There is a common saying attributed to Mahatma Gandhi that the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members. Kenya’s national values and principles of governance include, among others, inclusiveness, equality, non-discrimination, and protection of the marginalised. As such, our society ideally is one where the vulnerable and marginalised are treated as other members of society, where there is equal opportunity for all.
In political participation, an area where often time the weak and vulnerable are likely to be left behind, Kenya’s progressive Constitution includes everyone. The establishment of electoral bodies including the National Assembly, the Senate, and 47 county assemblies is indeed expected to ensure that decision-making, which comes through political representation, is all-inclusive.
More so for marginalised communities who for many years have been pushed to the margins of society. For persons with disability, the expectation was that as long as the letter and spirit of the Constitution was adhered to, leaders with disabilities would sit in all those assemblies.
Rights of persons
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability, which forms part of our laws, calls upon Kenya as a state party to promote actively an environment in which persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in the conduct of public affairs without discrimination and on an equal basis with others.
However, owing to recent happenings in the process of nomination of members to county assemblies, Kenya is at risk of further marginalising persons with disabilities.
This is because of the blatant refusal of political parties to adhere to the Constitutional requirement that at least two persons with disabilities be nominated in each county assembly. It was rather disheartening to the disability movement that there were no nominated persons with disabilities in 17 counties.
In 2013, there were 61 nominated legislators with disabilities drawn from the marginalised party lists.This compares to 42 who were nominated in 2017, a travesty of justice because we are going back on the gains that had been made for persons with disabilities.
There are counties where petitions have been lodged, such as Murang’a, where the swearing in of nominated MCAs was halted. It is right that we have working court systems where injustices can be corrected. However, we have to recall that persons with disabilities face numerous other challenges, including lack of resources to challenge such unconstitutional actions in court processes.
Why is it that persons with disability have been shortchanged in these processes of nomination to county assemblies? We know that while political party lists from whence people are nominated serve as a means of combating marginalisation, they have been used to entrench status quo elites. It is indeed doubtful as to whether electoral institutions, including political parties, have accepted candidates with disabilities in their midst.
Made a difference
This is rather unfortunate because looking at history, it is mostly legislators with disabilities in Kenya’s politics who have made a marked difference to how concerns of persons with disabilities were dealt with. Josephine Sinyo in the eighth parliament influenced important revisions to electoral regulations preceding the 2002 General Election where, for example, voters with disabilities could now choose those to assist them at the polls.
Sammy Leshore in the ninth parliament was an important rallying point for delegates with disabilities attending the national constitutional conference at Bomas of Kenya between 2003 and 2004.
We appreciate that other legislators without disabilities have sponsored bills that have ensured the full and effective participation of persons with disabilities in our societies, but for persons with disabilities who have experienced years of marginalisation where their voices did not matter at all, it is not much to demand that there can be nothing about us without us.
Therefore it is critical that constitutionally established principles that seek to ensure fair representation of persons with disabilities in legislative bodies are adhered to. Even more important, there has to be better political willingness to include persons with disabilities in politics and elections. Persons with disabilities should not tire of pushing to enhance their place at the national table.
Mr Gitonga is Executive Director, United Disabled Persons of Kenya