Ius Gentium

University of Baltimore School of Law's Center for International and Comparative Law Fellows discuss international and comparative legal issues


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Behold, the power of a woman…

J. Michal Forbes

Sex strikes, or lysistratic nonaction, are a real and, arguably, useful tool for women around the world in order to force their men to implement change.[i]  A sex strike is when persons, typically women, withhold sex from their partners to achieve certain goals.

Most recently, sex strikes made headlines when Mishi Mboko, a Kenyan parliamentarian, asked all female voters to withhold sex with their partners.[ii] With tension rising in anticipation of the presidential election, Mboko urged women in areas where the opposition is popular to withhold sex until their husbands showed them their voter registration cards.[iii] Ms. Mboko said that “sex is a powerful weapon” that would encourage reluctant men to register as voters.[iv]

Despite having a few prominent female politicians, Kenya remains a misogynic, patriarchal conservative society.[v] Since Kenya gained its independence from Great Britian in 1966, the country has only had four presidents, including the incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta.[vi] Kenyatta, coincidentally, is the son of Kenya’s first present, Jomo Kenyatta.[vii] There was much controversy when Uhuru Kenyatta initially took office in 2013, with the Kenyan Supreme court having to intervene and determine that the elections were valid with no regularities.[viii]

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Mombasa Women Representative Mishi Mboko

Since then, many other political groups have sought to oust President Kenyatta’s Jubliee Party. Mboko, who is a member of the rival National Super Alliance has said that the need for all citizens to vote is so crucial that women must do their parts by forcing their husbands to vote. However, the National Super Alliance is not the only party pushing country wide voter registration. President Kenyatta himself is also advocating that Kenyas coming out and register as voters, except he is not advocating a sex strike.[ix]

The question arises why do Kenyan woman feel as though they do not have a political voice and they need to use sex as a bargain tool. First, it is important to note that Kenya is a party to the Convention of Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a treaty that serves as in “international bill of rights for women”, describing and defining what constitutes discrimination against women and establishing an international agenda for national action to end such discrimination.[x] By becoming a party to CEDAW, the Kenyan government has agreed to make a series of changes to protect women’s rights, including incorporating women equally into their government.[xi] However, despite new Kenyan laws designed to increase the number of elected women in Kenya politics, Kenyan women still have the lowest level of parliamentarian representation in their region.[xii] Though Kenyan women have the right to vote, they are not reflected in their government.

However, as aforementioned, Kenya is a conservative patriarchal society, where most woman shy away from politics and focus on business. Kenyan woman have learned that in addition to their rights, they can maintain a certain level of control over their husbands by withholding sex.

Ms. Mboko is not alone in her attempts to use Kenyan women to use their feminity to help implement change in the voting booth. Esther Murugi, another Kenyan poltician, has also called on Kenyan women not to cook for their husbands and for pastors not to welcome worshippers to their churches unless they can prove they are registered voters.[xiii]

This is not the first time that a sex strike was used by women to try to implement political change in Kenya. In 2009, after a number of failed peace-building measures, the Women’s Development Organisation, a women’s right group announced a weeklong sex-in as an attempt get former President Mwai Kibaki and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga to make reconcile.[xiv] The group approached both the politician’s wives and even went so far as to pay prostitutes not to work.[xv]

The question arises as to whether sex strikes have actually shown to be effective. Sadly, there has been no empirical evidence that sex strikes are successful in obtaining any kind of political leverage. In fact, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, who helped organized a sex strike in Liberia in the early 2000s in an effort to end the country’s civil war, mentioned in her memoir that the Liberian sex strike actually has “little to no effect”.[xvi]

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Would this work in the United States?

In 2015, Spike Lee’s musical drama “Chi-Raq” explored the effect of a sex strike in America. In the movie, the girlfriends of top rival gangs in Chicago withheld sex from their boyfriends until the bloodshed stopped.[xvii] Similar to the strike in Kenya, they required all women, including mistresses and prostitutes to support their cause.[xviii] In the end, their sex strike resulted in the rival gun member dropping their weapons and ending the bloodshed.[xix]

Soon after the move, a woman in Chicago started a petition in order to get all the women in Chicago to go on a similar strike in hopes of achieving a similar goal.[xx] Though the petition is now closed, it gained roughly 100 signatures. While ultimately unsuccessful in gaining massive traction, it good to know that feminist grassroots organizations in America are considering alternative methods to bring international attention to local issues.

J. Michal Forbes is a proud native of Prince George’s County, Maryland, Ms. Forbes has a fiery passion for international law, travel and frozen yogurt. After receiving her B.A. in Political Science from the University of Maryland, Baltimore she taught ESOL in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan area before joining the US Peace Corps in 2011. Ms. Forbes served in the Peace Corps in Ukraine from 2011 to 2013, in a small town between the Red Sea and the Black Sea in Crimea. Fluent in Russian, Ms. Forbes soon caught the travel bug and traveled/worked extensively throughout Eastern Europe during her 27 month commitment. Currently a 3L, Ms. Forbes is a member of the International Law Society, Immigration Law Society, Black Law Student Association and the Women Lawyers as Leaders Initiative. She has worked for Maryland Legal Aid and the NAACP’s Office of the Attorney General. She was recently awarded the honor of being named Article Editor with the University of Baltimore Law Forum, a scholarly legal journal focused on rising issues in Maryland. It is her dream to work for the U.S. government assisting with asylum seekers and refugee. 

In her free time, Ms. Forbes enjoys eating frozen yogurt with her husband and learning Arabic.

[i] Do Sex Strikes Ever Work?, Slate, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2012/08/sex_strike_in_togo_do_sex_strikes_ever_work_.html

[ii] Kenyan Politician Proposes Women Withhold Sex Until Men Register To Vote, NPR,  http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/01/17/510284069/kenyan-politician-proposes-women-withhold-sex-until-men-register-to-vote

[iii] No sex for Kenyan men without voting cards, says Mombasa woman representative Mishi Mboko, Standard Digital, https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/mobile/article/2000230176/no-sex-for-kenyan-men-without-voting-cards-says-mp.

[iv] Kenyan woman urged to withhold sex in vote drive, BBC News, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-38649235

[v] Why women do not vote for women, Standard Digital, https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/article/2000223551/why-women-do-not-vote-for-women

[vi] Uhuru Kenyatta sworn in as Kenya’s fourth president, The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/kenya/9981906/Uhuru-Kenyatta-sworn-in-as-Kenyas-fourth-president.html

[vii] Id.

[viii] Uhuru Kenyatta’s election victory is upheld by Kenya’s supreme court, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/31/kenya-court-upholds-kenyatta-victory

[ix] KTN Prime: President Uhuru Kenyatta to take on country wide campaigns for voter registration, KTN News, https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/ktnnews/video/watch/2000120571/ktn-prime-president-uhuru-kenyatta-to-take-on-country-wide-campaigns-for-voter-registration

[x] Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women, UN, http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/

[xi] Id.

[xii] FACTBOX: Women in Kenyan politics in numbers, Thomson Reuters Foundation News, http://news.trust.org//item/20131206165550-iroep/

[xiii] Deny Husbands Sex Until They Register to Vote, Says Kenyan MP, Newsweek, http://www.newsweek.com/kenyan-mp-tells-women-deny-husbands-sex-until-they-register-vote-429809

[xiv] Kenyan women go on sex strike to force politicians to talk, The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/kenya/5245040/Kenyan-women-go-on-sex-strike-to-force-politicians-to-talk.html.

[xv] Id.

[xvi] Kenyan Politician Proposes Women Withhold Sex Until Men Register To Vote, NPR,  http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/01/17/510284069/kenyan-politician-proposes-women-withhold-sex-until-men-register-to-vote

[xvii] Chi-Raq (2015), IMDb, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4594834/

[xviii] Id.

[xix] Id.

[xx] Women in Chicago: End senseess violence, go on a SEX STRIKE, change.org, https://www.change.org/p/april-lawson-sex-strike-in-chicago-no-justice-no-cootchie

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Disenfranchisement: A Comparative Look at the Right of the Prisoner to Vote

Ali Rickart

Disenfranchisement, simply put, is “the taking away [of] the right to vote in public elections from a citizen or class of citizens.”[1] Throughout the world, people who have committed crimes that carry the weight of jail time or felony convictions are disposed of their right and ability to freely vote. Different levels of disenfranchisement occur, including 1) only during prison time, 2) during prison and parole, 3) during prison, parole and probation, and 4) prison, parole, probation, and post-sentence (which also has its own variations ranging from only after the second offense, to a 5 year waiting period, or full disenfranchisement after a felony conviction).

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Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which is considered customary international law[2], “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity…(b) to vote…”[3] Even the United Nations Human Rights Committee has noted that article 25 of the ICCPR “lies at the core of democratic government based on the consent of the people” and if there must be a restriction on the right to vote, this must only occur in consideration that such restrictions are “objective and reasonable.”[4] The Committee further goes on to say that if a country decides, “conviction for an offence is a basis for suspending the right to vote” the suspension must be “proportionate to the offence and the sentence” and that those persons who may be “deprived of liberty but… not convicted should not be excluded from exercising the right to vote.”[5]

Yet, in the United States alone, 5.85 million are denied the right to vote due to felony disenfranchisement laws. Each state has the ability to direct and control the voter rights’ laws that allow for disenfranchisement, intentionally restricting the voter rights of those who have been convicted of felonies, which bars prisoners from voting in both state and federal elections. Out of the fifty states, however, only three states permanently disenfranchise felons – Iowa, Florida and Kentucky, alternatively, two states allow for everyone to vote, despite criminal records – Maine and Vermont.[6]

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In a study conducted of over 45 countries, accounting for the major countries in Europe, North America, Asia, South America, and Australia, almost half of the countries allow for felons to vote despite their prison conviction.[7] The restrictions imposed by countries are vast. For example, the majority of Eastern Europe allows for either full voting rights or impose selective restrictions [Bosnia (selective restrictions), Croatia, Czech Republic, Macedonia, Poland (selective restrictions), Romania (selective restrictions), Serbia, Slovenia, and Ukraine]. Other Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria, Hungary, and Russia only have a voting ban on felons during their prison time. The only one that had a full ban on voting rights for felons during prison and post-conviction was Armenia. Given many of these countries human rights records in other areas, this is a surprising right that is guaranteed.

In contrast, the United Kingdom continues to incorporate prisoner disenfranchisement into its laws, despite a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Hirst v. United Kingdom (No. 2), stating that the blanket ban on prisoner voting was unreasonable.[8] However, the United Kingdom does allow those who are only civil prisoners or on remand un-sentenced to vote. There was a bill introduced in 2012 and put into law in 2014, the Convicted Prisoners Voting Bill that limits the scope of disenfranchisement to those who are serving a custodial sentence.[9]

Other countries that allowed a full vote included Canada, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Spain, South Africa, Sweden and Switzerland. Countries that follow selective restriction on voting rights include Germany (which only takes away rights on rare, court-mandated instances), Iceland (if the felony is for a prison term longer than four years), Australia, France, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, and Portugal. The only countries that have full disenfranchisement laws for post-conviction felons include Belgium (if a sentence is longer than seven years), Armenia, Chile and in some instances, the United States (on a state-by-state basis).

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Some groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and The Sentencing Project have started movements in places such as the United States, to recognize that all people should have a right to vote under both domestic law and international law as evidenced by the Constitution and treaties such as the ICCPR.

Prison was created not only as a punishment, but also as a way to rehabilitate those who have broken the law. In the case of rehabilitation, we should work towards the idea that we want those who have broken the law to not only learn from their mistakes and move forward but also to one day reintegrate themselves into society as productive citizens. When stripping them of such a simple, inherent right to be a part of the democratic process that governs them, how do we expect them to reach this goal?

Former prisoner in the United Kingdom, Caspar Walsh, writes about how disenfranchisement inhibits the ability of prisoners to rehabilitate and causes a disconnect between those behind bars and politicians creating the laws that control everyone’s lives.[10] The Sentencing Project published a debate over the topic, “Should Ex-felons be Allowed to Vote?” between Roger Clegg and Marc Mauer. Mauer cites an Israeli Supreme Court case, discussing the right of felons to vote because “society must ‘separate contempt for his act from respect for his right’.”[11] With the amount of people in prisons worldwide, the disenfranchised could have serious effects on elections if they were able to freely vote despite their imprisoned status.

To view further debate on whether or not prisoners should be allowed to vote, more information can be found at 1) Duel: Should Prisoners be able to vote? or 2) Why Can’t Felons Vote?[12]

[1] DISENFRANCHISEMENT, Black’s Law Dictionary (9th ed. 2009)

[2] Statute of the International Court of Justice, art. 38, para. 1 (defines the customary international law as “general practice accepted as law”); International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, opened for signature Dec. 16, 1966, 999 U.N.T.S. 171 (entered into force Mar. 23, 1976) (168 countries are parties to the Covenant, evidencing a general practice accepted as law) [hereinafter ICCPR].

[3] ICCPR art. 25.

[4] General Comment Adopted by the Human Rights Committee under Article 40, Paragraph 4, of the ICCPR, CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.7, August 27, 1996, Annex V, para. 4 (examples of “objective and reasonable” include setting age limits for voting or denying the right due to established mental incapacity).

[5] Id. at para. 14.

[6] Map of State Criminal Disenfranchisement Laws, ACLU, https://www.aclu.org/maps/map-state-criminal-disfranchisement-laws

[7] International Comparison of Felon Voting Laws, ProCon.org (May 27, 2014), http://felonvoting.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=289.

[8] Convicts ‘will not all get vote’, BBC News, Oct. 6, 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/4315348.stm; Mark Tran, UK Prisoners Denied the Vote Should not be Compensated, ECHR Rules, The Guardian, Aug. 12, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/aug/12/uk-prisoners-denied-vote-no-compensation-european-court-of-human-rights.

[9] Convicted Prisoners Voting Bill, 2014-5, H.C. Bill 50 (U.K.), available at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/2014-2015/0050/15050.pdf.

[10] Caspar Walsh, Why Prisoners Should be Given the Right to Vote, The Guardian, June 5, 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/society/2012/jun/05/prisoners-right-to-vote.

[11] Roger Clegg & Marc Mauer, Should Ex-Felons be Allowed to Vote?, Sentencing Project, Nov. 1, 2004 available at http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/File/FVR/fd_legalaffairsdebate.pdf.

[12] Shami Chakrabarti & Dominic Raab, Duel: Should Prisoners be able to vote?, Prospect, Aug. 20, 2014, http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/regulars/duel-should-prisoners-be-able-to-vote; Reynolds Holding, Why can’t Felons vote?, Time, Nov. 1, 2006, http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1553510,00.html.