Political parties have been grossly unfair to persons with disabilities

National Assembly during one of the sessions. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

Globally, it is estimated that there are more than a billion (persons with disabilities) PWDs. According to the 2019 census, 900,000 Kenyans have some form of disability, majority of them women. The rights of PWDs are recognised in the Constitution. It grants them equal rights, opportunities and participation in the society.

However, in reality these people continue to experience systemic exclusion from mainstream governance and development processes. This exclusion has been acute in the areas of political representation in both elective and appointed positions. Political parties have failed to provide a conductive environment for PWDs to engage in active politics. This was witnessed in the recent Bungoma senatorial by-election and in the the August 9 General Election.

Kenya should reflect on progress made in electoral reforms and to address the persistent gaps. Although no official post-election audit has been published yet, the wheels are already rolling. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (Amendment) Bill, 2022, was tabled before the National Assembly's Justice and Legal Affairs Committee by Kenya Kwanza party.

This came after the president declared the positions of the commission's chairman and two commissioners, who will retire in January 2023, vacant. The amendment seeks to alter the composition of the recruitment team by reducing political parties' slots to two from the present four.

One issue that has not captured much attention is the cry of PWDs over their sidelining in nominative and elective positions. Equality and inclusion are key priority areas in Kenya's national agenda. Yet, support to ensure all voices are heard during the political processes remains weak.

As the country celebrates a record seven women being elected governors, the same cannot be said about PWDs. This is seen in the proportion of PWDs representation in the Parliament (National Assembly and Senate) and the county assemblies that stood at 1.9 per cent in the 2017 elections and about 2.0 per cent in the 2022 elections. This is below the legal requirement.

The slight increase is mainly due to increase in the number of elected PWDs from three in 2017 to seven in 2022. Initiatives towards disability inclusion ahead of the elections also saw the number of registered PWD voters increase by 5.4 per cent from 0.14 million in 2017 to 0.16 million in 2022.

According to Article 54(2) of the Constitution, at least 5 per cent of members of the public in elective and appointive bodies should be PWDs.

The Constitution provides for nominative seats to address any imbalances in elective seats. The Senate and the National Assembly have upheld the legal requirement by nominating two PWDs in both houses in the last two elections. The largest gaps still exist at the county level where the number of county assembly that did not nominate PWDs increased from 17 in 2017 to 21 in 2022. Protests by PWDs across the counties were ignored and their threats to block swearing-in ceremonies until their nomination grievances were heard did not materialise.

IEBC rejected a list of nominated persons submitted by political parties in June due to failure to meet the two-thirds gender rule and inclusion of Special Interest Groups (SIGs). It further directed the political parties that, for nomination of the SIGs, the county assemblies must have eight names of the SIGs with the same qualification as the elected candidates.

IEBC has limited powers to order investigations and prosecution over such offences. As such, political parties often ignore directives from the commission. Even for those that abide by the directives, instances of PWDs being short-changed have been reported. This is evident in the Kenya Gazette notices that show amendments to the names previously submitted for consideration.

There is also over-representation of one category of special interest groups (women) in the county assemblies, leaving out PWDs. As various actors commend Kenya for the progress made, it is timely to address the critical knowledge gaps within political parties to create and promote more inclusive political discourse, political commitments and public policymaking.

In order to understand the constraints to PWDs representation in political processes, several post-election audits have been conducted. The conclusions are that their political representation is minimal because of various cultural and structural barriers. An audit on the 2017 elections revealed that approximately 150 aspirants with disabilities competed in the party primaries in April 2017. Out of this, only 29 (0.2 per cent) out of 14,523 candidates ran for political seats. This shows that the demand for the seats among PWDs is high but barriers limit their progression. A second audit indicated that physical and communication barriers and societal attitudes posed greater challenges to their political participation.

Establishment of accountability mechanisms can lead to increased political participation of PWDs and, consequently, result in progress towards a more disability inclusive public policy. Exclusion of PWDs is not an issue that is peculiar to Kenya but Kenya can learn from countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Ecuador, and Peru where PWDs have held the highest office. In Uganda, PWDs are elected through an electoral college system at all levels, giving influence which has resulted in disability-friendly legislation. The success of Uganda's approach to PWDs inclusion has seen the country record among the highest numbers of elected representatives with disabilities in the world.

When PWDs participate in political and public life, their voice is heard and reflected in policy decisions. Inclusivity principles in the party leadership and decision-making structures should be applied to attain the legal threshold.

Ms Jattani is an economist. Mr Ochieng is a communications practitioner