Center seeks justice for sexually abused children on Kenyan coast

After recovery from their sexual abuse trauma at the Pope Francis Rescue Center in Malindi, Kenya, the children are re-integrated back to their families after an assessment to ensure that they are not exposed to any further abuse. (Lilian Muendo)

On one sunny afternoon in a village near Malindi, a charming town lying on the Indian Ocean coast of Kenya, 4-year-old Mimi accompanied her uncle in his three-wheeled mototaxi to fetch water at the river. After filling their jerry cans, they headed back home. Along the way, Mimi's uncle attacked and abused her sexually. She bled profusely and by the time they arrived home, she was unconscious. The uncle told her parents they had been involved in an accident where Mimi was injured. Her parents rushed her to the hospital.

(Mimi's real name and those of other abused children in this story have been changed to protect their identities.)

Upon examination, the doctors reported that Mimi had been sexually abused. The hospital forwarded the report indicating sexual abuse to the police. Her father believes that the uncle is culpable but Mimi's mother sides with her brother.

Rather than returning Mimi directly to her family, where she could still be at risk, the police referred her to Pope Francis Rescue Center here. The Malindi Diocese started the center for young victims of sexual abuse in 2015 to ensure that they get the psychosocial support they need and that justice is served.

Child sex abuse is most rampant in the coastal region in Kenya. UNICEF estimated in 2006 that as many as 30 percent, or about 10,000-15,000, of girls ages 12-18 living in Kenya's coastal areas of Malindi, Mombasa, Kilifi and Diani are sexually exploited every year. UNICEF also estimates that a 10th of Kenyan children involved in sex work are initiated before reaching puberty.

According to a 2010 UNICEF study, 32 percent of females and 18 percent of males in Kenya suffer sexual violence prior to age 18. The true magnitude of sexual violence against children is unknown, due to underreporting. But in 2002, the World Health Organization estimated that globally at least 150 million girls and 73 million boys under 18 had experienced different forms of sexual violence.

Pope Francis Rescue Center has created an environment where children can play and heal memories of their abuse. (Lilian Muendo)

Fr. Bernard Malasi, child protection coordinator at the Malindi Diocese, links the rampant sexual child abuse to sex tourism.

"Kenya's coastal region attracts tourists from all over the world due to its beaches," said Malasi. "White tourists, especially from Europe, come here for sex."

"Families use their children to earn a better living by sending them to the beaches to meet tourists and thus sex has become casual," he explained. "So when the locals here abuse children, they have a mentality that it's not a big deal anyway, because the children are already having sex with old white tourists."

Although people blame international tourists for promoting sex tourism, Naomi Kazungu, manager at the governmental Malindi Child Protection Center, says more than 60 percent of the sexual abuse cases are due to parental neglect.

An average of 324 cases of child abuse are reported in Malindi every month, says Kazungu. Out of these cases, an average of 28, almost 9 percent, are sexual abuse incidents, though few cases are reported to the police. Nongovernmental organizations must rely on estimates rather than police figures because of the low reporting rate.

Sr. Matilda Baanuo, a Missionary Sister of Our Lady of Africa and the coordinator at Pope Francis Rescue Center, echoes Kazungu's sentiments. She believes that parents must take more responsibility for their children, despite the abject poverty of the region.

Almost 70 percent of the 1.1 million people in Kilifi, the district around Malindi, live on less than a dollar a day, the poverty level established by the World Bank. This forces parents to spend long hours away from home working, leaving their children to mind themselves.

Baanuo is worried that even when parents are home, they are not sufficiently involved in their children's lives.

Sr. Matilda Baanuo, coordinator of Pope Francis Rescue Center, monitors the healing progress of each child. (Lilian Muendo)

"There is a need to sensitize parents here," said Baanuo. "They go away, leaving their children to wander alone. Sometimes the children go to neighbors' houses to borrow food and they get molested. When extended family members realize that parents don't care much for their children, they take advantage."

105 children rescued

Miraculously, Mimi, the 4-year-old victim, is recovering well after going through intensive counseling at the Pope Francis Center. During the first days, she insisted that she was involved in an accident and that's how she was injured. But after a few days' stay in the center, she clearly stated that it was her uncle who had abused her.

"One day, she was playing with the many toys in the counseling room when she came across a masculine toy of a male figure and she immediately threw it away and started crying. When I asked why she didn't like it, she said because it resembled her uncle and her uncle is a bad person because he hurt her," said Sr. Redempta Kabahweza, of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa congregation. Kabahweza is the main counselor in the center.

"When she was brought to the center, I thoroughly examined her and it was very obvious to anyone that Mimi had been sexually abused," confirmed Sr. Veronica Nyambura, a Franciscan Elizabethan sister who is the acting nurse at the Pope Francis Rescue Center. "Both her hips were dislocated and her private parts torn and bruised. She couldn't walk."

As part of the counseling, Kabahweza gently persuaded Mimi to disclose to her the details of the incident. She has since remained consistent with her story and has testified in court in the ongoing case.

"It took a lot of convincing that her uncle would never get near the center to kill her, because it is a threat he issued in case she spoke to anyone about what had happened," said Kabahweza. "Every day, I have a chat with her to give the assurance that all the gates to the center remain locked and her uncle can never get access."

Sr. Redempta Kabahweza takes 4-year-old girls through a counseling session at the Pope Francis Rescue Center. (Lilian Muendo)

Mimi is just one of the 105 children rescued by the center since its inception in 2015.

Fr. Ambrose Muli, the center's director, says the Malindi Diocese initially opened it to rescue children from child prostitution in the region. But it turned out that addressing sexual abuse cases, including by family members, was the highest need.

"Sex tourism is a lucrative business here," said Muli. "The white men are generous and change the lifestyles of the poor girls, and [the girls] don't want to be rescued anymore." Often, the only time girls report cases of sexual exploitation is when men run back to their countries without paying.

A more pressing need, the church found, is assisting young children abused by family members.

The center accommodates 45 children at a time. It is a transition home where the children live for a maximum of three months, after which they are re-integrated back to their families. Some of them stay a little longer if their families are not safe for them. Members of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa congregation run the center. However, two more sisters, one from the Elizabethan congregation and another from the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Family congregation, have joined the Missionary sisters to assist as a nurse and a counselor, respectively.

The center has received sexually abused children who were as young as 2 and a half. Currently, Mimi and her playmate Imani are the youngest. When Imani was rescued and arrived at the center, she had been infected with a sexually transmitted disease following repeated sexual abuse. Her teachers at school had noticed that she wasn't able to walk well and suspected sexual abuse. They reported the case to the police. Imani was taken to a hospital where examination confirmed repeated sexual abuse. She was treated and referred to the Pope Francis Rescue Center. She has now recovered but it's not yet clear who abused her.

Pope Francis Rescue Center accommodates 45 sexually abused children every three months. (Lilian Muendo)

Kabahweza, the counselor, once accompanied Imani to the home where she had lived with her grandmother. Upon reaching home, Imani was so overcome by fear and paralyzed in shock that she unconsciously urinated on herself. The social worker accompanying them advised that they immediately leave the home.

"That was a sign that the person who abused her lived around the compound and might have been a family member or someone who visited frequently and took advantage of her in the absence of her grandmother," said Kabahweza.

Investigations are still underway to find the perpetrator, and only then can the center start court proceedings for Imani's case.

'Sister, it's time for my drugs'

Apart from the trauma that comes with sexual abuse, the children also face the danger of contracting HIV/AIDS.

Wema was only 8 years old when she arrived at the Pope Francis Center. Upon examination, she was found to be HIV-positive. Her health is not good and she often gets sick because her immune system is compromised. The center has put her on antiretroviral drugs.

"She had been sexually abused for several years, maybe from the time she was 3 or 4 years old," said Nyambura, the nurse. "She is responding well to the HIV drugs and she has now mastered the routine. When it's time, she rushes towards me and calls out, 'Sister, it's time for my drugs.' I'm in the process of teaching her how to take the drugs by herself because she will have to do it for the rest of her life now."

Kabahweza, who has counseled Wema since she came to the center, says it is still unclear who abused her.

A police statement recorded at the time of her rescue indicates that it was her father who was abusing her. However, Wema has insisted to Kabahweza that it was her two cousins, ages 15 and 16.

"She tells me that her two cousins abused her every night in turns. They slept in the same bedroom," explained Kabahweza with tears welling up her eyes. "But the police statement says it's her father who was responsible. Wema has stood by her story from the day she came to the center. She tells me that her grandmother who lived with them is blind and there was no one to protect her. Her mother is dead."

Plans are underway to start court proceedings for Wema's case, at which she will be expected to testify against the police statement that indicates that her father was the abuser.

Fransciscan Elizabethan Sr. Veronica Nyambura examines a pregnant girl at the center. Currently, the center is caring for seven pregnant girls following sexual abuse cases. (Lilian Muendo)

Although the Pope Francis Center rescues both girls and boys, most of the cases reported involve girls. Since 2015, just eight of the 105 victims at the center have been boys.

"We do rescue boys, too," said Baanuo. "When I came in as the new coordinator of the center, I found a 9-year-old boy who had been sodomized by his stepfather. He was in a bad state. Sodomy is something the people here don't want to admit exists, and it's hard for the boys to report because of stigma."

Obstacles to obtaining justice

A female officer at the Malindi police station said they are trying to obtain justice for the victims. "Unfortunately, such cases reach us a little too late when the child has suffered unfathomable pain, but we are doing our best," she said.

"The legal process takes a long time," said Dennis Kitsau, head of social work at the Pope Francis Rescue Center, who is one of 30 non-clergy staff working with children. "We have seen justice, although the system has failed us in some cases. So far, we are handling 105 sexually abused children and only eight cases have been completed and sentence handed to the culprits," he said.

"Last year, we had a man sentenced to 30 years in prison for child defilement," said Muli, the director. "That was a big achievement in our efforts to seek justice for the children. It is rare to get such rulings in a society where community elders resolve such cases."

Children at the Pope Francis Rescue Center present their homework to Sister Benedicta, left, a counselor from Sisters of the Holy Family, and Sr. Veronica Nyambura, right. (Lilian Muendo)

Kitsau says it would be better if the Kenyan judicial system had specific courts with expert magistrates to deal with child-related cases.

"Magistrates handling murder cases, land cases, drug-trafficking cases, are the same ones handling child defilement cases. There is need for patience while dealing with children," said Kitsau.

He points to a ruling made in 2016 by Justice Said Chitembwe in Malindi Law Court where he set free an offender who had abused a 13-year-old minor, claiming that "the girl was willing." Chitembwe had concluded that the abuser be freed because after several sexual episodes, the girl seemed not to have been complaining.

The judge had further ruled, "Children are not meant to enjoy sex and whenever they do, that becomes the behavior of an adult."

"That ruling really broke my heart," said a distraught Kitsau.

Even though Chitembwe's ruling caused public outrage, it still stands.

According to Kenya's Sexual Offenses Act, a person who abuses a child under age 11 gets life imprisonment. Anyone who abuses a child 12-15 years of age is jailed for a minimum of 20 years. An offender who abuses a 16- to 18-year-old is sentenced to 15 years or more.

Although the laws are clear, families in the coastal region of Kenya prefer the traditional way of resolving sexual abuse cases. Community elders negotiate a compensation fee, which can be as little as $50 or a few cows. The perpetrator's family pays the victim's family, a party is held and the "mistake" is forgiven. If a girl is pregnant as a result of the abuse, she is expected to marry the abuser.

The Pope Francis Rescue Center tries to provide more hope for the children, advocating for their cases in court, where justice is served better than with traditional methods.

From right: Sister Benedicta; Sr. Matilda Baanuo; Sr. Veronica Nyambura; and Sr. Redempta Kabahweza (Lilian Muendo)

Mimi's case — already complicated with her mother taking her brother's side while her father is convinced of the uncle's guilt — became more so when the court file was reported missing.

"I read mischief and interference in this case. Someone must have been bribed to lose the file," said Kabahweza. "When they said that Mimi had to testify again, I just said a big no. She is not ready for that [again]. They have to find that file."

Kabahweza continued, "The police once called the center and said, 'You are keeping that girl there for no reason. No one raped her; she was involved in an accident.' From that time I knew the police had been compromised and were not on our side anymore."

Mimi, a bubbly little girl, will continue to live at the center until the issues surrounding her case become clearer and to guard her from further harm and pressure to change her testimony.

"I have never seen severe cases as I have seen here," Kabahweza said, as she reflected on how child sex abuse became so widespread in the area, not just destroying young lives but also corrupting family and social networks.

"Parents are not behaving like parents towards their children and relatives are not relatives anymore. I know people are poor here, but poverty doesn't translate to immorality and child abuse."

[Lilian Muendo is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.]

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