‘Speak out on behalf of the voiceless, and for the rights of all who are vulnerable. Speak out in order to judge with righteousness and to defend the needy and the poor’ – Proverbs 31: 8-10
There is little doubt that Kenya has made notable steps towards a strong human rights culture. We have expanded the democratic space, enhanced media freedoms and created institutions whose sole mandate is to keep the Government’s human rights record in check.
We also have a new Constitution which puts the sovereignty of the people at the centre. However, this apparent progress cannot stand the test of time when so much injustice is committed in our midst.
For our challenge is not the lack of laws but the impunity that ignores all existing laws including directives by competent courts of law.
The people bearing the brunt of these rights abuses happen to be the poor and vulnerable communities living in impoverished neighborhoods and urban slums. Here, it is easy for law enforcers to walk into people’s homes without a valid court order, harass, intimidate, beat up or illegally extract information.
Cases of sexual violence, random evictions and runaway crime are the order of the day in these settlements that account for more than 70 per cent of Kenya’s urban population.
Tragically, majority of these cases often go unreported or are glossed over such that the rest of the country continues with their lives oblivious of the fact that taking away one person’s dignity ultimately erodes everyone’s dignity. During the past few years, we have also witnessed subtle but sustained efforts to silence and weaken the media and civil society organisations that speak out against atrocities committed by government agencies.
It is evident that the best way to restore dignity and security to vulnerable populations is to empower them to change their own situations through education, income generating activities, social mobilization and fighting for the implementation of laws and policies that favour the poor.
Although governments often wrongly believe that the way to perpetuate their rule is by silencing critical voices, evidence indicates that an empowered population is good for the long term health of the state.
An empowered people are a crucial pillar for rapid economic growth. The state should therefore be at the forefront in championing the rights of the poor and ensuring perpetrators of rights abuses do not go unpunished.One of the worst forms of human rights violation is economic deprivation. This can be deliberately orchestrated against a group because of their political orientation, tribe, race, gender or class. It can also be caused by economic crimes such as corruption and abuse of public positions for self-aggrandizement.
Poverty dehumanises, violates human dignity and exposes individuals and groups to other forms of abuses such as poor access to health care, education, adequate housing, food and safe water.
Whenever the poor seek legal avenues to defend their rights, they can be denied fair trial due to the high cost of initiating and sustaining a court process and inability to get competent legal representation.
The Government must recommit itself to finding long term solutions to the problem of poverty that continues to assault millions of our people.
On the surface of it, the solutions seem fairly straightforward. But greed, impunity and incompetence have always stood between the poor and their dreams for freedom from the shackles of want and degradation.
One of the areas where our Government can make a difference is to come up with pro-poor policies that factor in the needs of the poor in budgetary planning rather than seek to merely increase economic growth that only benefit the rich.
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The Government also has a responsibility to ruthlessly deal with corruption by sealing loopholes through which public money is siphoned and making it clear that corruption does not pay. Corruption kills and maims our institutions and our people.
It ensures public health facilities are ill equipped and that roads that link the poor to the market are not constructed.
It is in our interests as a people to ensure the corrupt do not enjoy stolen wealth while the majority wallows in squalor.
Citizens, especially the middle-class, have a responsibility to hold the government to account.
Thankfully, the emergence of new technology has made it possible for us to make a difference from any location through donations, signing petitions, forwarding informational emails or sharing links on social media.
Human rights are not favours to be wished for. They are what makes us human and are therefore worth fighting for.