“Empowering the youth means creating and supporting the enabling conditions under which youth can act on their behalf and on their own terms, rather than the direction of others.”

-The Commonwealth Youth Ministers and Heads of State.

On 27th August, 2010, the new Constitution was ushered in by the then president, Hon. Mwai Kibaki in the presence of a cheerful and expectant crowd. That was a decade ago, now our Constitution is ten years old, a great milestone for Kenya.  But as we celebrate this achievement, it is also the perfect time to evaluate the gains and losses of the youth effectuated by this law in an attempt to forge the right direction to take for the decade to come.

Youth refers to both age and the quality of youth-hood. The generally accepted definition of youth captured by the United Nations, The African Youth Charter and The Kenyan Constitution is ‘the collectivity of individuals who have attained the age of 18 and have not exceeded the age of 35 ’. It is the stage in life between childhood and adulthood. Youth represents the period in which individuals transition from childhood to adulthood and are able to take actual control of their lives. It is therefore a critical stage requiring both social, economic and legal backing from the government and other stakeholders.

Before the coming into force of the 2010 Constitution, the youth were a highly neglected part of the Kenyan society in terms of the laws put in place to ensure their protection and representation. For instance, the most notorious clause in this law was the anti-discrimination clause, Section 82, which excluded age as a ground for discrimination. In this law, age was only mentioned as a cap for retiring from and qualifying for certain positions or as a justification for the limitation of certain rights. In addition, there were gaps in legislative protection for the youth. The most notable youth organisation under the former dispensation, before its transformation in the 90’s, was the dreaded National Youth Service, the bridge students had to pass through to qualify for admittance into varsity education. Needless to say, the then NYS did not contribute to the wholesome development of the whole cohort of the youth in Kenya. The 2010 Constitution was therefore a breath of fresh air for the youth in Kenya as it acknowledges the distinctive role of the youth in the development of the country and provides avenues for their support and inclusion.

The youth-related provisions in the current Constitution are far-reaching. Notably, it substantively mentions the word ‘youth’ nine times. The Constitution in Article 21 acknowledges the youth as a vulnerable group in the society. Under Article 27, it recognizes age as one of the bases in which discrimination by the state or individual is prohibited. This is a development from the former Constitution as abovementioned, as it left out age from its anti-discrimination clause. The youth are recognized as a special interest group in addition to children, persons with disabilities, older members of the society and minority/marginalized groups. Each of these groups have an exclusive Article in the law addressing its issues. For the youth, it is Article 55 which obligates the state to take measures such as developing affirmative action programmes to ensure that the youth is able to access relevant education and training, are protected from harmful cultural practices and exploitation and have opportunities to associate, be represented and participate in political, social, economic spheres of life and access employment. Additionally, to ensure diversity and youth representation, the law creates special seats for the youth in the national assembly, the senate and the county assembly.

Without a doubt, the youth have heavily been provided for by the Constitution. The drafters made sure to include the youth in the development agenda of the country. In as much as these hard law provisions are important, their actualization bears more weight as it translates into the transformation of systems and lives in favour of the targeted group. The last ten years have been a window for the implementation of the constitutional provisions of the youth. A look into the systems developed to ensure execution of these provisions reveals significant advancement since the promulgation of the Constitution. Nonetheless, more needs to be done to bring to life the constitutional agenda for the youth in the country.

The government and other interest groups such as civil society organizations have formulated enabling policies, institutions and legislation to flesh out and operationalize the constitutional provisions. Youth policies have time and again been set up to promote youth participation in community and civic affairs and to ensure that youth programmes are youth-centered. The policy proposes guidelines and strategies that can be used to facilitate participation of the youth in national development. In addition, the State Department for Youth, under the umbrella of the Ministry of Public Service, Youth and Gender was established in 2018 and is mandated to manage the youth policy, youth empowerment, mainstreaming youth in national development, among others.

The Kenya Youth Development Policy is also among the execution machinery instituted to provide an opportunity for improving the quality of life for Kenyan youth through their participation in economic and democratic processes as well as in community and civic affairs. At the apex of all youth activities in the country is the National Youth Council which acts as an advisory, research and policy institution on youth affairs in the country. The special seats created by the Constitution have increased the number of youth in legislative and political positions. In addition, several funds have been set up for the purposes of affirmative action such as the Youth Enterprise Development Fund and the Uwezo Fund.

Form the above, it is evident that the government through its various agencies has attempted to ensure the furtherance of the constitutional aspirations for the Kenyan youth. However, despite these efforts, gaps still exists between the expectations of these laws and policies and the reality of the lives of the youth in the country. A recent report done by Siasa Place reveals that a majority of the youth from all the counties overwhelmingly agreed that the Constitution is not being adequately implemented. This finding is unsurprising given the state the tenth anniversary of the Constitution finds the Kenyan youth bulge. The main menaces that the youth is still grappling with is unemployment, lack of skills, drug addiction, poverty and the general quality of life of the youth is deteriorating. The cracks in these systems are attributed to the weak transparency and accountability mechanisms, inadequate funding, fragmented approach and lack of coordination, inadequate research and analysis of the youth issues, inadequate youth participation, weak institutional framework and weak monitoring, reporting and evaluation framework. Further, the youth who have secured seats in parliament tend to co-op into elite politics and neglect the issues of the youth.

Evidently, since the promulgation of the Constitution, actions targeting the improvement of the quality of the lives of the youth in Kenya have been taken. However, the current situation is not reflective of these actions due to several factors. It is therefore high time that these implementation measures are brought to book to ascertain the lacunas that exist and identify their solutions. For instance, the development of State Department for Youth as an independent entity or a ministry on its own so that it solely deals with issues of the youth. Also the youth should not be treated as a homogenous group as this tends to overshadow the needs of the different groups of youth with special needs such as youth with disability, youth from marginalized communities and young women. Other solutions include the enhancement of transparency and accountability mechanisms, development of an effective monitoring, reporting and evaluation framework and allocation of adequate and sustained budgets.

It is becoming quite clear that the youth are the leaders of today. The likes Greta Thunberg, the global voice on climate change; Malala Yousafzai, a champion for girl’s and women’s education; our own Boniface Mwangi, Janet Mbugua , Denis Nzioka and many other young people are evidence of that fact. The youth are becoming agile protagonists of their own development and the world they want to exist in. Needless to say, engaging the youth population fully is no longer a choice but an imperative in the development process. It is therefore paramount that the loopholes to the implementation of the Constitution with regards to the youth are addressed so that Kenya can begin to wholly benefit from the contribution of its youthful population.

Article first published on The Youth Café website.