by Hannah Wanja Maina, Young Voices campaigner
“The true mark of a strong society is measured by how it treats minority groups and vulnerable people,” so Mahatma Gandhi once said.
With today’s historic elections in Kenya – the first since the announcement of the new constitution in August 2010 – I was interested to find out if the country had endeavoured to hold true to this aspiration. Has the Kenyan government taken steps to make sure that disabled people are included in this election?
Many people will remember the violence that broke out at the last election in 2007/2008, which left more than 1,000 people dead and 600,000 homeless. Disabled people were hardest hit – many not only lost their homes, but also their independence and livelihoods. It is therefore understandable that people with disabilities say they are feeling nervous.
The government has pledged that it is ready to provide security to all. But in Nairobi, one disabled resident told me that the upcoming election had left her with a sense of worry and uncertainty. If there is violence, people are concerned that they will not be able to defend themselves and there will be no one to defend them.
In the past, voter transportation has also been an issue, where vulnerable people have been offered transport by parties, and have then felt under pressure to vote for them.
I went to a public lecture at a Nairobi university to see what the IEBC commissioner, Mr Bwire, had to say. As well as emphasizing that disabled and elderly people should be supported to access the polling stations if they need it, he also stressed that those who need support to vote would be helped by an impartial assistant to vote for their chosen candidate. I was delighted to hear that voter transportation has now been made illegal.
Mr Bwire also said that the IEBC have taken all the profiles of citizens who are registered as visually impaired to make sure support is available on the day. During the voter registration and during the election day there will be papers in Braille format.
I spoke to Trizah Machariah, a Returning Officer working in Nairobi’s Roysambu constituency who has been working during the elections for the past 15 years. She said that disabled people would be given first priority in the queues and maintained they would be treated with dignity and privacy as required.
What has impressed me throughout the build up to the election is that disabled people have been very visible in all the advertising material, a task overseen by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). In one advert, a young girl with a hearing impairment calls for peace in sign language. Another features a young man with albinism.
In a country where violent attacks on disabled people, in particular on those with albinism, are still happening, this has been a positive step forward. I myself have faced discrimination, especially when I was in school and had to walk with the aid of calipers.I hope this campaign has had the effect of challenging people’s perceptions of disability, which are still so steeped in superstition and fear.
I hope this shows how far we have come as a state, from the dark days where disabled people were hidden in houses, exposed to abuse, not taken to school and deprived of their basic human rights. I hope we are entering a new age, where they are active and valued members of society involved in all spheres of live, including politics.
Today will be the first time I have voted in a general election and I feel very happy and ready to be involved, just like any other Kenyan.