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Rising child exploitation a tragedy in the Covid-19 era

By Irungu Houghton | April 25th 2020 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

I experienced a bold act of empathy between children last week. There may be huge class differences between the nation’s children, but our children always have the possibility of powerful acts of solidarity. 

Barely three nights into the 7pm-5am curfew, 13-year-old Yassin Hussein Moyo was standing with his younger siblings and mother on the third floor balcony of his family home. In the streets below, tension between residents and police spiralled into cat-and-mouse chases, tear-gas and some stone-throwing. The Moyo family were peacefully watching this from their home balcony. A single shot from a single officer pierced his stomach and ripped the unarmed Yassin from his family. His and the deaths of at least 16 others across the country has dominated international news for three weeks now. 

Last Friday, I received an unsolicited invitation from a local school to help a class of eight-year olds with their #PolitePolicing class project. I faced 20 minutes of straight questions how this could have happened. After a short discussion of what adults and children could do to prevent it from reoccurring, students elected to write letters to Yassin’s family and the police inspector general. Delivering the letters to Yassin’s family and reading the inspector general’s letter in a television panel with the police spokesperson this week was deeply emotional. 

Taking the children’s letters from Kilimani Ward to Kiamaiko Ward takes less than 25 minutes. While only 16 kilometres apart, the lived experiences of Yassin and his six siblings in Kiamaiko and the Kilimani letter writers could not be more striking. The session that generated the letters took place on a virtual video-conference platform and electricity held throughout. These children have been able to continue remote learning and often hang out by themselves in a kind of virtual playground with their friends.

In the late Yassin’s neighbourhood, data costs are exorbitant, digital devices are scarce and the constant blackouts makes the government’s ‘out of the classroom’ home-schooling project virtually impossible. Since the closure of schools, children have returned to the homes and streets of the nine villages of Kiamaiko. 

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As the meat packing district of Nairobi City, Kiamaiko is what Manhattan was for New York in the 1960s. Most of Kiamaiko survives on casual labour and daily wages tied to the meat markets. Parents now face challenges of finding three meals for their children a day when they used to only do this twice a day before the schools closed. Despite this, some parents continue to invest their precious resources in tutors for their children, especially those in Form Four. 

As their parents lose their jobs, children are turning to the butcheries, begging and petty crime for as little as Sh100 a day to feed themselves and their families. Thayu village still has no water despite commitments by the Council of the Governors and Water ministry. Orphans, persons with disabilities and the elderly have started receiving the Sh2,000 cash transfers but it barely scratches the many that need support right now. 

Child defilement has tripled and domestic violence multiplied from five cases a month to 20 since Covid-19 according to Kiamaiko Social Justice Centre human rights defender Rahma ‘Mama Rahma’ Wako. After the death of Yassin, Mama Rahma offered to escort police officers to encourage residents to remain indoors during the curfew. The violence has reduced since those early days of the curfew.

Some 17.8 million learners have been out of educational facilities since mid-March. The pandemic is hitting the families of daily labourers and the informal settlements hardest. Whereas the health impact of CovidD-19 may spare most of our infants, children and youth, we must prepare to pre-empt its secondary impact. There is another silent curve. This is the curve of rising child labour, sexual exploitation and violence. 

We should hold to Education CS George Magoha’s hope that schools will reopen before the end of June. To breathe life to this hope, we should all exercise vigilance and act within the public health guidelines. This includes stopping covidiots using hearses, ambulances and holding house parties to break curfew and violate movement restrictions. 

Last week’s empathetic act reminds me that adults often infantilise children. In so doing, we deny their ability to connect with important moments. We ignore their maturity to judge right from wrong. Tragically, we deny them the ability to act empathetically. The nation can learn a thing or two from those Kilimani kids. If eight-year olds are not helpless, then no one is helpless. 

-The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. The views are personal. [email protected]

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