It is with mixed feelings that Kenyan women will head to the polls in December 2007. Maternity fees – the charges women paid to get access to skilled assistance for deliveries in government hospitals and health care facilities – have been scrapped, so we have one less thing to worry about. But the affirmative action motion, introduced by Martha Karua, Minister of Judicial Affairs, that would have ensured 50 guaranteed seats for women in next August house was killed in the overwhelmingly male Parliament (213 men out of 222 Parliamentarians in total), sending women back to the drawing board.
I won’t get into the discussion of whether women are entitled to affirmative action or not, but I will use the example of Kenya’s female health minister, Charity Ngilu, to illustrate how much we gain when women are in decision-making positions.
This election year more women have presented themselves than ever before to be elected for seats in Parliament. I want to see more women in decision-making positions simply because for once in Kenyan history we have a female health minister and the results in the health care system are evident. I am sure the men preceding her, who were either doctors or professors, made some difference, but not as much as we have seen in the last four years that we’ve had a woman lead the ministry.
The scrapping of maternity fees means that more women will have skilled attendance at birth and maternal mortality rates will decrease. This will move us one step closer to achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals. If there was ever a year that women need to come out in droves to vote for their own, this is it.
It’s largely in Africa that women die due to pregnancy-related diseases, and it’s only in Kenya that we have seen male parliamentarians struggle to outdo each other in ensuring that the representation of women in Parliament decreases, rather than increases. I am still can’t figure out what their fear is. Maternal mortality is still a big issue and contraceptive prevalence is still low. But increasing the number of women who get access to skilled attendance is another way to commit to save their lives.
The Disease Control Priorities Project says that a country’s maternal and infant mortality rates may reveal more about the state of its health system than any other figures. I believe the same rates also reveal the state commitment to gender equity and commitment to women’s health. The health sector alone is unlikely to achieve or sustain maternal health improvements in many countries without commitment to social changes to increase girl’s education, reduce gender biases in employment and pay, and confront imbalances in women’s bargaining power.
I am in America at the moment and the politics of the day have not escaped my ear. It’s clear that America is more liberal than Kenya, but it’s also quite noticeable that many are not as ready to have their first female president come next year’s election. While the Democrats try and seek their candidate, many polls indicate that a female president with the name of Hillary Clinton will polarize American voters. Africa scored first when Liberia elected Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as President.
Kenyans head to the polls this year and Americans go next year. While I can’t speak for America, I can speak for my home country. I believe that Kenyan voters will make a conscious choice to elect more women to Parliament, not because they are women but because history has proven that women make better choices for both the whole family and the whole country.