KATIBA CORNER

Why the issue of babies in Parliament is important

In Summary

• Kwale Woman Rep Zuleika Hassan was ordered to leave the National Assembly, temporarily, because she had come in with her baby.

• Interestingly, in 2017 Parliament passed a law to ensure that women may breastfeed in the workplace. It is less imaginative about its own premises.

 

A screen shot of Kwale Woman Rep Zulekha Hassan with her baby in the 'august' chambers.
ODIOUS LITTLE INTRUDER: A screen shot of Kwale Woman Rep Zulekha Hassan with her baby in the 'august' chambers.
Image: COURTESY

A woman walks into her major place of work with her baby because she cannot find help and it is important she is at work. The result? The media around the world give the workplace (and perhaps the country) a bad name.

That is what happened when Kwale Woman Representative  Zuleika Hassan was ordered to leave the National Assembly, temporarily, because she had come in with her baby.

The house rules – its Standing Orders — say, “No person other than a Member shall be admitted into any part of the Chamber appropriated to the exclusive use of Members of the House while the House is sitting.”

Kenya is not alone. The Australian Parliament reacted similarly in around 2002. But the Australians, and many others, have realised that this is an outdated attitude.

Interestingly, in 2017 Parliament passed a law to ensure that women may breastfeed in the workplace. It is less imaginative about its own premises.

MALE CHAUVINIST ATTITUDES 

The episode produced some classic examples of stuffed-shirt behaviour from MPs such as majority leader Aden Duale — bombastically fulminating, “There is a stranger in this House. This has never happened since 1963. This is an abuse of the House. That member must be cited for gross misconduct. We must protect the dignity of the House….We cannot have 349 and a half members.”

The tone alone (as read online) would constitute sexual harassment in any other context.

As for the online comments – I made the mistake of reading some, and was reminded of a novel I am currently reading: The author writes that comments tend to display “the worst vices of our new digital societies: intellectual irresponsibility, proud mediocrity, implausible denigration with impunity, but most of all verbal terrorism, the schoolyard bullying the participants got involved in with incomprehensible enthusiasm, the cowardice of all those aggressors who used pseudonyms to vilify but would never repeat their comments out loud”.

WHY IT MATTERS

No one is proposing that toddlers should be allowed to roam around the chamber while a debate is on. But there are important aspects to this question.

There are, of course, plenty of men (and maybe some women) around who think that “a woman’s place is on the home” – and not in Parliament, or government or business. But our Constitution includes a principle (or something stronger than a principle) that no more than two-thirds of Parliament (or county assemblies or other public bodies) should be of the same gender.

The world, in general, has made similar commitments. The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women includes promises to ensure that women can hold public office and carry out the functions of public office “on equal terms with men”. Only six countries have not accepted this treaty as binding.

Our Constitution reflects this, with a right to gender equality in all spheres of life. Our courts have accepted that institutions must make “reasonable accommodation” — adjustments to ensure that equality can be achieved. Clearly, Parliament has not accepted this for itself.

Despite the tendency of some politicians to refer to 'flower girls', the idea of having women in Parliament is not just to brighten up the grey ranks of male MPs. While part of the rationale is that women have a right to be represented, they are there to contribute their own perspectives and that of the electorate including women. Much of the point of ensuring more women in Parliament would be defeated if the women were unable to contribute effectively.

WHAT HOLDS WOMEN FROM BEING EFFECTIVE? 

There are, of course, a good number of very effective women in Parliament. But research and common experience suggest that women may have difficulty in participating in deliberative institutions such as Parliament. Male attitudes are one factor — a tendency to assume that women do not have anything worth saying. Cultural expectations about how women should behave are another — they may simply not find it easy to do what is needed to be noticed in a meeting, or to speak over heckling. Rules and practices should ensure that women are not disadvantaged. And other members may also feel hampered — persons with a disability, for example.

Facilities may be another factor: Enough toilets is a simple example (a legislature may simply not be used to catering for large numbers of women members). Somewhere where women can retreat for a while away from what is still so often a male-dominated space can be helpful.

Speakers must be alert to ensure that women are not spoken to or of in a derogatory way. A recent study of women in European parliaments said that 50 per cent had received comments of a sexual nature, 61.5 per cent of these from a male MP.

Obviously not all were in the actual chamber, but, for example, one said, “A minister said to me during a debate, ‘You are so beautiful that I cannot listen to you’.” And another reported a comment from a male MP in the Chamber: “You are too young and stupid. Get back to your kitchen.” A speaker should view this as unacceptable, 'unparliamentary' behaviour.

WOMEN MPS AND CHILDREN 

Family obligations pose perhaps the biggest obstacle. In a world in which women still bear the main burden of childcare, it is very hard to make being an MP compatible with motherhood. Parliament sits in Nairobi, but only a small proportion of women MPs have their constituencies in Nairobi.

Even if they get over this hurdle, the late hours that Parliaments often sit can pose problems, Kenya’s National Assembly does usually adjourn at 6 pm. Committees, too, should keep family-friendly hours if possible. Many parliaments around the world have been adjusting their sitting times to cater for women members.

Even so, it is revealing that among UK MPs far more women (46 per cent) than men (28 per cent) have no children.

CHANGING WORLD

Things are changing. The New Zealand Prime Minister took her baby into the UN General Assembly. MPs or ministers have breastfed their babies in the parliamentary chamber, including in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, and Standing Orders have been changed in some Parliaments to allow the presence of babies when necessary, or even breastfeeding.

Women (and at least one man) have taken a child through the division lobby (to cast a vote) in the UK Parliament — but the rules allow only children under one year there.

This does not mean the parliaments of the world are crawling with babies. Women will agree that this is not the ideal environment for a child, at least once the child is active. Nor would it be right to allow screaming babies in such a place.

It is time that the Kenyan Parliament, and county assemblies, seriously considered whether their rules and procedures, not to mention their attitudes, meet modern conditions and the demands of the Constitution. County assemblies, by the way, can fix their own rules.

Actually, there is apparently now a physical space in Parliament for children, suitably equipped, but without staff. Parents who wish their children to be able to use it must provide staff, a spokesperson said. But Zuleika Hassan’s problem was, presumably, that she had a temporary problem at home with help.

Parliament does not employ MPs, so is not legally obliged to provide breastfeeding arrangements or maternity leave — unlike employers. But there are employees in the Parliament premises. They are entitled to both. In some countries, MPs have the same rights to maternity/parental leave as employees. And men with childcare responsibilities also need support.

But this is not a matter only of the entitlements of members. It is important for the realisation of a truly inclusive and representative parliament — an objective of the Constitution.

And is there any prospect of male legislators revising their notions of dignity, and realising that their dignity comes from their behaviour not from their self-importance, including treating people (including women) with understanding, respect and common courtesy — as Article 73 of the Constitution makes clear?