as women cannot achieve at least a third of parliamentary seats in any country, then there is a problem with that society. Affirmative action should only be used as the most temporary of measures to correct this discrimination and wrong situation. For Kenya, measures such as the political parties bill, that will regulate the membership and nominations of political parties, strict electoral code of conduct that is well enforced by the IEBC( Independent electoral and boundaries commission), voter education, more women mentoring each other and encouraging each other to vie for seats in politics, more transparent and possibly government sponsored campaign financing, and democracy in political parties will promote a greater involvement of women in political affairs and elections than affirmative action alone can.
Affirmative action has a good number of weaknesses despite its advantages. hence, it must be used very carefully to minimize any discrimination towards the men, promote equality and harmony amongst all people in society, even as it seeks to empower women in Kenyan politics. for sure, restricting some parliamentary seats for women is not the answer. we would be better advised as a country to lay the groundwork for long term reforms of our political institutions and political culture by reading the article as a principle that can promote greater representation for women in the national assembly, as well as the disabled, youth and other minorities.