A Snapshot of the Situation of Women’s Rights in Kenya
Women’s organizing in Kenya has been going on for decades, since long before the country’s independence from colonial rule. The oldest women’s organization, the Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organization (MYWO) was started in 1952. Although it was started by a group of white settler women, the organization has the widest grassroots penetration in the country, with over three million members at present. For a long time, MYWO’s main focus was economic. It aimed to build women’s capacity to generate income and manage their households as a means of alleviating poverty.
This approach, whether or not influenced by MYWO remains pervasive and is reflected in the numerous small scale women’s savings and credit groups and investment clubs or, as they are commonly called, ‘merry-go-rounds.’ These groups pool members’ contributions to provide credit to their own members or make investments. The potential for using these groups as catalysts for women’s rights activism has not been fully explored.
The Third UN Conference on Women was held in Nairobi in 1985. This marked the beginning of rights centred activism. A number of women’s organizations were born, right after the conference including the Federation of Women Lawyers, Kenya (FIDA) which gained prominence for its women’s rights advocacy. Today, there are numerous women’s rights NGOs, many of which have aspects of the welfarist approach.
Women in leadership
One way in which gender inequality is reflected in Kenya is in the dearth of women in national governance structures. The current Parliament has fifteen elected and six nominated women members out of a total of 222 members. However, even though fifteen elected women MPs may not seem like much, it does represent an increase from the ten of the former Parliament.
Interestingly, in the 2007 general elections, 269 women contested for parliamentary seats as compared to 44 aspirants in 2002. This, by any means, is a phenomenal increase. Since the advent of multiparty politics in the country in 1992, there have been concerted efforts, driven by women’s rights NGOs to get women into parliament and local government. The increase in the number of women offering their leadership to the electorate is likely to have been influenced by these NGOs. Indeed, many women members of Parliament have at one point or another been active in the women’s movement as members, employees or board members of women’s rights organizations.
Apart from cultural attitudes that obstruct women from vying for political leadership, and people from voting from them, there are several factors that have prevented women from making their numeric presence felt. The pre-election period was characterized by violence generally, but disproportionately against women candidates. Political campaigns also cost a lot of money, and many women are not able to raise the money needed to conduct a campaign. Women are also underrepresented in the executive and judiciary. Although in the lower courts, women are relatively better represented at between 38 and 44 per cent of magistrates, in the higher courts, the percentage falls to 20 per cent. In the highest court, there is only one woman judge out of a total of fourteen.
Legislation on women’s rights
The constitution bars discrimination on the basis of gender. Generally, however, it has generally been difficult to get women’s rights oriented legislation passed by the male dominated Kenyan Parliament. Their patriarchal attitudes were reflected during the battle to have a Sexual Offences Act passed. A number of other pieces of proposed legislation introduced to Parliament have failed to go through including an Affirmative Action Bill and a Domestic Violence Bill. A draft of a new constitution that would have, among other things, enhanced women’s rights to own land was defeated at a national referendum in 2005. Although this was not the main reason why the draft was rejected, opposition to women’s land ownership did contribute to the sentiment against it. Organizations within the women’s movement have been behind most of the attempts at legislative reform.
Kenya has signed onto the Convention against all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and a number of other international conventions as well as the Millennium Development Goals, but becoming a party to an international treaty does not automatically mean incorporation of its norms into national legislation or policy. In many ways, Kenya has made progress – however slow – on women’s rights. As However, the formidable combination of patriarchy and poverty continue to relegate women to second status.
 Institute for Economic Affairs (2008) Profile of Women’s Socio-Economic Status
in Kenya. Nairobi
 Swahili for ‘women’s development.’
 Kiragu, Jane ‘Is there a Women’s Movement?’ in Muteshi, Jacinta (2006)
Mapping Best Practices: Promoting Gender Equality and the advancement of
Kenyan women. Nairobi, Heinrich Boll Foundation.
 Note 1, p. 36.
 The overall number of parliamentary candidates rose from 1015 in 2002 to 2548
 See ‘Kenya’s elections: how did women fare?’ an interview with Wangari Kinoti.
 Note 1, p. 37.
 See ‘Legislating against sexual violence: the Kenyan experience.’ An interview
with Njoki Ndung’u. http://www.awid.org/eng/Issues-and-Analysis/Library/Legislating-against-sexual-violence-the-Kenyan-experience