Kenya: Assessing the performance of nominated women MPs

East African Standard via AllAfrica
The Kenyan Parliament has 12 nominated MPs, of which eight are women.
It will be at least another six months before a proposal seeking to nominate 50 women to Parliament is re-introduced for debate. Smarting from last week's defeat of a Bill - which if passed - would have seen the highest number of women MPs in the august House, proponents of affirmative action will no doubt go back to the drawing board. But against this backdrop, hard questions linger on the justification of the push, putting into focus the tenure of the current nominated women MPs.
Parliament has 12 nominated MPs, of which eight are women.

The questions touch on the description, role, effectiveness, criteria for nomination and whether the performance of the MPs warrants more nominated slots in the next Parliament. Responses to these questions are varied, but the MPs are unanimous on two issues - there is need to come up with criteria for nominating MPs and the number of women legislators must increase.

"Democracy is about representation. In a country where 52 per cent of the population is women and only eight per cent sit in the House that decides how they will live, there is urgent need to increase their numbers," says nominated MP, Ms Njoki Ndung'u.

Interest in politics

Njoki decries the lack of criteria to determine who gets nominated to Parliament. "A key determinant should be an individual's level of participation in a political party, which is a crucial indicator of their interest in politics," she says.

A recipient of several accolades, including a UN award for pushing through the 2006 Sexual Offences Bill, Njoki says a would-be nominee's CV should be scrutinised to show they have fought for a special interest group.

"It is not enough for one to simply show she is a woman, but a woman who has a history of, say, fighting gender discrimination," she says.

Nominated MPs, she says, should focus on national issues affecting minorities or disadvantaged groups, and come up with Motions and Bills to influence policy and legislation. Njoki's counterpart, Prof Ruth Oniang'o, agrees that for one to be nominated, they must have a track record on a specific platform. "We need a criterion to pick people who can perform and understand what is expected of them once they get to Parliament," says the nominated MP, who sits on the Parliamentary Select Committee on Education.

Oniang'o, who is Kanu's Education Shadow minister, says expectations of nominated MPs are high since they are supposed to justify their appointments. Interestingly, their elected counterparts do not face such intense pressure.

Njoki says this cadre of MPs also has a duty to the political parties that brought them to Parliament. "They should assist party whips or voice their party's policy positions regarding Bills brought to the House," she says.

But what of their performance?

Passed Bills on Women Issues

Njoki, nominated on a Narc ticket, says unlike their elected colleagues who can deliver to their electorate through the Constituency Development Fund, proposals for a similar initiative to enable nominated MPs push through various activities are yet to be addressed. "Sometimes, the work to be covered needs technical and monetary resources, but nominated MPs are not financed by Parliament," she says. The proposed Fund, argues the lawyer, could also be used to assess nominated MPs' performance, just like the CDF is used to evaluate their elected counterparts.

The MP cites the campaign to zero-rate sanitary towels, the Sexual Offences Act 2006, and inclusion of sexual harassment under the Public Officer Ethics Act 2003, among others, as initiatives of the current women MPs. "Men and women are equal but different. It is therefore not uncommon for men not to culturally articulate issues that directly affect women such as sanitary towels, maternity leave, family planning, child support, Female Genital Mutilation and rape," says Njoki. She says the current parliament not only has the highest number of female MPs since independence, but has also passed the most laws and policies that positively affect women.

Njoki says she believes she has done her best to represent special groups - women, the youth and also her Narc party. She has similar kind words for her female colleagues, saying they have given a good account of themselves. "They have done a commendable job. Prof Julia Ojiambo has passed the most number of private members Bills. Ms Amina Abdallah passed a Motion on setting up a committee on delegated legislation (soon to be included in Parliament's Standing Orders). She will soon bring up a Bill to check drug and alcohol abuse," she says.

"Under the Kenya Women Parliamentarians Association, the 18 of us - both nominated and elected - have come together to strategise and support one another. All the women in the backbench sit on Parliamentary Committees and actively contribute to debate on policies and legislation affecting women," she adds.

The association's chair, Ms Betty Tett, however, feels it is unfair to zero in on the performance of nominated women MPs. "I think those asking this question are unfair. Why only the women? Why aren't we also asking nominated male MPs to show what they have done?" poses the Narc nominated MP. Tett says the achievements of the 18 women MPs are commendable compared to those of their 204 male colleagues.

Change agents

Women parliamentarians, she says, have put aside their party affiliations to rally for policies and legislation touching on special interest groups. She cites the push for a women's fund similar to that of the youth as one achievement. On her contribution, Tett says she helped make the 2003 street families rehabilitation programme a success, while serving as an Assistant minister for Local Government. She also contributes to debate in the House.

Labour Party of Kenya chairperson, Prof Julia Ojiambo, says it is difficult to measure the performance of nominated MPs against their elected counterparts given that they have no "portfolio". "As a nominated MP, you are expected to support the party that took you to Parliament on all issues, even when you wish to remain neutral," she says. The presidential aspirant says the first role of a nominated MP should be legislative, just like that of the others. Nominated MPs, she says, should pick up crucial issues ignored by the Government and political parties, and articulate them in the House to bring change to the special constituencies they represent. On her performance, Ojiambo says she has not directly agitated for affirmative action, but her contribution has nevertheless been aimed at improving the lives of women. Ojiambo, nominated on a Narc ticket, is credited with pushing through the Cotton Amendment Bill, aimed at reviving the industry. "I believe the majority of the eight million Kenyans who depend on cotton are women," she explains.

The MP is also credited with fronting the Nutritionists and Dieticians Bill, which seeks to have nutritionists and dieticians registered, just like other health professionals. "Women should be empowered with technical skills to enable them bring 'quality bread' to the table," she says. Also to her name is the Suppliers Practitioners Management Bill, which seeks to streamline the legal framework governing the training, registration and licensing of suppliers in the country. The MP says nominated women MPs have done their best in the House, and that one's silence should not be used to vilify legislators who may be active on the ground. Ojiambo also believes it is necessary to have a criterion for nominating MPs, adding that a good grasp of political issues is mandatory. Other qualifications, she says, should include nationalism and a sound academic background.

Transport Assistant minister, Ms Cecily Mbarire, says the public's expectations vested in a nominated MP largely depend on the pertinent issues at the time of their nomination. "One needs to know under what special interest they were nominated. Was it to articulate issues of women, the youth or the disabled?" poses Mbarire.

The Narc nominated MP believes she has done her best in pushing for issues affecting women and other marginalised groups. "One issue concerns the National Youth Enterprise Fund," she says. The youthful legislator says the current Parliament has some of the most vocal nominated MPs. But she too underscores the need for clear guidelines on who should be nominated.

Mbarire proposes a system where political parties identify their nominees early, based on their track record and party participation. The names should then be forwarded to the Electoral Commission of Kenya, way before the elections. "This would prevent parties from automatically settling for election losers as nominees," she says. Mbarire, however, says nomination does not necessarily have to be direct but can be done by preserving special seats for women on an elective basis, as is the case in Uganda.

Ms Amina Abdalla, a Kanu nominated MP, discounts the stereotype that Muslim women in buibuis and hijabs cannot articulate issues in the House. She prides herself in the fact that this is one of her greatest achievements. Like her peers, Amina decries the lack of a proper criterion to nominate MPs. "For a long time, before the current Parliament, nominations lacked transparency and were used to reward party hawks," says Amina. Consequently, she says, the nominees ended up with no specific agenda, leading to public scepticism. "Nomination of MPs should be more issue based, with specific terms of reference outlined for them to make them more productive," Amina says. She adds: "I was born and raised in Nairobi. Ideally, I should be dealing with issues of the minorities from the larger Eastern region where I come from. But even those issues affecting minority groups are many." She proposes a system where parties can identify their weak areas and get people strong in those particular fields to articulate them on a national platform. The MP, who confesses to initially having had little respect for affirmative action, says her attitude was transformed once she got to Parliament.

"When you get into Parliament as a woman, you begin to see the bigger picture and understand why it is necessary to increase your numbers since this is an important factor in politics. There are several committees discussing serious issues but few women sitting on them," says the MP, who sits on the Parliamentary Select Committee on Legal Affairs. Amina argues that the absence of women on these committees impacts negatively on matters affecting them. She sees two sides to the argument on whether it is prudent to simply allocate more slots to women purely on a gender basis. "Why do we argue about women who may not be at par with discussions in the House yet there are male MPs sailing in that boat?" she poses.

Although she does not underestimate the importance of quality representation, Amina argues that women should first be given the opportunity to get into Parliament and allow them room to get used to the ropes.

"A nominated MP should have a national outlook and identify a constituency and issues she can address," says Ms Adelina Mwau. The Narc nominated MP, who is a gender activist, says one must have some tangible achievement to be nominated to Parliament. "There must be something you have contributed to in your area of expertise, be it the gender platform, youth or trade unionism," she says. Mwau believes she has done her best in helping her colleagues articulate issues touching on women. These include sexual harassment, maternity leave and the use of derogatory language that portrays women as sexual objects.

Mwau, who is eyeing the Makueni seat in this year's General Election, says the number of questions one asks on the floor of the House should not be the only measure to judge an MP's performance. "The silent ones could also have an impressive development record in their constituencies," she says.

Long vilified for being "silent" in the House, Ms Esther Keino says nominated MPs are forced to navigate their way through Parliament and identify issues they are expected to articulate. "Nobody ever tells you what to expect when you are nominated. It is not the same as being elected. The criteria used in nomination should be made clear so that one can know what is expected of them," says the nominated legislator.

Keino says although she may not have said much in Parliament, she has been busy at the grassroots, working with marginalised groups, the bulk being women. "I believe I have done my best in improving the lives of women. I have been focusing on welfare issues in the broader Kericho District and worked on programmes to help women, orphaned children and the elderly," she says.

Keino adds: "I have initiated three rural based women's Savings and Credit Co operative Societies in Belgut, Ainamoi and Kipkelion and I am organising forums in Rift Valley to support female aspirants in this years' election." Keino, a member of the Standing Orders Committee in Parliament, says the public perception and that of some of their colleagues in the House is that they are "second rate MPs", simply because they were not elected. She lauds her female colleagues, adding that she too has made her contribution. This includes pushing for new proposals such as "genderising" Standing Orders language, which has for long failed to acknowledge women legislators in the House.

"I would like Parliament to have policies on maternity leave for sitting MPs. It should also set up an equal opportunities committee to cater for marginalised groups and amend the Speaker's rules to allow women MPs to carry their handbags into the Chambers," Keino says.

By: Lilian Aluanga

19 August 2007