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Why ageism is a legitimate subject for human rights advocacy

Among contemporary Kenya’s ubiquitous problems has been added a constitutional crisis emanating from confusions in the judiciary. This has followed disagreements on the retirement age of judges.

Mr Enoch Opondo
Mr Enoch Opondo

It may not be prudent at this stage to discuss it in detail given that ‘it is a still a matter before the courts”. Nonetheless, it raises an important question related to discrimination.

Students of human society have identified the principal markers of social identity as being drawn along lines of class, race, sexuality, and gender. These, they argue, are the lines along which the processes of marginalization take place.

The precipitating factor usually is loss of power and authority with which those on the receiving end of marginalization can re-assert their position as equal to, if not better than, the marginalizers.

A lot of lobbying by various actors – local and international – has so far taken place. These are in an attempt to ameliorate marginalization along these lines, following contemporary consensus that discrimination goes against the grain of humanity.

The methods used include legislating and socially sanctioning discrimination based on these social markers, given that discrimination against a fellow human being is intrinsically viewed as bad. As a consequence, individuals and institutions practicing it in any form are viewed as criminals, politically incorrect, or simply anti-social.

Yet there is one social marker that is often ignored, even though all living things, save those that expire young, do cross the line into that category through natural processes. Let us call it ‘ageism’; that is, the process of growing older by the day until an organism is effectively defined as ‘old’.

In traditional societies, the aged commanded respect and a place of honour in society for they were viewed as ‘elders’ and sages whose graying heads held the wisdom of the community. But with the advent of rabid materialism and its culmination in the dog-eat-dog logic of neo-liberalism, those who are deemed to be diminished in terms of material productivity, are quickly swatted out of mainstream society.

The elderly find themselves in a very unenviable position. The age aspect of their identity is used as weapons to oppress and marginalize them. They are systematically disadvantaged, while simultaneously being told that these failings are entirely individual. This is often internalized as a sense of shame, and projected on to others as fear, leaving many older people feeling intense isolation.

All human society has effectively been organized into entities called states. Unfortunately, states the world over are some of the worst perpetrators of ageism. One such area is when states decide to decide on what is termed as the ‘retirement age’.

In Kenya the state has variously put the retirement age at forty-five years (voluntary), fifty-five, sixty, seventy, and seventy-four years for those employed in the various sectors of the public service at different time periods.

Incidentally, the political class; those who make policy by virtue of their position in state political leadership do not have a cap on the age limit. The implication is that making decisions for a country, say as a president, can be done by the elderly. Meanwhile, making decisions, say as a judge, cannot be done by the elderly.

This is not only illogically and unsupportable scientifically, but is also discriminatory. The citizenry is told that all are equal before the law, yet laws are made to discriminate on the basis of age.

Ageism leads to a person being made to believe that they are no longer useful and a burden to society, possibly only fit for the grave. A highly trained professional all over sudden becomes moribund.

As we stated above, Kenya is not the only culprit. But the current constitutional crisis in the country emanating from the judiciary could have easily been avoided had the jurisprudence of those who had written the constitution not led them to arbitrarily decide that judges should retire at seventy.

While still on the subject, it must also be pointed out that age-ism also affects those who are adjudged ‘minors’. It used to be twenty-one years; then it was reduced to eighteen. Some Western societies have reduced it to sixteen years. Yet others are contemplating putting the majority age at fourteen. The argument is that people are maturing early.

So, whereas in some states a sixteen-year-old can legally consume alcohol and tobacco, get married and even vote, in others they have to wait until they are twenty-one. One thing emerges from the chaos caused by age-ism: discrimination which should be addressed by advocates of human rights.

By Enoch Opondo,
Projects Consultant,
Global Education and Development Organization,

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