Participants at the Nairobi Womens’ March in solidarity with women around the world campaigning for recognition of women’s rights
The concept of civic space and that of participative democracy are two peas in a pod. A people cannot be said to exist in a healthy democracy where their civic space is continually choked rather than protected. Civic space connotes the availability of avenues and opportunities that support citizen action, civil society engagement, media freedom, independence of judiciary systems and protection of all human and socio-economic rights by relevant stakeholders within diverse global societies.
In recent years, the space for civic engagement is shrinking in Kenya and globally owing to increasing trends by governments through the use of laws, policies, and governance practices that limit the ability of their citizens to exercise their rights and the freedom of civil society actors to operate freely without fear or intimidation.
The Kenya Human Rights Commission has been actively involved in efforts to expose, confront and combat blatant attacks by the government and state agents on civil society and human rights defenders. Some tactics used by the state to restrict civic space include burdensome registration and reporting requirements, intimidation of CSO staff and human rights defenders and criminalization of protests among many others.
Some of the mechanisms adopted by the KHRC include advancement of a legal environment that enables Kenyan citizens to exercise their freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and also one which enable Civil Society to operate legally without fear or intimidation. This has been a rigorous ongoing effort of lobbying around commencement of the Public Benefits Organizations Act, 2013. This Act seeks to streamline the CSO sector, while also retaining the space required for them to operate freely.
This being an election year, and bearing in mind the current national deficiencies we are facing including increasing imbalance between the rich and the poor, ethnic polarization and intolerance, corruption, unaccountability in governance, poor economic performance to mention but a few, the existing civic space must be safeguarded. Independent civil society action is an effective means through which justice and equity can be safeguarded to the benefit of all Kenyans.
Written by Nyaruiru Ndungi