Since 1902

Why I will not be voting and may never vote

The 2013 general elections experienced the highest ever voter turnout in Kenya's history at 86%. However, even with the high turnout, out of the 14.3m registered voters, 2.1m did not vote.

At the close of voter registration on December 2012, IEBC announced that a total of 14.3m Kenyans had registered as voters for the 2013 general elections, representing 79.7% of the 18m Kenyans IEBC had targeted.

In essence, despite the high turnout in 2013 general election, a total of 5.8m Kenyans did not participate in the electoral process after missing out either on voter registration or voting.

At the close of the last mass voter registration exercise in February 2017, IEBC admitted to missing its target of 6m by 2.3m. However, the National Registration Bureau confirmed that there are 23.6m Kenyans alive with identity cards on July 2016. This translates to 23.6m eligible voters.

Since this is not a high-stake election compared to 2013, voter turnout will most likely be below 86%. It is more similar to the 2002 general elections, which had a 57% turnout. If say, a miracle happens and voter turnout is 80 %, only 11.4 m Kenya out of the 23.6m eligible voters will have voted.

A total of 12.2m Kenyans may be left out of the electoral process! This is a massive 51.6 % of eligible voters that may not exercise their democratic right to choose their leader!

There are many reasons given for voter registration apathy and low voter turnout. These include work commitments, death, illness and disability, among others. My main interest is those who miss voter registration or voting due to illness and disability. I belong to this category.

A substantial number of the over 12.2m eligible voters who will miss out in the electoral process this year will be people like me. These are people with various health conditions, disabilities or special needs that will make it very difficult to participate in the electoral process due to their physical or mental impairment.

For this special category of voters to participate in the electoral process, they will require better support and reasonable accommodation – that is, adjustments to allow persons with disabilities or special needs to enjoy their human rights on an equal basis with others.

Every Kenyan has a right to participate in the electoral process under the Bill of Rights. The right to political participation, including persons with disabilities, is accordingly firmly grounded in international law, enshrined in the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

Whereas people with physical impairment have made good progress in receiving special attention in the form of accommodations like jumping queues, having someone to assist them etc, their counterparts with mental impairments get it rough due to ignorance on mental disorders.

Sadly, discrimination against people with mental disorders is institutionalized in our country. For example, whereas prisoners were allowed to registers as voters this year, the exclusion of people with mental disabilities living in psychiatric facilities and institutions from voter registration was a good confirmation of this discrimination.

There are 300 mental disorder listed in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Some of these disorders present the patient with certain difficulties that prevents him/her from participating in the electoral process.

Let me zero in to just one condition to expound my point. I was born with ADHD, which is considered a childhood mental illness whose symptoms may persist into adulthood. Adult symptoms include inattention, distractibility, and trouble following instructions, among others.

Subjecting an ADHD mind a long boring monotonous activity like standing in queues for hours is the most punishing thing one can subject me to. This is something my ADHD mind activity I will avoid at all costs.

I do not expect an average Kenyans to understand my difficulties but my Constitution understands that we are not all the same and it clearly provides for special consideration of people with special needs to full participation in public life.

The election Law allows election officers to take administrative measures to increase the accessibility of the voting process, particularly access to polling stations and information for electors with disabilities

However, due to the level of ignorance of mental disorders, people like me who suffer from psychiatric conditions will have a mount to climb in convincing the presiding officers that they need special treatment to participate in the voting process.

The electoral process helps determine the nature of politics and the kind of society in which we live. If certain groups, because of economic and social barriers and disadvantages, do not participate in elections regularly and visibly, particular issues, concerns and needs central to their lives will most likely remain at the margins of our politics and policy-making.

It therefore does not surprise me that mental health is always at the back burner of government priorities, funding and resource allocation. This is despite the Mental Health Policy 2015-2030 clearly stating that one in four Kenyans will suffer from a mental disorder at some point in their lives.

I know my illness does not reach the threshold of a disability (I am a citizen of a country where psychosocial disability is generally not treated as a DISABILITY). Those who have a high functioning mental illness are not even considered ill. Getting accommodations on the basis of my psychiatric condition is therefore completely out of question.

This is the reason why I and millions of other Kenyans will not be participating in the electoral process. Clearly, the ability to vote and to have effective and equitable access to the electoral process remains a big challenge for people with special needs particularly mental disabilities.

However, my vote could be the magical +1 vote that is crucial for a candidate to win the presidential elections. So, all I am asking for are minor accommodations that will make it possible for me to vote without making the whole exercise too traumatic and boring.

Surprisingly, no presidential candidate thinks it is important to address the needs and concerns of people with special need particularly mental illnesses.

Moreover, just to remind those who think mental illness is for the poor and uneducated, I am an alumnus of UC Berkeley in California, have an MBA from JKUAT and degree from Egerton University.

Professionally, I was credited with the scientific discovery of a new primate population in northern Kenya that was aired on VOA, NatGeo and other major international media.

It is these systemic failures and discrimination of people with psychiatric conditions that prompted me to leave my career and become a mental health advocate. Until there is equity in our society, I will continue fighting for the rights of the voiceless millions.

Iregi Mwenja is a mental health advocate and the Founder/CEO of Psychiatric Disability Organization based in Nakuru. Website: http://www.pdokenya.org/Email: [email protected][removed]/* */[removed] Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Psychiatricdisability/