Experiences of childhood have significantly changed as more and more children are ushered in to the brutal world of sexual, physical and psychological violence.
Statistics now show that for a significantly high number of abused children, the initial age of abuse has been reported to be between six and 12 years.
Even worse is the fact that the perpetrators are rarely punished which has inspired other potential offenders. According to experts, a majority of these children are abused by people they know, including parents and guardians.
While years gone by children were cushioned from traumatic experiences by parents as well as the society at large, this is no longer the case. Take the case of Sara* for instance, she is only six years old and her life has been changed irrevocably. She had been left under the care of her uncle when the unthinkable happened.
“He defiled her and it is not the first time. We first noticed there was a problem when she completely withdrew. She was originally very talkative
and active,” explains Sara’s mother.
But on questioning her, Sara kept mum. It later emerged that the uncle had threatened to slit her mother’s throat if she spoke out against him.
Perry Njeri, a child psychologist, explains that these are some of the tactics perpetrators of violence use to abuse children and buy their silence.
“They threaten them with violence and those that the child in question holds near and dear,” notes Njeri.
Nairobi Women’s Hospital, which has a gender based violence and recovery centre (GBVRC) receives at least 18 cases of rape and incest daily. A majority of these cases, according to the hospital, occur in homes.
The Nairobi Women Hospital Gender Violence Recovery Centre (2013) study shows that an estimated 64 per cent of gender based violence cases occur in the survivor’s home.
Other statistics by the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) Kenya, as well as the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS) 2009 show that a quarter of girls aged 12 and 24 were forced into their first sexual encounter. Even more worrying is that just like Sara, an estimated 60 percent of these girls reported that the first abuse occurred when they were between six and 12 years.
Gender experts such as Suzie Nyambane note that the figures are by no means representative of the situation on the ground. “These figures
have only scratched the surface and it is worse in urban informal settlements,” says Nyambane.
She adds: “Scores of girls have been scarred for life, they grow up afraid, with very skewed perceptions of men and even sex. Some even become pregnant without even comprehending what was done to them.”
However, it is emerging that boys are also on the receiving end of sexual violence. “They are sodomised and scarred for life,” explains Njeri.
According to Nyambane, there is need to revamp awareness campaigns around violence against children by integrating it within school curriculum.
“One of the reasons why violence against children goes largely unreported is because the children do not realise that what has been done to them is wrong. Children should be raised with the awareness that certain parts of their bodies are private.”
Gender activists claim that the ‘village’ has abandoned children. Gone are the days when children belonged to the society.
“In instances where a child has been violated, you will find that some neighbours knew and turned a blind eye. We need to revisit the values that we once held and embrace children like they belong to all of us,” notes Njeri.
She says that it is unfortunate that children are generally not safe. “They are unsafe on the playground, in schools and even worse, at home.”
Nyambane says that since violence against children is underreported, available data downplays the extent and degree of the problem.
For instance, according to KDHS 2008-2009, only about 12 percent of women who had been assaulted either physically or sexually reported the incident to an authority.
“Even fewer cases involving children are reported,” reiterates Nyambane.
The road to justice has never been more difficult. Community health workers who are constantly confronted by incidents of violence against
children at the community level are particularly concerned over the many loopholes that make prosecuting such cases difficult.
Some of the hurdles include the requirement that one produces a birth certificate during the legal proceedings.
Nyambane says that cases involving children are often presented by outsiders, particularly community health workers. “They do not have the child’s birth certificate and it is usually with a parent or guardian who is often unwilling to proceed with the case, or is the perpetrator.”
However, Njeri says that in spite of the legal hurdles involved, there is need for the society, through various platforms such as the chief’s baraza and County governments to establish safety mechanisms for children.
“Some children are forced into hard labour, especially those who have survived their parents, others into early marriages, others are defiled even before they are out of their diapers, this must stop,” Njeri notes.
This article was originally published in the 16 Days Special newspaper: