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Three Women and the Referendum

by Tom Kagwe
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on Oct 15 in Economic, Social & Cultural Rights.

The date for the National Referendum on the Proposed Constitution Kenya (PCK) is on 4th August 2010; and it is approaching very fast. The ‘greens’ (those in favour) and the ‘reds’ (those opposed to) are busy campaigning. They are even breaking the law by campaigning ahead of the day provided for by the Constitution of Kenya Review Act. Already, there is friction between and within both ‘camps’. In the midst of this, everyone is angling themselves to either get into power or stay in power come the next elections.

Further, there are those campaigning for this colour by day, but by night, for the other colour. Yet others have been said to belong to ‘yes/no/yes/no’ camp; meaning they are undecided or simply playing to the gallery. Similar to a prayer, which usually has three answers from the Lord (yes, no, or wait) they are hoping that the referendum will have the choice of voting ‘wait’. But they are mistaken. The referendum question is whether you approve or disapprove. There is no ‘wait’.

Within this confusion are three women, who are the ‘Wanjiku-type’. They are totally left out of the debate. Not knowing where to go or who/what to vote for, they are suffering from confusion. Like any other electoral process, the referendum is posing yet another challenge. The challenge of what to vote for, whom to vote for, and why to vote: especially given that the last time they cast their ballot, Kenya went up in flames. The three women are typologies of many Kenyans who are bewildered. They are abstracted for purposes of illustrating why you need to make an informed choice come the referendum day.

Abstract Kenyans

The first Kenyan is a village-woman, who occasionally visits the major town for her ‘shopping’. She is a widow. Let us call her Atieno. The other Kenyan is a town-dweller living in an informal settlement in Nairobi. She is a devout Christian. Let us call her Mwende. The other Kenyan is a city resident living in a manicured estate in a major town. She is a business-woman. Let us call Cherotich. The three women live in different environments. But there are things they share. Atieno has been farming on her 1/4 acre plot for 20 years, and of course the harvest has reduced over the years. She cannot afford to buy cheap and subsidized fertilizer that the government offered to the market last year, since it was stolen and diverted to other sources by some high-level individuals in the Ministry of Agriculture working with some corrupt businessmen. Atieno’s husband died a decade ago, and for that whole time, the brothers of the deceased have threatened her with eviction. She has 7 children and 2 grandchildren whom she supports.

Mwende, a devout Christian, earns her living through sale of vegetables and ‘githeri tayari’ at the informal settlement. Her husband, as usual in these settlements, is a drunkard who rarely comes home with anything other than the foul smell of the illicit brew. Once in a while, he gets arrested by the Administration Police attached to the Chief. And Mwende has to use her meager day’s income to bribe the Chief of the location to set her husband free. The Chief’s ‘police’ occasionally come calling for bribes so that they skip her husband in the occasional swoops. One of her children is in a local secondary school located inside the slum. The other children do not go to secondary school since she cannot afford fees for more than one child.

Cherotich, on the other hand, is quite above the other two women. She lives comfortably in the up-market estate. She is divorced. And she has two kids to take care of. They are both in the university. The father, a rich politician, has refused to pay for their upkeep. The judiciary has not helped Cherotich to protect her rights and those of her children as provided for in the Children’s Act (Laws of Kenya). The father has bribed almost all court clerks to ‘secure’ the file of the case in a place that Cherotich cannot access. And she is desperate because her business is not doing well because of the slow-down of the economy since the post-election violence.


All these three women (Atieno, Mwende and Cherotich) are being bombarded with messages about the new constitution. Mwende, the devout Christian, has been asked to vote NO because Kadhis Courts have been incorporated in the new constitution. Since she belongs to one of the Evangelical Churches in the neighborhood, her Sunday preacher says nothing else about the new constitution: only Kadhis Courts. Atieno has heard the draft provides for ‘abortion on demand’. And she is very particular about the issue, having given birth to 7 children, and miscarried one in between the 3rd and 4th born. She wonders where abortion is in the new constitution and even whether miscarriage is abortion. Finally, Cherotich has heard that land is really ‘contentious’. That her small land, on which her business stands, will be taken away once Kenyans pass the new constitution. All these messages have been relayed to these women through all manner of means.

To Cherotich, despite her problems with a politician-husband who has absconded from her kids, she is being told by some politician that she must vote NO because she must protect her land. No one has told her that her land is secured property, and that only land-grabbers who acquired land fraudulently and noncitizens should be worried. Not her. These NO campaigners have not told her how the judiciary is being restructured to ensure an independent judicial service commission; a supreme court; and how vetting of judges (no matter some faults in the process) could help her access justice for herself and her children.

To Atieno, all she sees is an advert carried by Catholic Bishops who say “choose life…vote NO”. Yet, she is not told about what circumstances warrant a health professional to terminate pregnancy, which is anyway provided for in today’s laws. She has not been told what the draft says about her children’s rights, about her socio-economic rights to better housing, education, healthcare, water and so forth for her and her children. Yet, this could perhaps matter more to her, than abortion. Abortion is immaterial to a grandmother fighting to feed 7 children and 2 grandchildren. Atieno has not been told what will happen to those who are corrupt: especially those who are fond of stealing fertilizer from government stores. She has not been told by the NO team that all public leaders will not steal her fertilizer and if they do, the judiciary is capable of jailing such characters. She has not been told that her land on which she lives, not even brothers-in-law will evict her. She has a right to be there. To her, these are real needs and immediate. She must “choose life” and say “NO”? Yet that vote will deny her all the above?

Finally, Mwende is not being told how the provincial administration will be ‘restructured’ to ensure that it is phased out in five years to bring a more accountable system that she will vote in. She is not being told that tomorrow’s ‘Chief’s Police’ will be under a professional, one-command centre, and that they must respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. Just like Atieno, no one has mentioned to Mwende about her future right to housing or those rights that obtain for her children.

Ties that Bind

What is clear from the above is that these three women are in a fix. Instead of debating the new constitution with wisdom, some lies have been peddled. They share some ties. First, there are people out there being economical with the truth. Instead of telling Atieno, Mwende and Cherotich the real issues, some people have decided to campaign on single-issues as if that is all the new constitution is about. These single-issue lobbyists are doing this purposefully: to defeat the new constitution, which seeks to promote social justice.

Second, there are those who are using religion to destroy rather than to build. Why would a ‘man of God’, in Mwende’s Evangelical Church refuse to preach the Gospel and concentrate on someone else’s ‘gospel’? Is Mwende’s preacher incapable of the prophetic job given to him in Matthew 28:19, which reads: “…go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and of the Holy Spirit”? The preacher is callously laying the blame on ‘expanding Islam’ rather than he is unable to preach the Gospel.

Finally, all these three women have not been told about what is in store for them as women. That at least 1/3rd of all parliamentary seats will be theirs; that their youthful children will have a place in society; and that their children’s rights will be protected better in future. If women are the backbone of families and societies for that matter, then Atieno, Mwende and Cherotich need to know that they are not mere receptacles of this ‘false wisdom’. They must make a point of accessing the document, reading it, and making informed choices.

But that can only happen if the Committee of Experts and civil society pull up their socks to make sure this is possible. Truth, and only truth, will ensure that the three women face the referendum objectively. Let Atieno, Mwende and Cherotich make the correct decisions that affect their life. Not what is being made too much noise about! The ‘triple alliance’ of Kadhis Courts, abortion and the lies about land do not affect them directly. Social injustice does.

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