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End culture that harms women’s rights

A few months back, a young girl was forcefully grabbed from her parents home in Marigat and taken away for marriage.

She was underage and my efforts to seek for her freedom fell on deaf ears. Everybody that I sought help from was male. Parliament was the only remaining option, but here too, despite the one third constitutional rule for women, help did not come through.

Culture, they said. But in my view, the source of our extreme poverty that is undermining economic growth is our failure to give women equal rights.

A report launched by the Institute for Security Studies last week said that over 18 million Kenyans live in extreme poverty.

Jakkie Cilliers, ISS executive director and head of its African Futures Project, confirmed my earlier assertion in this column that growth in Kenya has not benefited the poor but instead increased the wealth gap.

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Growth, she says, needs to be inclusive if Africa is to meet its huge potential. UNDP reports show that majority of the world’s extremely poor are women.

The report partly blames investments in education and infrastructure, which are often concentrated in urban areas at the expense of rural areas.

This is true, but the report fails to point out that culture is the basis of all these problems. Women spend a great deal of time looking for firewood and water before coming home to tend to their male siblings.

Majority miss out on education. If we dealt with the utilities infrastructure, which I am sure we can because God in his own way has given us abundant sunshine from which we can create green energy, this would translate to less exploitation of our environment for firewood as well as be used to draw water from water reservoirs, ultimately freeing women from these tasks.

An analysis of the last census available on the Kenya Open Data portal reveals the extent to which Kenya discriminates against women in education and health.

For every one girl who joins university, three boys do the same. In some marginal districts, the statistics are even worse to the extent that for every girl joining university, ten boys do irrespective of their performance.

This applies to even where more girls qualify to join university than boys. Lack of water and sanitation affects women and children’s health more than it does for men.

Women are more likely to be raped when fetching water or firewood from forests that dot the rural areas. Perhaps this is why it is target 7C of the millennium development goals, which is to be achieved by the end of this year.

In our constitutional review process, we gave women a raw deal. And as such, if there was to be a first amendment to the Constitution, then let it be the entrenchment of equal rights for all human kind, where women and men have equal economic, political, cultural, personal, and social rights.

This includes seeking to establish equal opportunities in education and employment. Every constituency, therefore, should have two representatives. A man and woman.

This will create the necessary competition to ensure equal representation. The current set up denies women a constituency that has representative power.

It is possible to revert to the old number of constituencies, then double the number of representatives to get to about the same number of representatives we presently have in Parliament, but with an equal number of men and women.

If there were more than 200 women in Parliament, it would have been easier for them to criminalise early marriages like the young Marigat girl. In Marigat I was told that she wasn’t the only one forcefully married off.

There were hundreds of them, and this happens every year. It just happened that cameras were around. This barbaric practice isn’t only in Marigat. It happens in many parts of the country but we seem to be tolerating it and it continues to undermine economic growth.

Achieving MDGs will reduce extreme poverty, but that will not happen as we have consistently failed to achieve such goals that touch on equality.

The fairest thing we can do is to entrench in our Constitution that all human beings are equal and entitled to equal treatment. We can start with parliamentary representation, if we need to make progress and ensure inclusive economic development.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “A woman is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School.

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