Working Together à la Harambee to Protect and Promote Girls’ Rights in Kenya

By Esther Dionne Desbiens

I am doing my human rights internship with Equality Effect, a Canadian organisation that has developed a strong partnership with Ripples International, a local grass-root organisation in Meru, Kenya.

My stay in Meru has been great so far. I have been picking up some Swahili – Habari ya ko? [1] – as well as enjoying the fresh fruit and vegetables, wild life sightings, lush trees, blooming flowers and the mountains that surround the city.

1. Meru Town Market

Meru Town Market

Meru

Meru

I am assigned to the 160 Girls Project, bringing Ripples International and Equality Effect together to tackle defilement (consensual or non-consensual sex with a child under 18 or child rape) of girls and ensure proper police treatment of defilement cases. To do so, Equality Effect not only keeps track of police treatment, they also provide training to police officers, organize community awareness campaigns and facilitate public legal education seminars. As a legal intern, I help monitor police treatment of defilement cases by contacting police stations, attending court to track the progress of defilement cases and updating the survivors’ files. I also help facilitate public legal education seminars, raise awareness at events and conduct complainant’s evaluation of police treatment of defilement cases.

I have attended hearings in multiple courts so far. I have been to Meru Law Courts, Tigania Law Courts, Githongo Law Courts and Maua Law Courts. In every court room, you can find the Kenyan coat of arms above the Magistrate’s chair (pictured below). I noticed that the word Harambee is part of the Kenyan coat of arms. Ashley Boggild, my colleague from the University of Toronto, and I asked our colleague, who is an incredible social worker at Ripples International, what it meant. He answered that Harambee symbolizes togetherness. After doing some research, I found that it is a philosophy developed by the first President of the independent Republic of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta. Some describe the word as meaning “pulling together” and “invok[ing] the spirit of self-help amongst Kenyans”. [2] What a great word to discover on our first few days of work with Ripples International and Equality Effect here in Kenya! The idea of togetherness really resonated with me as working collaboratively is necessary to tackle such an important human rights issue and protect the rights of the most vulnerable human beings in our society.

Kenyan Coat of Arms

Kenyan Coat of Arms

4. Maua Law Courts

At Maua Law Courts. From left to right: Muthomi Thiankolu (Equality Effect Human Rights Lawyer), myself, Benson Mzizi, Ashley Boggild, and Gilbert Cheptinde (Ripples International Social Worker).

The word Harambee perfectly reflects the work being cooperatively accomplished by Ripples International and Equality Effect in the Meru region. Ripples International’s motto is “Saving Lives, Serving Children”. They run a school, an orphanage (Newstart Babies Rescue Home), an access to justice program, a community outreach program and a shelter (Brenda Boone Tumaini Home) for young girls’ survivors of physical, sexual and/or psychological violence. While at the shelter and in the community, Ripples International social workers and counselors offer the survivors assistance (medical, legal, social) and counselling. Many survivors stay at the shelter while their cases are proceeding in court. I am so happy to see such a strong local organisation offering these survivors a safe haven in Meru.

A National Survey conducted in 2010 by UNICEF found that one in three Kenyan girls under the age of eighteen experience sexual violence. [3] At the request of Ripples International, Equality Effect joined forces with Ripples International in order to tackle impunity in cases of defilement through the 160 Girls Project in Kenya and address this prevalent issue. Together they instigated a constitutional claim in 2012 at the High Court of Meru against the Kenyan government and the Kenyan Police Service regarding police treatment in cases of defilement and they won. The High Court of Meru found that

police unlawfully, inexcusably and unjustifiably neglected, omitted and/or otherwise failed to conduct prompt, effective, proper and professional investigations to the said complaints. That failure caused grave harm to the petitioners and also created a climate of impunity for defilement as perpetrators were let free. [4]

The decision is known as the 160 Girls Decision since Ripples International had sheltered 160 girls, survivors of defilement, at their rescue center when the project began. The project we were tasked to work on, the 160 Girls Project, is the implementation of this very important decision.

While the 160 Girls Decision is a step in the right direction, it does not mean that the road to real change is going to be easy. Addressing defilement and child abuse is something that every society struggles with, from Canada to Kenya. So many forces –social, economic, cultural, religious, legal, etc. –   are at play when it comes to sexual violence against girls. Therefore, to make waves of change, Ripples International along with Equality Effect staff work together and adopt a multifaceted approach to tackle this epidemic of violence against girls in Kenya.

On June 7th 2016, Ashley and I attended the judgment hearing for a step-father accused of defiling his two step-daughters, both under the age of ten at the time of the offense. The two girls were staying at the shelter during the proceedings. The accused was found guilty on two counts of defilement and he was convicted to life imprisonment. This conviction was somewhat of a “happy ending” to a difficult story of abuse. Now we know that these two young girls will be a little bit safer when they leave the shelter as their perpetrator will be behind bars. However, defilement cases, even when they reach a conviction, are never really won by anyone because a successful criminal case does not undo the mental, physical and emotional trauma of defilement and prison time does not guarantee that the perpetrator will be rehabilitated.

The goal is to eradicate violence against girls, but in the meantime, strong legal support is necessary to make sure existing laws protecting girls’ rights are enforced. Hence, convictions are just one part of the puzzle. By piecing together all the different ways to address violence against girls – e.g. legal assistance, social work, education, awareness raising, community outreach and access to justice – we can truly bring about change in society.

Photo taken at a Public Legal Education Seminar for Community Leaders on the 160 Girls Project in Maua, where the members of the group pledged to raise awareness on girls’ rights in their respective communities.

Photo taken at a Public Legal Education Seminar for Community Leaders on the 160 Girls Project in Maua, where the members of the group pledged to raise awareness on girls’ rights in their respective communities.

Ashley and I talking about the 160 Girls Project on the Day of the African Child, June 16th 2016, on the radio in Isiolo.

Ashley and I talking about the 160 Girls Project on the Day of the African Child, June 16th 2016, on the radio in Isiolo.

Finally, we should never give up on fighting -peacefully- for human rights. Seeing the girls at the shelter smile, dance and play together gives me hope for the future. It also puts a face on the epidemic of violence against girls that we must work together, à la Harambee, to eradicate. We must keep the momentum going as the legal and societal consequences of the 160 Girls Decision just keep growing. I believe that by joining forces to tackle serious issues such as defilement, real change can happen. However, patience is key, as waves of change are formed one ripple at a time.

To find out more about the 160 Girls Project: http://theequalityeffect.org/160-girls/

Great video on the 160 Girls Project by The Equality Effect on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zBR5lBmR5lI

[1] How are you in Swahili.

[2] A.V. Noreh, “Harambee in Kenya: A Bibliography” (1988) University of Nairobi Library at p.1.

[3] Violence against Children in Kenya: Findings from a 2010 National Survey. Nairobi, Kenya: UNICEF Kenya Country Office, Division of Violence Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, 2012.

[4] K. (A Child) through Ripples International as her guardian and Next Friend) & 11 others v. Commissioner of Police/Inspector General of the National Police Service & 3 others [2013] eKLR High Court at Meru, May 27th, 2013; Available online: http://theequalityeffect.org/160girlshighcourt2013.html at p.6.

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