Having seen the darkest sides of humanity, Kelly Rwigi is no longer in doubt as to what evils people are capable of.
She has rescued a lot of children from their defilers, who she says are regular, everyday people who walk among us, people one would never suspect of the heinous things they do behind closed doors.
“Paedophiles are people we know. Just last Saturday I saw one who has impregnated a Standard Seven girl. By looking at him you can’t tell,” she says. “I deal with them in court. They get pleasure from seeing a child in pain.”
That is far from the worst case Kelly has had to handle. She has 72 children under her programme. She has seven children in her house, only one of whom is her biological child. The rest are children she has rescue from sexual abuse in Tharaka Nithi County, where she is based. Listening to her tell their stories is gut-wrenching.
“My last born is seven years old,” she says. “A 37-year-old man was defiling him. He was in the care of his grandmother who has dementia so she did not even recognise him. Paedophiles always do their homework very well and know which children are vulnerable. He never had anything to eat, so the man would defile him and then give him Sh20 to buy food.”
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By the time she discovered the boy, he had such severe injuries from being defiled that he couldn’t walk properly. She found out about him while giving a talk at the boy’s school and noticed that he had a curious walking style. His teacher had also noticed this but thought he was just sick.
“He told me his neighbour had been defiling him. He had been defiling two other boys as well but they were afraid of talking about it, and it turned out it was because he had told them that if they ever said anything he would kill them,” she says.
Rwigi took the boy in as her own, sought justice for him and the abuser is now serving life in prison.
While she was able to get that particular offender imprisoned, she says that in her experience, more than 70 per cent of offenders never serve jail time.
“I would not be surprised if I met the ones who abused my other children in town today. They are usually arrested today and tomorrow, they are free,” she says. “The Children’s Rights Act is very tough but by the time they should be going to jail the process is very compromised. Sometimes, all the (suspects) have to do is give the family of the victim some money so that they never appear in court, so while the perpetrator goes to court, there is no evidence to prosecute them.”
It is one reason she continues with her campaign to speak with children and their parents to prevent it from happening in the first place.
Where it all started
She did not set out to rescue abused children at first. Her motivation to speak with students came from her own story, because she had experienced first-hand what it meant to have one’s whole life upended by an unplanned early pregnancy.
“I was not even as young as they are, so if it was that difficult for me then, what is it like for them?” she says.
“I grew up in the village, and was also the First Born, so it was really paramount to me to be a role model and I was. I was in a good school, Chogoria Girls High School, a national school, so no one could have imagined that I of all people would get pregnant before the right time.
“But immediately I finished high school, I met a guy and got pregnant. He was a violent person and he left when the baby was three months old. I had to move to Kibera. I survived by washing people’s clothes,” she says.
Her life was a living nightmare at that point. She also experienced severe post-partum depression. Against all odds, she eventually went back home, went back to school and got corporate jobs working for Safaricom, AccessKenya and Resolution Insurance at different points.
But something always gnawed at her. While at her lowest, she had told God that if he saw her through, she would help other women who found themselves in her situation. She had been doing mentorship programmes with girls by that point but one day she decided to quit her job at Safaricom and focus on doing that.
“Principals in schools were very open to it. I really gelled with the kids and they started opening up to me,” she says.
After her talks at school, with the assurance of confidentiality, girls would share with her harrowing stories of defilement by people in their lives – neighbours, cousins, uncles, even their own fathers. That was how she got a glimpse at the abuse that children in Kenya go through.
“It was like opening a can of worms,” she says.
She would take action where she could and word spread in Tharaka Nithi. “When cases happened in villages they would call me. So under the organisation I formed two years ago, Enlightened Generation International, I would train them on how to spot and prevent these cases and what to do when it happened. I would seek medical treatment for defiled kids within the 72 hours that it needs to happen,” she says.
Reality on the ground
On paper, Kenya is a safe haven for children, with harsh penalties meted out to sex offenders. A police unit dedicated to fighting child sexual abuse and exploitation was launched in Nairobi in October 2016.
The Government also developed the first National Plan of Action against Sexual Exploitation of Children in 2013, followed by another National Plan of Action for 2018 to 2022.
In reality, the situation is grim and getting worse. One in three girls and one in five boys in Kenya have been victims of sexual violence before the age of 18, according to a 2015 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).
Kelly says abuse cases skyrocketed with the Covid-19 pandemic, as victims were locked in with their abusers.
The police are poorly trained to handle child abuse cases and there is also a lack of awareness among people in communities over such cases. In fact, law enforcement is so poor that Kenya is a destination of choice for the vilest kind of tourism – child sex tourism, as reported by The Independent, a newspaper in the United Kingdom.
Kelly says that offenders are usually people that the children know. “Parents tell children to avoid people they do now know, yet they don’t tell them that the people in the house should not touch them in certain places,” says Kelly.
People also need to be keen so that they can know if abuse is happening, she says. “Most victims are groomed to never say anything. Grooming can be positive or negative. If your child is getting a lot of gifts from someone, you should be keen as to why,” says Kelly.
Risks to her well being
Having to deal with so much violence against children must take its toll, I ask, to which she agrees. She has even been threatened over the work she does.
“I see a psychologist. I have taught myself how to cry instead of bottling it all in like I used to. It also comforts me to see them playing, knowing what they have been through. It helps me sleep at night,” she says.
Her own son is now 13 years old and he also treats the other children as siblings. “When they are all together it is as if they are all from the same mother and father,” she says. “We have a very close relationship. I was so touched the other day when we went to House of Leather and I was expecting him to pick items for himself, instead he only picked items for the rest of the children.”
She does not have a regular source of income but has managed to keep the work going with support from friends and the community.
“We had a mini-Christmas last Saturday with the Audi Fan Club Kenya. They gave eight of the children full scholarships!” she says excitedly. “That was the first time I saw a crowd coming to see the children. They really did a great job.”
Her biggest dream right now is to have a huge home in which she can accommodate all the children she has taken in. “I love children. Being able to rescue kids gives me a lot of fulfilment. For once I can say I am doing something I love.