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Power to the People: Using Community Paralegals to Promote Inclusion in Digital IDs in Kenya

#GoodID Awards Community Champion, Yussuf Bashir, is the Executive Director and a founder of Haki na Sheria Initiative, a human rights organization working in northern Kenya

The Kenyan government has created a system that has for decades discriminated against minorities.

The structural obstacles, including vetting processes and demands for documents that other Kenyans are not required to produce, ensure that many Kenyan Somalis, Nubians, and other minorities are turned away when applying for government IDs.

They are thus marginalized and excluded from activities and government services accorded to “Kenyans” only.

The denial of Kenyan citizenship documents has far-reaching consequences. Without a government ID, one cannot access schools, government services, open bank accounts, or travel.

Haki na Sheria Initiative (HSI) was established by young human rights defenders who, based on personal experience of discrimination, wanted to set up a platform for the Kenyan Somali community to learn about their rights and demand justice and equality

HSI is based in Garissa on the Kenyan border with Somalia and has been working on combatting discriminatory practices, such as vetting. We have done so by empowering young community activists and training them as paralegals since 2010.

HSI has also assisted more than 10,000 community members in obtaining birth certificates, death certificates, and government IDs.

In the last couple of years, the debate about citizenship in Kenya has shifted into the digital arena with the introduction of the National Integrated Identity Management System (‘NIIMS’).

Through NIIMS, the Kenyan government has sought to digitize identity management and, consequently, the delivery of services to Kenyan citizens.

However, the government has launched this system without addressing the challenges, privacy issues or lack of proper engagement with citizens whose rights are directly impacted by this system.

Instead of simplifying access to documents and government services, NIIMS has further marginalized already discriminated communities and left many without the ability to obtain nationality documents.

Yussuf Bashir was voted winner in the #GoodID Awards accountability category

Haki Na Sheria has been engaged in raising awareness about the pitfalls of NIIMS, its impact on the rights of citizens and ongoing discrimination.

Firstly, HSI played a pivotal role in the landmark litigation that challenged the legality of the NIIMS system.* The High Court ruled that the government cannot implement NIIMS without putting in place a proper and comprehensive regulatory framework to protect the security of the data and safeguard minorities from discrimination.

Secondly, HSI alongside other grassroots organizations have engaged with marginalized communities to raise awareness about NIIMS and participated in government forums to ensure that the voices of Kenyan Somalis in this debate are heard and not muted.

Haki na Sheria therefore explicitly approaches digital rights from the viewpoint of the exclusion of marginalized groups and seeks to ensure that the transition to a digital world - in which the government collects data and provides IDs based on digital databases - leaves no one behind.

* Its founder was the lead counsel for the petitioner in the case.