Did you feel last month raced ahead faster than usual? The bad news is that January has the same 31 days it always has. You and I are just getting older, and it is time we discussed ageism and the lack of adequate protection for older persons in our society.
Senior executives from HelpAge and AARP were in Nairobi this week to scope out the rights of the older persons. Two hours of intense conversation leaves me convinced we are not thinking strategically about older people. With 80 per cent of Kenyans under the age of 35 and most young people no longer convinced that elections, democracy, markets, and courts work for them, most national attention has been on the Kenyan youth. Youthist outlooks fuel ageism.
Ageism, like sexism or ableism, is a form of systematic discrimination. Institutions that refuse to hire the elderly, people who view them as out of touch, millennials who believe they are more entitled and governments that do not explicitly recognise or invest in their elderly are ageist attitudes.
Unlike sexism or ableism that targets some of us, ageism will visit all our homes in time. Consider that more people in the world today, Kenyans included, are reaching the age of 65 years than ever before. 55 per cent of them are women. 18 per cent of our homes have at least one senior citizen. Most of the elderly live in Kakamega, Kiambu, Meru, Murang’a, Machakos, Nakuru, and Nairobi. American based rights association AARP estimates that Kenyans over the age of 65 will quadruple by 2050 to 6 million.
Article 57 of the Constitution of Kenya explicitly obligates the State to ensure older persons have services and an environment to fully participate as active citizens and live dignified and respectable lives free of abuse. Several 2009, 2014 and 2018 Government policies reaffirm the importance of recognising and protecting their specific needs.
However, we still do not have age-specific laws that ensure outlaw discrimination and full equality. We need more real-time data, pension reforms and options for those in the informal sector as well as proactive health prevention programmes that target osteoporosis, as well as cancer, diabetes, and other non-communicable diseases. We need proactive digital learning programmes to stop younger citizens from raiding the smart phones of their grandparents.
While Kenya has ratified several continental and international treaties, however individuals are still barred from seeking justice from international mechanisms after our courts have failed according to HelpAge. We must also demolish the myth that cities and towns are not places for older people, the elderly cannot learn new things or be productive employees and volunteers in our communities. Why do we maintain the mandatory retirement age of 60 years? Could employers introduce care-giving leave days for us to take care of parents and children? Why can’t we stop rising cases of widow and “witch” killings by relatives over land succession?
Kenya Kwanza administration’s Bottom-up Economic Transformation Agenda explicitly refers to inequality. The National Gender and Equality Commission Mind the Gap 2023 report tells us three out of ten Kenyans live in extreme poverty. Women, and particularly rural and elderly women, experience higher levels of poverty than urban, youthful men.
Many senior citizens still remain vulnerable to poverty, food insecurity and violence despite the work being done by the State Department of Social Protection, Pensions and Senior Citizens Affairs in the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection. Tragically, government social protection investment has dropped from 0.4% in 2018/19 to 03.33 of national gross domestic product in 2021/2022.
The Older Persons Cash Transfer programme and attempts to reform national health insurance programmes to target low-income earners are important levers for the rights of the elderly. This month, hopefully the Government promise to expand and fund those eligible for the Inua Jamii programme by 500,000 though their mobile phones come onstream. These efforts need to be supported and expanded to ensure that we leave no needy wazee behind.
If the situation does not change, most Kenyans will grow old before they become prosperous. Without a clear state, business, and civic strategy for promoting, protecting, and realising the rights of senior citizens, discrimination and destitution lies ahead of us. Let us act now to disrupt this predictable future for us and others.
This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard, 10 February 2024.