In democratic countries, Parliaments represent the whole spectrum of societies’ majorities and minorities, looking to work together on solutions for their countries’ needs and concerns. They provide effective scrutiny of the work of the Executive, checking and balancing the power of Governments.
In his native Kenya Kenneth Okoth represents the people of Kibera, that country’s largest and one of Africa’s oldest slums. Kibera was only recognized as a political constituency of Kenya a few years ago although people have been living there for over a century.
Okoth travelled to Geneva to participate in the second edition of the Forum on Human Rights, Democracy and Rule of Law at the UN in Geneva, Switzerland. That Forum is mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to discuss and propose solutions for increasing the enjoyment by all of human rights, to strengthen democracies and create more resilient rule of law systems.
The second edition of this biennial Forum looked into how parliaments, “national debating chambers”, can promote these issues.
Looking back at when Okoth was growing up in Kibera, Okoth recalled having big dreams, like every child on the planet and, like for so many, it was neither easy nor clear for him that he would get involved in politics.
“Education is a key human rights issue, it is in the Sustainable Development Goals, it helped put me on a certain platform, but there have also been so many changes in Kenya’s Constitution and the legislative sphere that have tried to make Kenya a more equal society that even a child born in a place like Kibera has got more hope,” he said. “I am happy for my journey but we need to make it possible for more children in a structured manner so they all have equal opportunity.”
As a representative of a community that has long been overlooked by successive Governments in Kenya, Okoth feels a certain responsibility to represent the less fortunate in his country and promote their rights to an adequate standard of living, and to economic and social development.
He has created open communication channels with his constituents through his social media accounts, where he has included a mobile phone number and email address where they can reach him. In 2016 when a sewer burst and waste spill although the main streets of Kibera, Okoth’s constituents used those platforms to complain about the poor infrastructure of the slum and insult him for his perceived inaction. He had not resources to fix the sewer but tried to reach out to Nairobi’s Governor, to no avail.
“As a member of Parliament, I am a voice for my people. Coming from the grassroots, listening and knowing where I have come from, I have to speak up to my people’s priorities and find a way to bring those to the Government when we are making the budget at the national Assembly, when we need to change laws that are discriminatory, such as the criminalization of poverty, provide access to reproductive health care for women… There’s a whole wealth of issues,” he said.
For Okoth, the people of Kibera represent the heart and the face of Kenya. The slum is in the middle of the capital city, Nairobi, and is an engine for that city’s economy - many of its dwellers work as professionals or temporary labour for numerous industries and businesses. Thus, naturally, the population of Kibera wants to be an active part of Kenya’s civic space.
“In Kenya, everybody pays taxes in the urban areas so we have taxation policies and value added taxes that affect everybody in Kibera. We want to see the government give the services and respond to the people’s demands for these services that are guaranteed in the rights in the Constitution,” Okoth said. “The people of Kibera are knowledgeable and we keep fighting for our rights; even when they are violated by Government agencies we must keep speaking up.”
On 10 December, the world will mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the history of human rights, the Declaration is a milestone. The document has helped shape liberation movements, institutions and national Constitutions of many countries, including Kenya.
“We need to be more committed to implement the economic, social and cultural rights in our Constitution - such as freedom from hunger, right to adequate housing, right to education, economic growth – to be enabled in an inclusive manner that enables all Kenyans to enjoy their human rights to live with dignity and to feel part of the human race,” Okoth said.
There has been a harmonious partnership between Okoth and the UN Human Rights team in Kenya. Together, they deliver human rights briefs to the Kenyan parliamentary human rights and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) caucuses; organize dialogues with communities to find solutions to their human rights concerns; and implement recommendations from the UN bodies that monitor human rights in areas such as forced evictions.