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Despite the Protocol on the Rights of Women coming into force in November 2005, the event has gone unmarked in Kenya because of preoccupation with the referendum, writes Ann Kithaka. Concern about women's rights are not being taken seriously and impunity seems to be the norm.

24th day of November 2005 will remain an important day in the calendar of advancement of women rights in Africa. It is the day that the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (simply known as the Protocol on African Women Rights), joined a plethora of international treaties, convention, declarations, protocols and pacts that have been juggled at the international arena to ensure that all people access and enjoy a scoop or dollop of human rights at all cost. They declare, define, dictate, affirm and reaffirm the nature and parameters of these rights.
Yet here in Kenya, the day passed unnoticed, un-archived and un-applauded; perhaps because we were all under the electrifying grip of the referendum euphoria. No champagne bottles were cocked at five star hotels to mark its birth regionally.

Nationally, we are still in the throes of labor pains; our country is yet to ratify the protocol. Who knows; we might go the Niger way and beget a still born. (God forbid!)

Women of Kenya are in the dark about our country's ratification status and progress. Our women rights activists, civil society and national NGOs remain tight lipped; playing the cards close to their chests for reasons known to them. The only time we get to learn of this protocol is when we delve into the internet and encounter articles by activists like Roselynn Musa (1), Irungu Houghton (2), and Faith Cheruiyot (3) posted on the Pambazuka website. Yet how many of us have the privilege to access the internet for this information?

The truth is that even on the International Day for Women, which was celebrated on 8th March, no prominence was given to this protocol at the national level. No full-page advertisements were carried out in our daily newspapers to inform us about the protocol or other international laws that protect the rights of women. That is why our parliamentarians passed a watered down Sexual Offences Bill that took away the marital rape and sexual harassment clause in the false belief that they had the last word on the matter. How mistaken!

Somebody needs to jolt our men with the news that justice has gone global; and as argued by Betty Murungi it is time we 'locate ourselves within the global international law context' and move with the times. We cannot continue to live in isolation as the world matches on.

Most of our men, including politicians see the 'battle of sexes' every time they hear the word 'women rights and empowerment!'  Without reason and common sense, they will don themselves in full 'machismotic' battle gear and  ready themselves to do battle with 'them!', the 'them' being their poor mothers, daughters, sisters and wives, but do they know it?

They forget that women's position in society is the barometer that indicates its social progress. On this area, we are still at the bottom of the pile; see the percentage of women in our August house and positions of leadership! It's so pathetic.

Even without national laws being promulgated to comply with international law, any woman can shop for gender justice and equality at the regional and international courts. All that is required is awareness through empowerment.

The civil society must now disseminate information to the masses and stop the current trend of playing to the international gallery.  They must teach the rural women how to become activists in their own backyards; how to say no to marital rape and gender based violence. They must show our young women in schools and colleges how to say 'no' to sexual harassment and endemic FGM. They must mentor young girls to take over leadership reigns. Roselynn Musa ably argued that human rights should be taught in our schools. This will not only create an intergenerational dialogue but also break the gender barrier created by our patriarchal society.  With both girls and boys being brought on board at a malleable and pliable age, impunity, cynicism and gender clan-ism will be eradicated.

The question that the activists should be answering is this: when is human rights advocacy going to come out of the woods so that grassroots women can receive the message of their emancipation? It appears that today, empowerment is a reserve for the 'born' correct sisters in big towns and especially those who studied abroad.

I feel that it is time that we gave practical solutions to human rights violations, be it in the public domain or behind closed family doors.

All that is needed is a clear roadmap to the land of Canaan where equality and justice reign supreme.

As a person who works in our national criminal justice system, I am bewildered by the lack of pro- activism by gender activists (excuse the pun) in rape cases; they only appear on the scene after a rapist has been acquitted for lack of sufficient evidence. It's a classic case of appearing at the barn when the horse has bolted! It's a cliché but how appropriate.

They will cry 'wolf!' only when they know that it will put their name and organization in the papers; and will not bother to appear during the court trials. Have they heard about watching briefs and amicus curie appearances?

It appears that all their actions are geared towards pleasing international audiences and appear to have no scruples when they play Russian roulette with other peoples' dignity. It has become normal for women rights activist to expend all their energies in producing acres and acres of action plans and resolutions that end up on the spotless desks of their international donors and sponsors while doing zero to impart the same to those who need them most. I am yet to hear of any activists who have offered to interpret these international instruments into local dialects so that the message can reach the rural and slum woman.

In the meantime, impunity reigns supreme, making nonsense any progress made at these international gatherings. People who weld power, whether conferred by state machinery or societal norms use it to deny others their basic rights. They take advantage of our lethargic national detection and enforcement mechanisms to perpetuate human rights abuse. Our justice system appears impotent to do anything about it. Sexual offences have become legion; and it no longer matters whether you are male or female; everybody is game nowadays.

Investigations of gender based violence are carried out by police officers who have no specialized training in this area. Mothers who are usually the first to receive reports of defilement from their daughters will wait weeks before reporting to authorities when their husbands are away. Sometimes out of court settlements are carried out by the parents and a little girls virginity and sanity have been pegged at a few cows and coins. Public officers at the grass root level preside over these family meetings and due to complicity and ingrained attitudes allow 'reconciliation' to go ahead to avoid family conflicts. This is because most of the abusers are close family members.

Whenever the activists shout 'human rights violation' and 'infringement' the victims and culprits alike arch their eyes and say; 'there they go again; those lawyerly types who went to those Ivy League colleges abroad. They have nothing better to do than shovel foreign ideas at the expense of our traditional norms'.

Women rights proponents are treated frustrated middle aged women out to upset the status quo and some apple carts. In this scenario human rights discussions become confrontational, pitting this group against the other; husband against wife; captor against the captured; international law against national law; western culture against African culture. And when this happens, it is the most vulnerable members of our society who suffer.

It is sad that we are adept at paying lip service to these norms; we ratify international protocols and shelf the documents in our desk drawers without giving them teeth at the national level. The end result is that a husband who is battering his wife will taut her to 'call those human rights of yours to come and rescue you!' as he whacks her across the face.

It is true human rights can not be worn around the neck like a talisman; nor can they be waved around like a magic ward to stop the pedophile from preying on young girls and boys, but they can be invoked to curb impunity and restore dignity to all. They can be used to make us start to view ourselves as subjects and objects of international law; open our eyes to the broader tapestry of justice, equality and universality.

And this can only happen if we remodel our values, public policy and national ideals.

I dream of the day when woman rights advocacy will descend from the insulating warmth of five star hotel lobbies, descend to the village market, corner bar, church yard, chief's bazaar so they can benefit the lowly of the lowly.

1 (comments and analysis 2006-06-1)
2 (comments and analysis 2006-05-18)
3 (features 2006-06-15)

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