Pesa ya Wazee: Deepen legal framework for the elders or call it political hypocrisy


Pesa ya Wazee comes in handy for its recipients, but it might ironically also be symbolic of social and policy dysfunction, underscoring what remains unaddressed of the desperation attending older persons’ lives.

The State of Kenya Population Report 2023 launched last October traces the contours of this desperation, describing the alarming demographic transformation of the elders over the past decade.

The elders are not only the fastest growing population segment in the country as wealth has risen but, paradoxically, over half of all senior citizens in the country live in absolute poverty. This is shocking, yet it was somewhat borne out by elders I posed this statistic in the peri-urban vicinity of Alliance High School in Kikuyu, Kiambu County. 

The elders I spoke to also counted among the cohort of older persons the population report says increased by about 41 per cent over the last decade, from 1.94 million in 2009 to 2.74 million in 2019.

And if, as the findings also show, nearly nine out of ten of these older citizens are household heads, noting also that over a half of them are already in abject poverty, a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that over 1.2 million wazee and their households nationwide must lead a dire life of scarcity in food and other basic needs.

To therefore see them troop to the bank to collect the Pesa ya Wazee stipend is not only to appreciate the need that exists but to hope that the meagre Ksh.2,000 monthly payment helps, if only a little.

It, therefore, comes in handy, as we began by noting. But it could also be symbolic of the social flaws, as we shall see, including the ills of policy inadequacies.

For instance, while the 2010 Constitution obligates the government to ensure the social protection of the elderly under the Bill of Rights, there lacks a comprehensive legal framework to promote and guarantee protection of their rights under the larger Inua Jamii programme.

This in effect suggests that the policy environment is not only inadequate but difficult to hold the government to account should fail in its obligation. It also suggests that the Older Persons Cash Transfer (OPCT) Programme, as it is called, exists at the government’s pleasure. There is no legal guarantee that a successive government will not suppress or scrap it, as sometimes happens with newly elected politicians to diminish their predecessors’ projects.

Perhaps more cynically, especially in the perceived Kenya Kwanza regime’s perpetual campaign mode hyping its programmes including the OPCT, it amounts to a sleight of hand to gain political mileage – but without the inconvenience of being legally held to account for any failures of omission or commission.

To delve into politics, however, would be getting ahead of the story.

It would serve to begin with one of the more obvious shortcomings. During the last disbursement of the OPCT stipend in September 2023, the recipients numbered just over 830,000 who fulfilled the eligibility criteria of being aged 70 years and older, and not on pension.

This leaves out two-thirds of other deserving elderly population aged between 60 to 69 years old, but also many over 70 years old the government sought to mobilise to enrol, as happened last September.

Another obvious challenge is the meagre stipend, especially with the punitive taxes under the Ruto regime that have exacerbated the high cost of living. The Ksh.2000 calculates to around 13 US dollars a month at the current exchange rate. This comes to 0.45 USD per day (Ksh.67) which is well below the globally prescribed 1.90 USD (Ksh.285) per day marking the poverty line.

The opposition Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya Coalition, perhaps taking advantage, seems to have seen a political opportunity in this to belatedly include it in the negotiations under the bipartisan national dialogue as one of its demands to raise the amount of social protection disbursements. 

The government, however, says it is looking for resources outside the exchequer, which currently funds the Inua Jamii initiative, and that it is committed to bringing more beneficiaries on board the OPCT programme.

This suggests both the government and the opposition are holding up the Inua Jamii cash programmes, including Pesa ya Wazee, as totems of their care for the welfare of the common mwanachi

Still, in the same political symbolism of care, urging a raise in the stipend and more inclusion, it underscores the problem of the rapid increase of the elderly population. And with 41 per cent increase in the last decade alone, it begs the question why so many of the senior citizens should retire to desperate poverty in their sunset years.

Part of the reason is that the vast majority retire without a pension. Currently, nine out of ten Kenyan adults (89.4 per cent) lack a pension scheme. This means this huge number is destined to retire into poverty. 

Another factor perpetuating the elders’ desperate situation is the urban migration of young people in search of jobs, which has disrupted family support systems. This problem, however, is age-old and has, ironically, lent itself to dark humour.

I’ve once heard a cynic quip that, happening since before independence during the colonial times, urban migration has been so often mentioned as a factor as to become something of a cliché—or, to put it in a fancier phrase, it has become a trope of filial neglect blighting the lives of the elderly.

Yet to reduce it to a fancy catchphrase would be to mask a more insidious and overarching factor, that of ageism. Ageism, in so far as it relates to the elderly, describes negative perceptions and attitudes towards old age and older people. 

Ageism describes a core social flaw. Many of us practice it, as may be seen in the condescending language and stereotypes we use when we associate old age with decline and ill health, portraying senior citizens as frail, vulnerable and dependent.

We see this in the caricatures portrayed in children’s books and cartoons, suggesting that negative perceptions about old age are inculcated early.

While old age may be portrayed as warm and moral in some instances, in many others such as in advertising, it is portrayed as something to defy with facial creams to mask ageing and diet and exercise regimes. 

In the defiance, as some experts observe, ageing becomes something that is subtly pushed to the back of our minds, or even out of our consciousness.

And since the ageing stereotypes largely go unchallenged, they normalise and validate discrimination culturally and in most spheres of life. We have seen media reports of how in Kenya this has manifested in violence and abuse such as the witchcraft accusations in Kenya. The harrowing BBC Africa Eye exposé of abuse at the PCEA care home in Thogoto in Kiambu County is one of the latest examples of how ageist indifference and social neglect can become institutionalised.

And, talking of institutionalisation, it might not surprise some to note that even the United Nations and regional human rights bodies appear to have largely ignored the rights of older people. Globally, for instance, of the 57,686 recommendations made within the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review during the 2017 cycle, only 177 or 0.3 per cent of the recommendations address the rights of older people.

Nationally, one cannot say the government and its institutions have been oblivious of their obligations to the elderly, except that over the 13 years since the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution, they have yet to put in place a comprehensive legal framework to fully give effect to Article 57 of the Constitution that obligates the government to its social protection mandate.

The Geriatrics Bill cum The Care and Protection of Older Members of Society Bill has remained stuck in parliament for years now. If there had been more effort, including by the opposition politicians, the bill(s) would long have been enacted to entrench the government’s obligation in law.

Moreover, policy mandarins have been accused of having minimal understanding of the rights of older people and supporting frameworks to create an age-friendly policy environment. Thus, you find shortcomings such as not having in place a database or adequate data collection mechanism to inform and improve social protection service delivery. 

It is here that findings in the State of Kenya Population Report might help. Only that it would still need political will by both the government and opposition, and an enlightened populace to push for it.

Note that the general populace and older people have very little knowledge about elders’ rights and entitlements to demand for them or hold the government to account. Civil society organisations such as HelpAge may help in raising awareness, but it is the government’s mandate to let the people know of these rights and entitlements and tackle ageism. 

In fairness, however, the government has displayed a commitment difficult to ignore. Kenya is among the handful of countries in the continent to ratify and deposit the Protocol on the Rights of Older Persons to the African Charter on Human and Peoples, which it deposited to the African Union in February 2022.

It is this the government must build on, including enhancing existing systems that support pension schemes that will cushion individuals in their retirement.

A good place to start would be revamping the Mbao Pension Plan, the public-private partnership between the government and the National Federation of Jua Kali Associations that targets informal sector workers who comprise the vast majority of the employed. 

Another is recognising that many retirees leave work with their mental acuity intact and physically fit to be self-employed, but in their retirement become marginalised and wallow in poverty. A fund for the elderly similar to the youth and women enterprise funds could be set up to facilitate their self-employment and training to be productive in the digital economy.

*Gitura Mwaura is a writer and Development Journalist

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