A Large Percentage of Women Left Out in the Public Debate on Harmonized Draft Constitution
The public debate on the harmonized draft constitution is over and only about a half a million Kenyans did submit their views to the Committee of Experts on the Constitution Review within the 30-days period of debate. This is a mere 1.35% of the 37million Kenyans. It is emerging that a large percentage of the 98.65% of those who did not take part in the debate are women. The reasons are varied ranging from demographics to gender issues and societal position of women as well as occupation.
Agnes Muriuki is a vegetable vendor in Nairobi whose schedule involves waking up at 4.30 am and going back to the house as late as 11pm on a daily basis. Fondly known as ‘Mama Njeri’, she hardly differentiates a weekday from a weekend or a holiday. With quite a handful of such chores and being a mother of four, she says even getting time for her self is a problem. “I am only in the house for about four hours out of 24. So where do I get time to go through the document? I have not set my eyes on the document anyway,” she said when I asked her whether she has gone through the worthy document and contributed to the public debate.
Her case illustrates some of the reasons why most Kenyans, especially women have not been able to submit their views on the public debate which ended on 17th December. With only 30 days for public debate after the launch of the Harmonized Draft Constitution on November 17th, a survey shows that many people especially from the rural areas were not able to access the draft. Each Member of Parliament was entitled to 500 copies to distribute to his constituents, which earlier on had raised public eyebrows on whether the number of copies could be enough for the entire constituency. It is no wonder women like Agnes do not even know how the document looks like.
Felix Wanambisi, a local chief from Bungoma West district says even securing one copy for his office was a struggle. “I had to struggle for it,” he said in a phone interview. This points to the ineffectiveness on the part of the government for not producing enough copies, save for the newspaper copies that was availed to the public later.
Most women like Agnes were left out in the debate because of their daily preoccupations in vending for their families and domestic chores. Those in the rural areas are worse off. Susan Machuma, a home-maker in a village in Bungoma says she does not see what she will gain in shouting at the top of her voice about national matters. “I have heard about the draft constitution in the radio but why should that concern me?”, she poses when asked whether she has gone through the draft. Women like Susan who have such attitudes view such debates as male’s tasks and it is not under their responsibility (women’s) to shape the leadership and the state of affairs in the country. Little do they know that the future of their children, especially girls could be changed through their combined voices and putting a signature to this draft law. For instance, little do they know that the draft prohibits gender discrimination especially when it comes to the issue of land and matrimonial property. Do they also know that their long discriminated daughters will have equal entitlement to their parents’ inheritance, unlike in the current law where a woman only knows the kitchen? Perhaps some civic education on the need to participate could have done the trick.
It is also emerging that most women especially in the rural areas encountered a language barrier because they are illiterate. The 1999 census put the number of adult illiterate Kenyans at 4.2 million of whom 61.1 percent were women. This trend shows that the number of illiterate women in the country is more than that of men. Most urban poor and those in rural areas do not even know how to spell their name, leave alone reading a 165-paged document written in some jargon. Although there was a smaller simplified version of the harmonized draft, perhaps the Committee of Experts on Constitution should have considered translating the draft in to consumable language, like say vernacular languages. This could make sense to a layman or woman as opposed to using words and phrases like ‘except as otherwise’, ‘herewith’, which might be difficult to comprehend.
Apart from that, there has been a public outcry on the length of the document. A 165-paged document divided in to 21 chapters and 316 articles is quite a mouthful for the ‘bottom billion’ Kenyans living from hand-to-mouth. In particular, women who already have so much at hand to do like vending for the family and taking care of six or so kids are practically left out in reading and comprehending the document. You and I can agree that the document requires at least three hours of maximum concentration for an average reader. So where does this leave this woman like Agnes who only gets four hours of rest out of 24hours? And what about in some cases where women are the sole breadwinners?
In some Kenyan cultures where men have a say in everything, it is an abomination for the daughters of eve to learn how to read and write. So the attitudes in such cultures entirely exclude women from talking where men are. How then can she get time to take part in a debate for national importance?
So the point is as much as the Committee of Experts on Constitution Review are lauding themselves for the successful completion of public debate on the draft, gaping loopholes during the debate process cannot go unnoticed. With Kenya claiming to be a democratic country where each person’s point of view counts, special mechanisms should have been put in place to ensure that the committee gets many submissions from all quarters of the country, including women like Agnes and so many others who either cannot read or who those who could not access the document due to unavailability.
It has indeed been a long road to reviewing the constitution, with the last attempt in the 2005 referendum. Part of the reasons as to why Kenyans rejected that reviewed constitution by voting against it despite the government spending generously on the same was because they felt that their interests were not catered for. And it is within the mandate of the Committee of Experts to consider as many views as possible in order to have a constitution that is by the people and for the people. So perhaps there was need to consider the public outcry to extend the 30-day debate to allow those who accessed the document late to submit their contributions. Or is it just another gimmick of hefty taxpayer’s millions but nothing overbearing? Something should truly come out of it this time round.