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U.N. Goodwill Ambassador Asiyo Discusses 'New Dawn in Kenya'

November 19, 2010 — University of Virginia students and faculty and Charlottesville community members filled Jefferson Hall on Wednesday night to hear Phoebe M. Asiyo speak on the strides the new Constitution of Kenya has made in repairing the status of the nation’s women, which was degraded during the colonial reign of the British.

Asiyo, Kenya's first female parliamentarian, gave a talk titled "Women Creating Change That Counts – Towards a New Dawn in Kenya," where she tackled such controversial topics as affirmative action and the Kenyan court system. She currently serves as the United Nations Development Fund for Women Goodwill Ambassador and chairs the Kenyan Caucus for Women's Leadership.

The presentation was co-sponsored by the U.Va. Women's Center and the Organization of International Students. In introducing Asiyo with a long recitation of her accomplishments, Women's Center director Sharon Davie said that the University was "lucky" to have her come and speak.

"More than any of the honors, there is the person," Davie said. "It is the amazing, energetic, compassionate, wise person who is Phoebe M. Asiyo that we welcome here today."

Asiyo explained that traditional gender roles in her native Kenya changed dramatically during its 60 years as a British colony. (Kenya became independent in 1963 and in 1964 became a republic.)

Asiyo's own grandmother, she explained, served as a soldier alongside the men of Kenya. "She fought alongside the boys," Asiyo said. "She was just one of the soldiers who went to war."

When Britain acquired Germany's briefly occupied colonial holdings in Kenya, things changed drastically. Women were taught household tasks like crocheting, she said. "They changed the way our people lived, the way women acted, and the way men treated the women."

This past August, the republic of Kenya enacted a new constitution with the support of 67 percent of voters. Now, Asiyo is excited to say, change is on the way.

One of the most important changes for women, Asiyo said, is the inclusion of affirmative action in the constitution. The new constitution requires, among other things, that at least one-third of the seats in an elective body must be reserved for women.

Affirmative action is very important to Kenyan women, she explained, because "otherwise they will never have the resources or the energy to go out there and compete" for elected office. Now, women make up 50 percent of parliament – close to their 51 percent share of the total Kenyan population, Asiyo said with a smile.

"Some of the decisions men have made have been disastrous for our economy," Asiyo said, adding that she thinks a more balanced parliament will yield more effective and responsible fiscal decisions.

Women also gained the right to own property under the new constitution. Historically, women have been responsible for the bulk of the agricultural duties, but until recently were unable to even inherit land from deceased family members.

"Now, for the first time, women can own land," Asiyo said. "They can bequeath that land to their children or grandchildren."

In order to raise money and encourage food production, the constitution requires landowners who do not reside on the land to pay taxes on it.

"When the British came to Kenya, they took the best and most fertile land," Asiyo explained, adding that many British landowners returned to Europe, leaving the valuable farmland to waste. New taxes encourage landowners to come back to Kenya to cultivate the land, or to sell the land back to the Kenyan government. The measure has already shown signs of success, Asiyo said.

Perhaps most significantly, Asiyo reported that the Kenyan government now boasts a more cohesive and organized infrastructure. The new constitution requires separation between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. With this new structure, Asiyo predicted that the government will be better able to budget funds and nurture the nation's less-developed regions.

Though it has yielded significant social and political change, the development of the new constitution was challenging, Asiyo said. Many older men were not supportive; "They didn't understand why women did not want to serve their husbands," she said.

Lawmakers struggled with such controversial topics as abortion, which eventually was made legal, with some restriction. Asiyo said that in Kenya some 26 women die per day from unsafe abortions, a toll that ultimately made it possible for the practice to be legalized.

Reorganizing the courts also proved difficult. A Kardhi court system was established to protect inheritance, familial and succession rights for Muslims. This is important, Asiyo said, because the rules for marriage and divorce especially are very different in the Muslim communities of Kenya than in the nation as a whole. Such court reforms will protect Muslims, which make up about 10 percent of the Kenyan population.

Asiyo engaged in a lengthy question-and-answer session, which allowed audience members to ask more direct questions about the constitution, and specifically the rights of women.

Looking to the future, Asiyo noted the importance of female education and empowerment.

"Now I see the efforts that I and the few other women in the house made are bearing fruit," she said.

— By Samantha Koon

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