Kenyans With Disabilities Must Now Challenge Political Marginalization
By Phitalis Were Masakhwe (firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com), International Advisor Disability - Rights and Advocacy
“Seek ye the political kingdom first and all else will follow”, urged Kwame Nkrumah, the Ghanaian independence hero. At the time Ghana was in the thick of the liberation struggle. Disease, ignorance and poverty were of course ravaging Ghana like the cursed plaque, but the man thought all these issues could not be squarely assaulted, until and unless the political equation of this former British colony was comprehensively fixed.
In just under 17 months from now, Kenyans will be going to the polls to elect yet another set of leaders from councilors, members of the so called august house up to the new head of state. And it's all systems go as far as the race for those positions goes! Woe unto you if you will be left out of this quest for power. And yet those with disabilities should not be left out of this marathon that has already begun. They should register in droves as voters and ensure that the clamour for minimum constitutional reforms before the next election also includes the issue of their representation.
It's a great shame that 43 years since independence; disabled Kenyans have no representation to write home about at both levels of policy and decision making! Kenya’s parliament of 222 members has only one member, the Hon. Sammy Leshore, who through an act of thuggery and gangsterism is known to have a disability. The over 170 local authorities and municipalities across the country have less than 100 councilors with disabilities. What of other important constitutional commissions and offices like Electoral Commission of Kenya ECK? And how about critical committees like Constituency Development Fund committees CDFCs which are vehicles for resources meant to spur rural development? If the disabled, who I thought are part and parcel of the Kenyan diversity, are conspicuously missing in political action, how can Kenya claim to be genuinely liberated? If a part of the whole is under the bondage of political slavery, then I think the whole is cosmetically free. Not yet Uhuru, as the late doyen of the opposition, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga would say!
That politics overrides everything economic and otherwise, especially in developing countries cannot be overemphasized. Those that captain the ship of state invariably control and manipulate the mode of production and its distribution. So you are either in the inner sanctum of power or for ever be banished into social, economic and political “Siberia”.
This is the choice that disabled people must make at this critical point in the country’s development.
By the way, what is this much sought after animal, called politics? A look at different definitions will help. Politics is defined as the theory and practice of forming and running organizations connected with government. It’s also said to be policy making activity. An activity within a political party or organization that is concerned with debate and the creation and carrying out of distinctive policies rather than merely the administration of the state. Others define politics as interrelations in a specific field. The totality of interrelationships in a particular area of life involving power, authority, or influence, and capable of manipulation. Still politics is seen as calculated advancement; the use of tactics and strategy to gain power in a group or organization.
Should those with disabilities also think about politics and power? Do they have a right to political participation? According to the Universal Declaration of Human rights 1948; article 21 paragraphs one and two, the right of each and every individual to political participation is affirmed. Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his/her country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. And everyone has the right to equal access to public services in his or her country.
But, nowhere are disabled peoples’ rights to participate in political and public life guaranteed better, than in the draft comprehensive and integral international convention on the protection and promotion of the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities. This is aptly captured in the draft convention, article 29 on Participation in political and public life as follows:
States Parties shall guarantee to persons with disabilities their political rights and the opportunity to enjoy them on an equal basis with others, and shall undertake:
- To ensure that persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in political and public life [on an equal basis with others in accordance with national laws of general application], directly or through freely chosen representatives, including the right and opportunity for persons with disabilities to vote and be elected, inter alia, by:
- Ensuring that voting procedures, facilities and materials are appropriate, accessible and easy to understand and use;
- Protecting the right of persons with disabilities to vote by secret ballot in elections and public referendums, without intimidation, and to stand for elections and to effectively hold office and perform all public functions at all levels of government, facilitating the use of assistive and new technologies where appropriate;
- Guaranteeing the free expression of the will of persons with disabilities as electors and to this end, where necessary, at their request, allowing assistance in voting by a person of their own choice;
- 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, and encourage their participation in public affairs, including:
- Participation in non-governmental organizations and associations concerned with the public and political life of the country, and in the activities and administration of political parties;
- Forming and joining organizations of persons with disabilities to represent persons with disabilities at international, national, regional and local levels.
It should however be noted that this participation is faced with numerous barriers. It’s not automatic! It’s costly involving bigger sacrifices and investments.
The Vienna Declaration and programme of Action (1993) takes cognizance of this and stresses that, “special attention needs to be paid to ensure non discrimination and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by disabled persons, including their active participation in all aspects of society”. Special measures means conscious, creative individual and collective efforts and programmes aimed at analysing, identifying and removal of those barriers that would otherwise impede effective participation.
But, it also means disabled people themselves should have the interest and passion to want to aspire for politics. External support and facilitation is good and necessary but has limitations too. The great Mao Tse Tung of China had this to say, “a hen can sit on a stone and not produce a chicken”. What hatches into a chicken is the force of life inside the egg itself, the force of change is inside oneself, outsiders can only provide 'enabling conditions'. It takes two to tango, so they say!
But, first things first. Before we talk of politics and the disabled; is the general public aware and appreciative of the role and place of those with disabilities? Do the disabled have the knowledge, experience, confidence and bottle for political battle? Do they understand the dynamics and intricacies of the political game? In my view a lot of ground work needs to be covered if we are to see persons with disabilities in local authorities, parliament and even in state house!
People with disabilities, those that work with them,ECK,the so-called governance and democracy NGOs and development partners need to pay attention to the following initiatives among others:
- Regular and consistent disability sensitization of the community and its leadership. One of the factors militating against the empowering people with disabilities is public ignorance of the pertinent issues. In short, the negative response of most able-bodied people to those with disabilities is based on ignorance. They assume that disability is a catastrophe and they fear it. Fear creates awkwardness, avoidance and prejudice. Public education programmes should reflect the principle of full participation: To prevent the formation of negative attitudes about disabled people, to promote acceptance of physical and mental differences in all societies, and to involve and empower disabled persons' organisations by creating a climate in which disability is accepted by the public.
- Investing in civic/legal literacy/rights education, including lobbying and advocacy skills development of disabled people and their parents/friends
- Building and enhancing the self esteem and confidence of the disabled. This should entail developing their communication, public speaking, bargaining and negotiating knowledge and skills.
- Education is an indispensable tool; Enhanced literacy and numeracy skills are important if disabled are to effectively and meaningfully engage in vital policy debates. It’s not enough to be engaged and involved; this has to be done from an enlightened and informed point of view.
- Improved and widened opportunities and choices for economic independence are equally essential; otherwise extremely poor disabled people will not have the luxury of engaging in community politics on empty stomachs. And where they will; they will mostly likely be susceptible to manipulation and compromise. Remember a poor man’s knees are supple.
- Massive and long term investment in the institutional/organisational development of disabled people/parents groups as vehicle/platforms for mobilization, analysis, organisation, articulation and negotiation of their interests and agenda. Disabled peoples groups are the soul and voice of the disabled. Here efforts should be directed at analysing, identification and strengthening their core capacities in areas like planning, mobilization, managing, inculcating democratic leadership values and virtues, resource mobilisation and control, networking and collaboration with strategic partners, conflict prevention and management, effective communication and working with media.
- Support the disabled to be exposed to new knowledge and experience through internships and exposure visits and study tours both internally and outside.
- Advocacy and lobbying for quotas and other mechanisms to ensure that society uses all its resources, meaning all people including the disabled. This should include financial and other material support to candidates with disabilities to run an election, disabled persons-focused reforms within individual political parties, and an organised effort by the media and other general public to champion political parity.
Addressing the above so called capacity building issues will level the requisite playing field and certainly inspire them to aspire for deeper and enhanced political participation.
Democracy is about numbers, disabled people must be facilitated to realize “their political arsenal” through knowing that they themselves plus their families and friends constitute such a great population and an electoral force and threat. Great political parties and wise political players know the power of number in the political jigsaw.
Are there any benefits to political participation by disabled people?
An international, just released study of twenty leaders in a dozen countries has examined the impact on social policies and programs of having people with disabilities (PWDs) in high positions of governance. Change from within: international overview of the impact of disabled politicians and disability policy bodies on governance concludes that having disabled individuals in positions of governance is clearly having impact.
Disabled people in government positions report that legislation and programmatic improvements have aided the situation of PWDs in their respective countries. Moreover, though perhaps less quantifiable, they also list heightened awareness and increased understanding of disability issues among their non-disabled colleagues as another positive impact. Many report that their non-disabled peers have begun to consider all issues through a new “disability lens” and as a result, they have developed new allies in the fight for equal access and inclusion.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, they see themselves as role models who could serve to inspire new generations of more individuals with disabilities to enter public service.
The study in which I was part of the authors was undertaken on behalf of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) of the United States Department of Education and is part of the just ended five year international Disability Exchanges and Studies (IDEAS) project conducted by the World Institute on Disability in collaboration with Rehabilitation International (RI).
The writer, a sociologist has a physical disability and is currently the international Advisor Disability-Rights & Advocacy for UNDP in Afghanistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.