Phoebe Asiyo, brains behind the two-thirds gender principle

The cover of former MP Phoebe Asiyo's memoir, It's possible: An African Woman Speaks.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

What you need to know:

  • In December 1958, she was elected as the first black president of Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organisation (MYWO).
  • She became the first black woman to become senior superintendent of Kenya Women's Prisons.

Phoebe Muga Asiyo is the complete personification of virtue. Her benevolence and love became the beam of light that awakened the conscience of her generation to the need for gender equality.

In December 1958, she was elected as the first black president of Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organisation (MYWO). She introduced innovative farming methods to women, advocated women's involvement in business, and lobbied for improvement of healthcare.

In 1960, she led a contingent of women to Lodwar, Turkana County, to persuade Jomo Kenyatta to constitutionally allocate 50 per cent of positions in Parliament to women, once he became president. Her term in MYWO ended in 1962.

On the eve of independence, on December 11, 1963, she became the first black woman to become senior superintendent of Kenya Women's Prisons. She spearheaded reforms, including separation of male from female prisons and facilitated access to sanitary towels for female prisoners.

She's a feminism crusader with a progressive mentality. She voyaged the globe, championing human rights, leading her to work with dignified institutions, including UN Women, UNDP, Unifem, Pathfinder USA, CEDPA and Cida, to foster the development of women and children.

Phoebe was elected twice as legislator for Karachuonyo Constituency in 1982 and 1992. She established the Affirmative Action fund, which dispensed Sh1,000,000 to each of the women vying for political seats.

She was the first woman to be made a Luo elder following her efforts in promoting girls’ education, women's rights and gender equity.

On April 23, 1997, Phoebe was serving her second stint as Karachuonyo Member of Parliament. She tabled an Affirmative Action motion in the seventh parliament.

The motion was necessitated by the exclusion of women in Kenyan politics and was to shield female victims of domestic abuse, widows disinherited of their family property and female politicians subjected to violence during elections.

It also sought to assist women political aspirants facing different hurdles such as inadequate resources, cultural hindrance and patriarchal norms. The motion would address child marriage, widow inheritance, limited access to health services and female genital mutilation.

In her memoir, It is Possible: An African Woman Speaks, Phoebe narrates how women had increasingly become restless. Due to the enduring failure of successive governments in constituting laws that empowered them.

The aristocracy of the political class resulted in reform complacency, to her disappointment. This, however, strengthened her resolve to pursue the gender equality agenda.

Kenya had signed covenants, treaties, declarations, protocols and conventions, of the United Nations and the African Union (then called the Organisation of African Unity), including the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Covenant on Civil and Political rights, the International Covenant on Economic and Social Cultural Rights and the African Women's Protocol.

Gender imbalance

Kenya had also signed the Beijing Platform for Action in September 1995, which focused on the elimination of gender imbalance by removing obstacles that prevented women from participating in politics.

All the signatures proved cosmetic and academic, as they were not commensurate with subsequent practicalities and implementations.
Parliament had a paltry six women out of 200 members. Its neighbours fared much better, with the Eritrean legislature having 22 women out of 105 members, Tanzania 48 out of 275 and Uganda 50 out of 276.

Other more conservative African countries like Mozambique and Seychelles had at least 25 per cent female legislative representation. While the newly independent South Africa had 100 women in its Bloemfontein legislature.

On affirmative action, she, therefore, recommended that the government introduce a statute making it mandatory for all registered political parties to nominate women to at least one third of all elective positions, fostering their participation in competitive parliamentary and civil elections.

She also proposed an amendment to the old constitution to permit the setting aside of at least two parliamentary seats for women in each of the then eight provinces.

The proposed amendment also included the conscious and deliberate action in the Ministry of Education to reduce national school and university admission points for female students in arid and semi-arid and sought to reserve most slots in national schools for children in public schools.

The motion was eventually defeated in Parliament but had a ripple effect in the years that followed.

Phoebe was party to the creation of the Yashpal Ghai-led Constitutional review committee, which gave impetus to the quest for a new Constitution and in the long run led to the inauguration of the current supreme law.

The 2010 Constitution's Article 27(8) provides that the state shall take steps to ascertain that no more than two thirds of elective and appointive positions are of the same gender.

The Constitution further established a woman representative position in every county and a chapter on the bill of rights that ultimately held women as equal citizens. However informed a man is, he can never speak for a woman better than a woman can speak for herself.

Jeff Anthony is a novelist, a Big Brother Africa 2 Kenyan representative and founder of Jeff's Fitness Centre @jeffbigbrother