Queues of elderly persons receiving cash transfers in recent weeks brought sharp relief to Kenya’s efforts to address poverty and socio-economic vulnerability among marginalised populations and their families, factors that drive and contribute to child sexual exploitation and abuse in poor and marginalised communities.
The Inua Jamii cash transfer programme complements the presidential school bursary scheme to increase enrolment, attendance, and completion rates for secondary school orphans and vulnerable children. Additionally, the National Assistance Trust Fund has been deployed to identify, assist and compensate victims of human trafficking while pursuing the prosecution of perpetrators. There is a toll-free number, Child Helpline 116, for reporting sexual exploitation and abuse and providing Tele counselling services.
Commendable as these initiatives are, the Out of the Shadows Index 2022 - a report card on how 60 countries address child sexual exploitation and abuse - ranks Kenya poorly on its support systems and recovery as well as judiciary processes. An inadequate support and recovery system is the soft underbelly of Kenya’s otherwise praiseworthy attempts to tackle child sexual abuse. For a long time, child sexual exploitation and abuse have occurred in secrecy and have been associated with shame and stigma, allowing the violence to continue.
Poverty and socio-economic and gender-based inequalities are the key drivers of child sexual exploitation and abuse in many communities in Kenya. Although cash transfers to vulnerable people and their families tackle part of the problem, national strategies and programmes to address the root causes and drivers of child sexual exploitation and abuse are not reaching grassroots communities and support organisations. Better coordination with grassroots organisations, civil society, and the private sector is required.
Many cases go unreported because survivors are afraid of being stigmatised, blamed, or not believed by law enforcement. This hinders their access to justice and recovery support, and also undermines efforts to ensure accountability of perpetrators. Evidence suggests that most children are sexually exploited or abused by people they know and that perpetrators are often from within their own families. Survivors who disclose sexual exploitation and abuse may not be believed and are likely to get physically abused. Those who report such abuse are often sent back to the same homes where the abuse happens or forced to live in the same community as their abusers.
Many institutional and social support systems for survivors of child sexual exploitation and abuse are ineffective or are not child-friendly. So far, government efforts have focused on increasing awareness of child sexual exploitation and abuse through collaboration between the Ministry of Education and various schools and community-based organisations. County Children Offices and Sub-County Children Offices capture child registration information, background information, and child protection case forms, including case types, encounters, services, referrals, court sessions, court orders, and institution placements.
While government efforts are ongoing, evidence from the Survivors of Sexual Violence in Kenya Network suggests that the pandemic changed patterns of sexual violence against children, with victims now aged 12 on average, compared to 16 before. Forensic medical examiners at gender-based violence recovery centres also noted that survivors attending hospitals for sexual and gender-based violations during the pandemic were often below 16 years of age. Therefore, there is a need to shift prevention and protection strategies that embrace this younger cohort, primarily comprised of internet users who fall prey to online sexual predators.
With the use of digital technologies, many children are exposed to sexual predators while e-learning or making use of mobile devices. Kenya’s role as a technology hub in East Africa has led to disproportionate growth in the prevalence of online child sexual exploitation and abuse, including transnational organised crime such as sex trafficking and the production and distribution of child sexual abuse material. In 2020, between 5 and 13 percent of internet-using children in Kenya – aged 12 to 17 - reported experiencing sexual exploitation and abuse online, while 7 percent of internet-using children were offered money or gifts in return for sexual images or videos of themselves, subsequently shared with others.
The dissemination of online child sexual exploitation and abuse material is an incredibly sticky area for law enforcement because of online anonymity. Additionally, activities are often conducted through encrypted networks and on the ‘dark web.’ Although digital service providers and platforms are responsible for filtering, removing, and blocking content that contains child sexual exploitation and abuse, they have no obligation to monitor all content traffic. Sometimes, the techniques perpetrators employ outpace the capacity of government departments such as the police, prosecution and judiciary, while the multi-jurisdictional nature of online crime can affect how evidence is collected, stored and presented. But there’s hope. Kenya’s recent National Plan of Action to Tackle Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (2022-2026) seeks to tackle the evolving online setting. With this, an opportunity exists to collate evidence about online child sexual exploitation and abuse, including new forms of digital crime, and to provide guidance for officials on investigating and prosecuting such cases.
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Tsitsi is Global Lead, End Sexual Exploitation programme at Equality Now