For every group of 600 children, chances are that 100 of them have faced sexual abuse.
And out of every 100 victims of sexual abuse, only 12 reported the incidents.
This is according to a national study implemented by the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection in partnership with other stakeholders last year.
“Violence in childhood is all too common in Kenya, with about 50 per cent of children experiencing it in some form,” CDC Kenya Country Director Marc Bulterys said in July last year during the launch of the national study report.
Florence Ng’ata, a social worker in Nairobi, says she encounters many children who are victims of sexual abuse, but have never opened up to anyone.
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“Most parents assume it cannot happen to their children, and if it did, they would know. Sadly, most of them (children) do not (report). These children are always looking for a place to let out the pain and confusion,” she said.
Despite numerous cases and warnings about increased violence on children, anecdotal reports indicate that much more must be done to improve the interventions that would create a safe space for children.
Kemunto, a victim, says the images of abuse have remained long after the incident.
She remembers sitting on a bench along the corridors at a police station, waiting for an officer to talk to her about what had happened. A neighbour had sexually molested her, and they were pursuing justice.
“The wait at the police station was the worst. People would stop to question my mother who had accompanied me. She kept mumbling that a demonic act had happened. It was terrible. When we went back home, I remember crying, not so much about being abused, but the treatment I had got after,” she says.
It has been four years since she was abused on her way from school. She was 15 years and says her life changed forever.
“One police officer came and requested that I follow her. I felt like a criminal. She asked so many questions. My heart was beating but she kept asking and accusing me of not helping them. It was my first time at a police station and everything felt strange,” she says. From that day, she says, she became self-conscious and a sense of guilt engulfed her.
Many other victims on an online page set up by a rape survivor for victims to speak anonymously told of the horror encounters at the gender desk that was supposed to be among their first point of trauma counselling.
“I remember one of the police officers saying she was tired of girls who threw themselves at men and come to complain about being abused,” said one of the survivors.
The State Department for Social Protection admits that they are aware of the mistreatment of some victims of abuse in police stations.
“We have asked our county and sub-county children officers to provide training to them (police officers) especially through the Area Advisory Councils,” said Principal Secretary for Social Protection Nelson Marwa.
He added that the ministry has developed a child protection workforce curriculum to include officers manning the gender desks.
But child rights activists are not convinced that the government is doing enough. They say equipping the gender desk and increasing social workers has been a never-ending song that yields no results.
“We keep getting statistics of rising cases. Children being abused by people known to them and not much is done,” says Mwanaisha Ali.
She says most social workers do not make an effort to go beyond waiting for victims to approach them. And the ones who are vocal are so few that they barely have an impact.
Marwa says Child Protection Volunteers (CPV) work on pro bono basis as a way of giving back to the society, but they have been experiencing a challenge during Covid-19 period when majority of people have lost their livelihoods.
“We have partnered with organisations to financially support and train CPV in some counties. Unicef is currently offering financial support to 318 CPV in Garissa, Tana River, Wajir, Marsabit, Isiolo, Mandera, Migori, Kisii, Samburu, West Pokot, Turkana and Baringo, as well as Homa Bay and Mombasa,” he says.
Ali wonders why the ministry has never come up with a comprehensive budget to pay for well trained social workers who can address issues surrounding the welfare of the child effectively. She notes that there is a lacklustre attitude in addressing child abuse, and the government has pushed the burden to donors and people who are not trained to handle trauma or even identify basic signs of a child in distress.
“Child welfare is treated as an issue that only NGOs should handle. The government forgets that these children are the ones who will take over this country. They are ignored and treated as if they do not matter,” she says.
Legally, many cases on child abuse hit a dead end due to the length of time it takes to follow them up, coupled with loopholes in the justice system.
A woman whose 10-year-old niece was defiled in Kawangware explained that even though they had documents from a Nairobi hospital to prove defilement, the man was set free as police stations claimed cells were full and they did not want to expose people to coronavirus.
“The case was ongoing yet the man was free. He knew where the child lived and we feared that he might harm her. We resorted to locking the child at home. Despite being abused and her reproductive organs damaged, she is the one who ended up being ‘locked up’,” she said amidst tears.
Marwa says they have a mechanism to follow up cases of child abuse, but it may take long due to the processes involved.
“Once a case is received in the Department of Children Services, it is immediately entered in our Child Protection Information Management System. The system is able to identify pending and completed cases. We have officers who analyse the cases at the national level and follow up for cases which may take a long time,” he says.
Late last year, Martha Sunda, director of Childline Kenya, an organisation that works with government to stop child abuse, painted a grim picture on the number of children who reported sexual abuse.
“Since the setting up of the Child Helpline in Kenya, the highest reported form of child abuse was consistently neglect. This narrative has changed with the onset of Covid-19. In this season, defilement cases have skyrocketed, accounting for at least 63 new cases reported every month. This is alarming,” Sunda said.
Even though there are laws and policies meant to protect children, the implementation is poor with most victims saying the lack of legal and psychological assistance is the greatest challenge.
“Some victims never get justice because the cases drag on and the victims are too poor to keep travelling to court, so they let go. But the bitterness remains in their hearts,” said Stella Njoki, a lawyer.
The ministry says it has started implementing the National Prevention and Response Plan to End Violence Against Children 2019-2023 and has several strategies that involve a number of agencies.