For the 15% of the world’s population estimated to have some form of disability, policy, communication and social barriers limit their participation not only in the labour markets but the society in general. It is not a surprise therefore that on average, as a group, people with disabilities (PWDs) are more likely to have negative socio-economic impacts than people without disabilities. As such, countries have developed disability-specific programs aimed at empowering the group and promote their contribution to the economy. The programs unfortunately mainly focus on the formal sector and have failed to translate to disability inclusion.
The exclusion has been particularly acute in the areas of political representation in elective and appointed positions, with limited efforts by political parties to provide a conducive environment for PWDs to engage in politics. In the August 2022 elections, one constituency that did not receive much attention were PWDs who felt side-lined in nomination and elective positions. Equality and inclusion are key priority areas in Kenya’s national agenda. Yet, support to ensure all voices are heard in and throughout political processes in Kenya remains weak. The requirement to mainstream disability commitment into all government programs has also been implemented partially.
As the country celebrates a record seven women being elected into gubernatorial positions, the same cannot be said about PWDs representation, especially for nominative seats. This is seen in the proportion of PWDs representation in the Parliament (National Assembly & Senate) and the County Assemblies that stood at 1.9% in 2017 elections and an estimate of 2.0% in 2022 elections. The slight increase is mainly due to increase in the number of elected PWDs from 3 in 2017 to 7 in 2022 but the gains were derailed by the decrease in the number of nominated PWDs from 42 to 36 in 2022. This is below the legal requirement. Article 54(2) of the Constitution of Kenya dictates that at least 5% of the members of the public in elective and appointive bodies be PWDs. Initiatives towards disability inclusion ahead of the elections also saw the numbers of registered PWDs voters increase by a paltry 5.4%, from 0.14 million in 2017 to 0.16 million in 2022.
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 2 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. Protest by PWDs across the counties were ignored and their threats to block swearing in ceremonies until their nomination grievances are heard did not materialize. IEBC rejected list of nominated persons submitted by political parties in June due to its failure to meet gender quotas and the inclusion of Special Interest Groups (SIGs). IEBC further directed the political parties that, for nomination of the special interest group, the County Assemblies must have eight names of the SIGs and with the same qualification as the elected candidates.
The IEBC has limited power to order investigations and prosecute legal violations. As such, political parties often ignore the 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, leaving out PWDs. As various actors commend Kenya for the progress made in electoral inclusion, 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 tend to converge 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%) 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 only 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.
Oscar Ochieng (@JOchieng85) is a communication specialist based in Nairobi and he holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication and Sociology from the University of Nairobi.
Darmi Jattani (@DJattani) is an economist with experience in public finance research and policy
An earlier version of this piece first appeared in The Standard. This piece is re-published with permission.