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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Rise in child abuse numbers should prick our conscience

The recent spikes in violence against children, rape and unintended child pregnancies are scary. The Ministry of Labour and Social Protection released their Violence Against Child 2019 Survey this week. The findings illuminate what is behind this vicious current curve and what needs to flatten this other pandemic facing us all.

The 400-page report indicates that more than one in three homes are currently emotionally and physically unsafe for children. By the time girls and boys reach the age of five they have personally experienced or seen others experience physical or verbal abuse by a parent, a caregiver or another adult. Schools are not necessarily any safer. One in five girls experience unwanted sexual attention or approaches by their classmates. By the time they are teenagers, nearly half of minors think that corporal punishment is necessary both at home and at school.

The VAC survey demolishes the myth that only girls’ rights are emotionally, physically and sexually violated. Boys between the ages of 18-24 are nine per cent more likely to be beaten than girls in their homes. However, girls between the ages of 13-17 are twice as likely to be emotionally bullied and intimidated than boys. They are also at much more risk from defilement, rape and sexual violence. Although not covered in the study, one can only wonder what the statistics of gender non-conforming individuals from the LGBTIQ communities would look like. The findings are stark and given what is happening during this COVID19 season, it must wake us up.

It is worth also absorbing an encouraging point in the 2019 report. The last time the Government ran such a comprehensive study, the trends were far worse. In the last decade, sexual, emotional and physical violence against children has roughly halved. Boys are doing better. They experience less emotional and sexual violence today than the previous generation. There are probably a lot of drivers for this. They include a new constitution and new laws that forbid female genital mutilation, corporal punishment, defilement and child marriages. Reducing levels of absolute poverty, HIV/AIDS and increasing access to primary and secondary education and child help-desks at police stations are other factors.

Despite this progress, we must ask why has there not been a significant reduction in violence against boys and girls over the last decade? There several areas that need the nation’s focus. The first two lie in the lack of civic and political leadership.

The absence of age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education is a major driver of child abuse and violence. There have been several attempts to introduce progressive reproductive health legislation and strengthen school and out of school programs. Today, Senator Susan Kihika is being viciously and uncompromisingly fought by religious conservatives with no alternatives to offer the nation worried by the above statistics.

We also as a nation do not have way forward on how to treat consensual sexual relations between minors of the same age. Boys who have sex with girls remain criminalized under our laws. Without a national consensus among adults, these two important gaps remain controversial and the cost is born by children.

Despite progress, our courts remain child unfriendly. Under the Victim Protection Act (2014) and the Children’s Act (2012) children have a right to give evidence in closed courts or behind a protective cover. They also have a right to witness protection. I experienced this waiting to plead on a speeding offence several years ago. Listening to a defilement case in an open court prior to my case left me so traumatized I pleaded guilty and apologized profusely for taking up the court’s time. We need to invest more in free legal, medical and psycho-social services for survivors. Our judicial, police and medical officers need more training on how to care and treat them with dignity and a sense of justice.

As we press for a more child-friendly criminal justice system, we have to proactively create homes, communities and a country that is safe for all children. Rights based parenting is critical for this. Coaching children on understanding their rights, conflict avoidance, self-defense and speaking out safely are good first steps. There is no point during this season of COVID19 telling each other to stay home to stay safe when levels of violence are this high.

Nine year old Amnesty International Kenya Member Kenia Ngamau spoke for her generation recently when she publicly demanded of her mother’s generation “to stop having sex with children.” We must listen to her and others and arrest this now.

This article was also published in the Saturday Standard July 18, 2020


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