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Justice Mumbi Ngugi, a judge on the High Court of Kenya, discussed the impacts of Kenya's new constitution upon social and health equality within the country at a Thursday webinar hosted by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School.
The new constitution was passed in 2010 by a referendum, receiving 67 percent of the population’s support. Ngugi called the new constitution “transformative,” since it contains more progressive stances on economic, social, and health rights.
Ngugi — an advocate for women, socially disadvantaged persons, and the albinism community — said the “major provisions” of the new constitution aim to help Kenyans with disabilities and women.
“People with disabilities, people who are different from others have tended to be excluded,” Ngugi said, adding that the new constitution “has specific requirements that all institutions make sure that there’s reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities” and “has also made a significant difference in the way we order our society.”
Ngugi added that the constitution calls for greater participation of women in government.
“The idea was to make sure that there is greater inclusion and participation of women within elected and appointed bodies in the country,” she explained. “Any society in which women cannot properly participate in governance or in decision-making, you will find that it is a society that doesn't really progress as it should.”
Senior Fellow at the Petrie-Flom Center and event moderator Alicia E. Yamin ’87 discussed the work of the Commission for the Implementation of the Constitution, which is meant to oversee the development of legislation and administrative procedures necessary to implement the constitution. The 2010 constitution outlines a right to health, and so part of the work of the commission includes overseeing measures to implement healthcare availability in financially-constrained communities.
“If you can address the underlying determinants of health, sanitation, what’s good potable water, good nutrition, then you reduce the burden on people from having to seek health care because of those illnesses,” Ngugi said.
Ngugi added that government officials are “working hard” to ensure that the rights stated in the constitution do not become “empty” words.
“We have people in the different sectors of our society who are working hard to ensure that there is access to health care for all.” Ngugi said. “So, we may not have as much clout, in terms of moving policy forward, but it can make pronouncements that help to make a move in points, the direction towards what the people of Kenya expect.”
Ngugi emphasized the need for “compassion” and international cooperation to help progress human rights and to stop the spread of Covid-19.
“We used to believe in all of these international agreements, compassion for each other. We used to believe in human rights. We used to believe in nondiscrimination. And we used to work towards equality for all, and I have a feeling that we’re losing that,” Ngugi said.
Yamin said she hopes attendees are better able to understand Kenya as a “plural democracy” and not just a place of “ethnic strife and fighting.”
“I hope this breaks down the idea that Kenya must be someplace where people go on safari or something like that,” Yamin said. “Kenya is actually a plural democracy that is struggling with many of the same struggles that other countries around the world are struggling with.”
“The constitution as this transformative document, that is meant to include many different kinds of people, is playing a role in that. Judges are making decisions about the rights and opportunities that diverse people in Kenyan society get to enjoy.”
Correction: November 20, 2020
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Alicia E. Yamin ’87 called Kenya a "liberal democracy." In fact, she called it a "plural democracy."
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