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The fears that plague Ugandan girls in Nairobi's shadowy streets

By Sirajurahman Abdullahi | August 2nd 2021

The busy streets of Eastleigh in Nairobi are deserted by the time the clock strikes 10pm and the curfew begins.

But soon after, from the shadows of alleyways and buildings, comes loud singing and the stomping of feet.

It can sound quite threatening. And it is meant to be.

These bursts of sound come from a group of girls who seem unaware of the existence of any regulations to curb the spread of Covid-19.

But joyful as the singing may sound, they are not celebrating anything. Far from it. This group is homeless and the nighttime ritual helps them combat their fear of the dark, cold and the aggressors lurking in the shadows with them.

And when they drift too close to residential houses, they are doused with cold water in an attempt to keep them quiet. However, they have faced bigger horrors on these streets than the splash of water on cold nights, so they move away but do not dare go silent.

The suffering

The all-female group, aged between 10 and 25, came to Kenya from Karamajong, a semi-arid district in neighbouring Uganda. Today, they call a dumpsite in Eastleigh home.

“Please don’t take pictures and share on social media. I don’t want my mother to know that I’m suffering in Kenya,” one of the girls told The Standard when we spoke to the group as the world marked the World Day against Trafficking in Persons last Friday.

These women and girls were lured into Kenya on the promise of finding jobs as househelps.

But when Covid-19 struck, they joined an estimated 1.6 million Kenyans who found themselves without work. But unlike their counterparts, the Karamajong girls were jobless in a foreign country and had nowhere and no one to run to. The streets were their only haven.

A majority of these girls are aged below 18 and were trafficked. They were sold at Arapai market in Uganda to the highest bidder. They were then taken to Kampala to beg as they waited for transport to Eastleigh, Nairobi. Their earnings were kept by the traffickers.

They are among the victims of modern-day slavery, a complex and hidden crime that affects every country, either as a point of origin, transit or destination for victims. For the Karamajong girls, once they get to Kenya, they are placed in bureaus or brothels. They work for a pittance, and send most of what they earn back home.

A smaller proportion of these girls came to Nairobi to escape early marriages, while others wanted a taste of the inspirational stories they heard from friends or relatives who work in Kenya and were helping their families back in the village. But the reality of Kenya for this group has been nothing like the picture painted for them.

They are among hundreds of others like them who are languishing in pain, having been raped, beaten, starved and frustrated by life here. And their plight is known to the government.

In fact, in January last year, Kenya and Uganda collaborated to raid a major meeting point for suspected human traffickers of Karamojong girls in Shauri Moyo, Nairobi.

Rescued girls

They rescued 102 girls and transported them home. Among those who were rescued was Esther Nakiru, 30. However, she was unable to come to terms with her repatriation, and a few months later, she snuck back into Kenya.

“I was taken to Moroto where my mother lives. Everyone was looking to me for daily bread, school fees, rent and to meet medical bills, yet I was not earning any money there. It was very hard to cope. That was why I decided to come back to Kenya,” Nakiru told The Standard.

Last year, KTN News aired an investigative documentary on the plight of some Karamajong girls who had been sold and trafficked to Kenya.

Following the exposé, there was an outpouring of support, with the Forum for Women in Development, Democracy and Justice (FWDDJ) offering counselling and emergency assistance, and organising stakeholder meetings to deliberate on how to help the victims.

“I believe that the government could do better by providing different approaches and working with stakeholders, such as community-based organisations and other international agencies, to humanely address the plight of the Karamajong girls,” said Nancy Sitima, the executive director at FWDDJ.

But a year later, their situation remains as dire as it was back then; perhaps even more so now as Covid-19 ravages state and household finances. And increasingly, these girls on the streets are making desperate decisions in an effort to stay alive. Joyce is 17 and six months pregnant.

“Since I got pregnant, the guy does not want to be associated with me. We just met on the streets and he was taking care of me. But when I told him I was pregnant, he told me to get an abortion. However, I was not ready to take the risk. I don’t know what I will do after I give birth, but I don’t have a choice, I have to do something,” she said.

Many of her peers find themselves having to raise children borne of rape. When the singing and dancing ends and it is time to sleep, a new fear descends within the group: who will sleep on the edges of the huddle they get into to keep warm? You see, the girls at the end could fall prey to sex pests at any time of the night.

“One girl was raped just here as we all witnessed, but what could we do? We just leave them to finish with her for fear of being attacked ourselves. We brought her some water so she could wash herself, and then we went back to sleep,” says Mary, who ran away from her home in Moroto to escape early marriage.

The youngest girls are generally the safest as they sleep in the middle. According to a recent report by the Eastern Africa Child Rights Network, Stop the Traffik Kenya and Freedom Collaborative, there are more than 3,000 Karamajong workers in Nairobi alone, and most of them are in Eastleigh, Majengo, Pumwani, Pangani and Shauri Moyo.

Some of them have decent jobs; most have not been so lucky.

“The trafficking of Karamojong girls is still going on unabated mainly because we are have not yet managed to get hold of the serious traffickers,” said Mutuku Nguli, the Executive Director at Counter Human Trafficking Trust. 

Buy freedom

The motive for human traffickers is to make money, and there is a lot of it. According to the International Labour Organisation, the business generates an estimated Sh16 trillion worldwide each year.

This means the traffickers can afford to corrupt the system and buy their freedom when they need to.

Their victims, on the other hand, live a dog’s life. For instance, when the girls in the Eastleigh group get their  monthly period, they either bleed freely or reuse pads collected from garbage dumps.

“Some of the girls I have interacted with end up with infections because of this practice – they don’t know what diseases those used sanitary towels carry,” said Issa Kioko, a community health volunteer.

The government, in collaboration with NGOs, is working on a second phase of repatriating Karamajong girls. However, this time round, it is voluntary and open to anyone who wants go to home.

So far 33 girls have registered and are currently at a government safe house.

“We are coming up with a proper plan on how to rescue them and place them back in their country. We do not want to carry out an activity that will fail, or take them back and find there are no proper placement strategies back in Uganda. That is why we are giving them time to voluntarily agree to go back, and even go back to school,” said Mueni Mutisya, the head of the Anti-Human Trafficking and Child Protection Unit at the Directorate of Criminal Investigations.

Last year, Kenya identified 383 victims of trafficking, a majority of them adult females (176), followed by boys (104), girls (52) and adult males (51). This, however, was a 55 per cent drop from 2019 when 853 victims were identified.

Recruiters and traffickers have change their tactics and now target young people through online platforms and  social media following restrictions on movement brought on by Covid-19.

While governments are trying to crack down on the trafficking of persons, the fight is fraught with hurdles.

For instance, in Kenya, the Counter-Trafficking in Persons Act prescribes penalties of 30 years to life imprisonment, a fine of at least Sh30 million, or both, for perpetrators.

However, the law requires that states prove beyond doubt that the suspects trafficked the victims, which requires cross-border cooperation. This is not always available. 

As a result, law enforcers end up charging offenders with lesser crimes and the vice continues.

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