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Unsung Heroes Breaking Down Barriers: How Paralegals are Promoting Democracy in Kenya

Kenyan female paralegals help to create a more just and equitable society.

This feature explains how paralegals play a critical role in promoting civic engagement and political participation in Kenya by providing legal assistance to individuals and communities, particularly those who are marginalised and cannot afford legal services

In any given platform, both offline and online, the female empowerment movement is stronger than ever especially in Africa. A quick scroll through social media shows the influence that the decades-long movement has had on women in Kenya, and in 2022, this was reflected in the political field as well.

In a recent interview with Janet Aseka and Assumpta Wangui Muiruri, two women deeply involved in politics, they shared their thoughts on the importance of civic education and youth involvement in leadership. Aseka, who has worked in a campaign for political candidates and helped people in her district access government necessities, highlighted the need to address gender inequality and discrimination against women and girls, as they face even greater barriers due to their gender, disabilities, or membership in minority groups. On the other hand, Muiruri emphasized the role of youth in fighting corruption, offering them leadership training, charging them with responsibility, giving them hope, and ensuring their representation in government. Both women believe that by empowering individuals and communities with civic knowledge, misconceptions about politics can be addressed and transformed into positive action for the betterment of society.

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The 2022 Kenyan election saw a 16 per cent increase in elective positions with women, which is the highest number to date. Before women become governors and presidential running mates, the journey starts at the community level. Some of the people facilitating a conducive environment for women to dare to dream are paralegals.

Paralegals play a critical role in promoting civic engagement and political participation in Kenya by providing legal assistance to individuals and communities, particularly those who are marginalized and cannot afford legal services. The Kenyan legal system can be complex and expensive, making it difficult for many people to navigate. Paralegals are trained professionals who offer legal advice, representation, and assistance with legal documents. They also educate people on their legal rights and how to access legal services, helping to bridge the gap between the legal system and those who need it the most.

Understanding the law is crucial for women’s political participation in Kenya as it empowers them to navigate the legal and regulatory frameworks that govern the political process. Kenya has made significant strides in promoting gender equality and women’s participation in politics, including the adoption of the Constitution of Kenya in 2010, which guarantees equal rights and opportunities for women in all spheres of life. However, the implementation of these laws and policies remains a challenge, and women continue to face significant barriers to accessing political power.

One of the important roles they play is in helping people understand their civic rights, especially during the electoral season.
One of the important roles paralegals play is in helping people understand their civic rights, especially during the electoral season. Photo/Courtesy CEDGG

One way in which paralegals can encourage political participation is by addressing the legal barriers that hinder women’s political participation. Women often face discrimination and violations of their rights, making it difficult for them to participate in politics. Cases of domestic violence, and discrimination hold women back from participating in political activities. Paralegals can help women understand their legal rights and provide legal remedies in case of discrimination or violation of their rights. They can also provide support to women who want to run for political office by helping them navigate the legal requirements and procedures for candidacy.

“Understanding the law is crucial for women’s political participation in Kenya”

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One of the important roles they play is in helping people understand their civic rights, especially during the electoral season. Elections are a critical time for any democracy, and it is essential that citizens are aware of their rights and the legal framework governing the electoral process.

During the electoral season, paralegals can help communities learn about their rights and responsibilities in the voting process. This includes educating citizens on voter registration requirements, voting procedures, and the rights and responsibilities of voters. They can also assist individuals in navigating election laws and regulations, including filing complaints and addressing issues of voter intimidation or suppression.

In fact, one of the best examples of how understanding the law can increase women’s political participation in Kenya is the case of Martha Karua, an advocate of the high court, former Member of Parliament Minister of Justice and a presidential running mate in the 2022 elections. In 2013, Karua ran for the position of Governor in Kirinyaga County, becoming the only female candidate in a field of eight contestants. Despite facing numerous challenges, including violence and intimidation, Karua persevered and campaigned tirelessly, leveraging her understanding of the law to challenge the patriarchal norms that often marginalize women in politics. Through her campaign, Karua mobilized women across Kirinyaga County, empowering them with knowledge of their rights and the legal tools available to them to challenge discrimination and inequality. Although she ultimately lost the election, Karua’s campaign inspired many women in Kenya to run for political office and empowered them with the knowledge and skills necessary to navigate the complex legal landscape of Kenyan politics. Martha Karua is a more accomplished example of how understanding the law could help to increase women’s participation in politics, women at grassroots levels are also putting in the work.

Paralegals help to identify and address any legal barriers that may prevent marginalized communities from exercising their right to vote. This includes providing legal assistance to individuals who have been disenfranchised, such as those who have been wrongly purged from voter rolls or those who have had their voting rights challenged.

In addition to providing legal assistance during the electoral season, paralegals can also work to educate communities on their broader civic rights and responsibilities. This includes providing legal advice on issues such as land rights, labour rights, and human rights, as well as helping individuals access legal remedies when their rights are violated.

These unsung heroes are essential in promoting access to justice and ensuring that citizens can participate fully in the democratic process. By helping people understand their civic rights and providing legal assistance, paralegals can help to promote a fair and inclusive electoral process, which is essential for a vibrant and thriving democracy.

In addition to providing legal assistance, paralegals can also empower women by providing them with legal knowledge and skills to advocate for their rights, challenge discriminatory policies and practices, and engage in civic activities. This can lead to increased confidence and leadership skills, which are essential for women to take an active role in politics.

Training for paralegals is crucial to ensure they possess the necessary skills to handle legal cases effectively. An effective paralegal must possess applied skills during case assessment and handling, referrals, the ability to interpret the law and applications, and be able to apply the terms of reference (TOR).

However, misconceptions about the role of paralegals still exist within some communities. It is essential to educate people about the valuable role that paralegals play in promoting access to justice and civic engagement. Paralegals in Kenya stay updated with the law changes through interacting with the Court in the department of AJS panellists and utilizing online sources such as Google.

Jane Muthoni, a female paralegal, expressed how as a community social worker, she had come across many cases of injustices that were not addressed due to a lack of information and ignorance regarding legal matters. She felt obligated to give legal aid by working as a female paralegal. She has been providing counselling and legal aid, assisting victims in follow-up issues, and empowering women with knowledge and information as far as community matters are concerned.

Paralegals are an integral part of the Kenyan legal system, working to ensure that access to justice is available to all, regardless of their financial or social status. By providing legal assistance, educating communities, and promoting civic engagement, paralegals help to create a more just and equitable society.

However, misconceptions about the role of paralegals still exist within some communities, with some viewing them as competitors to the chief’s work, while others believe that they can solve all problems once they are involved. Ogeto’s experience with a defilement case, where the perpetrator was his neighbour, highlights the potential personal risks associated with this profession. To stay updated with the law changes, paralegals in Kenya use a variety of resources, including interacting with the Court in the department of AJS panellists and utilising online sources such as Google.

Maryanne Wanjiku, another female paralegal, also expressed the importance of paralegals in the Kenyan legal system. She believes that their role has to do with family law, particularly marital issues, separation and divorce, and succession. Wanjiku noted that women are often disadvantaged due to their gender, which is compounded by factors such as poverty, leading to issues such as gender-based violence, particularly domestic violence. She has dealt with several cases of sexual gender-based violence, where she has had to first seek medical support, advise the victim to report the case, and assist in separating the parties involved with a written agreement on their responsibilities.

According to the 2019/2020 Annual Report by the National Legal Aid Service (NLAS), paralegals play a critical role in the provision of legal aid services in Kenya. The report notes that there are currently over 4,000 paralegals operating in the country, with most of them located in rural areas. These paralegals provide legal aid services to the most vulnerable populations, particularly women, children, and persons with disabilities. The report also highlights the need for continued training and support for paralegals to improve the quality of their services.

Community organizations such as the Center for Enhancing Democracy for Good Governance (CEDGG)  in Nakuru carry out programmes to equip paralegals with the skills and knowledge to handle issues on the grassroots level. In 2019, the organisation set up a legal aid centre to provide a physical station for people from all walks of life to seek help from. The centre has an on-location advocate and a paralegal to engage with people who need legal help.

A report by Kituo Cha Sheria, a legal aid organization in Kenya, further highlights the importance of paralegals in the country. The report notes that paralegals have been instrumental in providing legal aid services to marginalized communities, particularly those living in informal settlements. The report highlights the work of paralegals in addressing land disputes, succession issues, and gender-based violence cases. It also emphasizes the need for increased funding and support for paralegal programs to ensure that more people have access to legal aid services.

In conclusion, paralegals play a vital role in ensuring access to justice for all in Kenya. Their work is particularly important in marginalized communities, where access to legal aid services is limited. With the continued recognition of the importance of paralegals, increased training, and support, their impact on the legal system in Kenya is likely to continue to grow.

This article is part of the African Women in Media (AWiM) /Luminate Young Women in Politics Programme

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