Parliamentarian in Focus: Senator Sylvia Mueni Kasanga (Kenya, she/her)
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Senator Sylvia Mueni Kasanga (she/her)
Nominated Member of Parliament in the Kenyan Senate, Vice Chairperson of the Senate Committee on Roads and Transportation; Member of the Kenyan SDG Caucus; and Member of the Lands, Environment and Natural Resources, and the Powers and Privileges Senate Committees.
In Kenya, statistics show that a fourth of the Kenyan population suffers, or has suffered from mental illness in their life. Yet, a stigma born onto mental health hinders the amount of people capable or willing to access professional help.
In this context, Senator Kasanga introduced the Mental Health (Amendment) Bill, 2018, to “provide for the prevention of mental illness, to provide for the care, treatment and rehabilitation of persons with mental illness; to provide for procedures of admission, treatment and general management of persons with mental illness”.
The bill introduces a framework proposal for a holistic approach to mental health, tackling mental illness prevention, reducing the impact of mental illness, facilitating recovery and reinsertion, and safeguarding the rights of people suffering from mental illness.
The amendment notably proposes the following edits:
In the first part of the bill is added to the National Government’s obligations, the duty to “provide the necessary resources” for the treatment of health care in national hospitals, and to coordinate the development of structured and systematic procedures and infrastructures tailored to mental health issues, including family-based support systems, rehabilitation programmes, and rights safeguarding.
At the County level, the amendment bill proposes similar measures to be designed and implemented in a country-specific way to complement the government’s obligations, in a bid to offer comprehensive and systematic support and prevention. Section 2D2 looks at implementing a structure for monitoring and accountability, by strengthening the role and responsibility of the county executive committee member to include advisory, evaluation, and reporting duties in collaboration with other relevant agencies.
The second part of the bill aims to strengthen the rights of persons with mental illness, protecting their rights as part of a community, but also their rights to receive mental health services at their full potential, which includes considerations about the right to participate in the design of the treatment, and the right to access medical insurance.
Further amendments are also proposed in the bills, to protect the rights and increase the quality of treatment, for instance through judicial power measures.
The bill ties into SDG 3 ‘Ensure Healthy Lives and Promote Well-Being for all at all ages’.
Status of the bill:
The Bill was originally sponsored by the Senator in 2018 and was interrogated by Senate between May and June of 2019. Noting that the Kenyan Parliament is bi-cameral in nature, all legislative proposals have to be authorized by both levels of Parliament. To this end, the National Assembly declared the Bill as a “Money Bill” by declaring it should have originated for that level.
After various stages of mediation between the two Houses, the Bill was re-introduced back to Senate in early March 2021 of this year, and its being re-interrogated by the Senate Committee of Health.
With the rising number of mental health cases in Kenya execrated by the Covid-19 pandemic, Senator Kasanga is hopeful that both Parliaments shall fast-track processing of the Bill, and further hopes that debate in Senate shall commence this coming May 2021.
Find the original bill (in English) here: The Mental Health (Amendment) Bill, 2020
Communication and accountability
Senator Kasanga is also actively engaged outside the Senate room and liaises with stakeholders all across society to raise awareness on mental health conditions. She regularly uses her voice and influence to reduce the stigma that surrounds mental health in many countries, and that is the primary barrier to receiving adequate treatment.
For instance, one of these stakeholders is the Taskforce on Mental Health in Kenya, which produce recommendations for policy-makers (for an example of these recommendations, view their excellent report Mental Health and Wellbeing: Towards Happiness and National Prosperity (2020).
Senator Kasanga also took part in the writing of the book ‘The Many Faces of Mental Health in Kenya’, in which she advocates for community-based solutions. The book carries strong messages to different stakeholders such as the national and county governments, Parliament, mental health professionals, the media, and institutions of learning, with specific action points.
Especially relevant for Parliamentarians are the messages directed to Parliament and to the actors involved in the budgeting process:
Urgently amend the Mental Health Act, 1989. This law does not respond to developments in the health sector since the coming into force of the Constitution in 2010, in particular, the fact that health care is now a devolved function. The law also fails to recognize a person with a mental health condition as a holder of rights and an individual with agency. Ensure the active participation of people with mental health conditions in the law reform process.”
“To Various Actors Involved in the Budgeting Process
Prioritize mental health as a key area of concern, and allocate funding in ways that are aligned with human rights standards. Rather than building more institutional facilities on mental health, invest in community based mental health care, including aftercare services. Invest in wellness and support services in the community. Fund peer support groups.”