Millie Odhiambo

NAIROBI, Kenya (WOMENSENEWS)–For 15 years, Kenya has been trying to write a new constitution to replace the one that British colonialists helped to draft after the country’s 1963 independence.

On Nov. 21, the country will decide by popular referendum if it is ready to accept a version released last December by the attorney general for public review.

To help foster public debate, the government assigned two fruits to serve as political symbols of those on either side of the document. A banana sign means yes, you will vote yes for the constitution. An orange means no, you will not.

Millie Odhiambo, a women’s and children’s rights lawyer, is a bright orange. She has appeared in television and radio programs and women’s meetings to speak against the draft constitution.

The constitution charts some progress for women. It grants women the right to inherit land and is designed to increase women’s parliamentary representation by requiring lawmakers to set aside a certain number of seats for women, with the number to be determined by subsequent legislation.

Odhiambo Distrusts New Constitution

But Odhiambo, chair of the Coalition on Violence Against Women, a Nairobi based nonprofit that rescues women caught in domestic violence, does not trust the document. She says it has contradictory clauses and is unclear about its promises to women because it lacks clear time frames.

She finds no reassurance in arguments that the document can always be modified by votes of Parliament.

Since so few women are in Parliament–15 out of 210–Odhiambo doubts her concerns will be redressed by legal reforms. She also is quick to contend that Parliament is corrupt and that representatives routinely bribe each other to gain political support.

“The document does not meet the aspirations of the people. It will also be subject to subsidiary legislation, which means the women’s rights can easily be relegated,” Odhiambo told a roomful of women in late October, when they met in Nairobi to debate the constitution’s effects on women. “It also doesn’t set a time frame, which means women can wait for decades before these benefits are given.”

As she spoke, most of the members of the female audience cheered and ululated.

Odhiambo, who earned her law degree from the University of Nairobi in 1991, is founder of a group called the Child Rights Advisory Documentation and and Legal Centre (CRADLE). She was lead attorney on a breakthrough lawsuit in 1998 that outlawed wife-beating. Later, as a member of the International Federation of Women Lawyers, she provided legal aid to indigent women.

Odhiambo is not only a leader for women in Kenya. Her influence also travels across the border into the troubled country of Somalia.

Abdalla Looks for Fuller Participation

Asha Ahmed Abdalla

“We have been motivated by the success stories of women from other countries,” says Somali politician Asha Ahmed Abdalla, who cites in particular the example of Kenya, where women such as Odhiambo play an active role in civil society and are at the helms of nongovernmental organizations. “What we have seen in Kenya is a great motivation to us, for we have seen women participating in almost every section of development.”

Abdalla is one of 275 Somali delegates who convened in Nairobi a year ago to settle the details of forming a new central government for the nation ravaged by 14 years of civil war. Somalia was left in such anarchy that a government could not be convened within its own borders until this June, when the violence-ridden capital of Mogadishu was abandoned in favor of Jowhar.

Since then, the new government has been beleaguered by rivalries and infighting; its territory fractured into separate regions dominated by ethnic factions and controlled by warlords.

Abdalla, 46, surprised many Somali men by running for the presidency during elections held among the delegates in November 2004 in Nairobi. But she received only two votes and was ushered out in the first round of elections held during the peace talks.

Other women, she says, have been similarly pushed aside.

When the Somali central government collapsed in 1991 with the launch of the 14-year civil war, women saw their social status worsen and their legal protections vanish. Their freedom of movement has been placed in the hands of militiamen, some of whom have tortured, raped and killed women.

On top of this, Abdalla says women have been forsaken by the new government. Under the terms of the 2004 transitional federal charter, she says women should lead at least four ministries. But last December, Somalia’s new prime minister, Ali Mohammed Ghedi, announced a cabinet of 27 ministries. Men were appointed to head 26. The lone female appointee heads the Ministry of Gender Affairs.

A provision of the transitional charter–bitterly fought for by politicians and women’s rights advocates during the peace talks–ensured women at least 12 percent of the seats in Parliament. But only 22 women, or 8 percent of the 275-seat body, have been appointed.

“Everywhere we go it seems there is nobody to listen to us,” Abdalla said. “We believe all men are on one side. They could care less about women’s representation or women’s issues in Somalia.”

Asha Haji Elmi Struggles for Representation

Asha Haji Elmi, one of the 22 female Parliament members, is struggling alongside Abdalla for better female representation.

“It is unfortunate that women have once again been marginalized,” she told Women’s eNews. “We have been denied our quota in the Parliament and again in the cabinet.”

In January 2004, Elmi was the first Somali woman to sign a peace agreement with the warlords, which came after 18 days of intense negotiations.

She was selected for the role because of her leadership of Save the Somali Women and Children, which pressed for women’s involvement in the process.

Elmi, who is 43 and holds a master’s degree in business from the United States International University in Nairobi, is a vocal critic of the clan system used by the Intergovernmental Authority of Development, which brokered an end to the war and oversaw the writing of the transitional charter.

Somali society is organized by clans that are traced back to common patriarchal ancestors. Economic and political loyalties are based on these clan connections. To ensure that all the Somalis were represented in the new government, political positions were allocated to representatives at the peace conference according to the size of their clans.

By forming the Parliament under a clan-based formula, the authority described it as the best way to ensure equal representation. But Somali women say the formula failed to recognize them.

“We campaigned that women are given posts as women, and not as part of clans,” complains Elmi, “but every time the clans have been asked to submit names, there is never a woman among them.”

During the peace talks, Elmi’s group, Save the Somali Women and Children, was dubbed the Sixth Clan because its members crossed clan boundaries. Through it, women became co-authors of the peace agreement, opening the way for what was supposed to be their fuller participation in the remaking of the Somali nation.

That is a promise as yet unfulfilled. With Kenya women undaunted and the determination of the Somalia women unwavering, the separate efforts will likely result in a continued push for significant concessions for the women of East Africa.

Fredrick Nzwili is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.