Meeting the Survivors Behind the Cases

2016 Dionne Desbiens Esther-1By Esther Dionne Desbiens

My internship with Equality Effect & Ripples International in Meru, Kenya was amazing. I cannot believe how fast it went by. Kenya gave me a very warm karibu (welcome in Swahili), and for that I am very thankful.

On a gloomy day this July (one of the coolest months in Kenya), a coworker told the staff at Ripples International to “carry [our] own weather”. I thought this expression was such a nice reminder to be positive. While people at Ripples International did encourage each other to be positive, I did encounter a cultural difference here. In Canada, people would say I’m outgoing and friendly. However, at Ripples International, some of my colleagues said that my personality was like that of a cartoon character. I didn’t know if this was an insult or a compliment, but my Kenyan friend and colleague reassured me that it was a compliment! My personality was not the only thing that made me stand out in rural Kenya. Being a muzungu (person of European descent) did not go unnoticed. I would often be greeted with the word muzungu when running errands or just walking around. After learning some Swahili, I was able to respond to those greetings with sasa (how are you) to which people answered poa (good). This response sparked conversations as the people I interacted with realized that I was willing to learn more about their language and culture. Knowing some Swahili meant that I was no longer a stranger to Kenya, it showed that I was there to learn.

Now on to my work experience. This has been the most hands-on, field work focused and interactive legal experience. So much of my work as a legal intern for Equality Effect at Ripples International revolved around meeting police officers, magistrates, survivors and their guardians in many different settings. This internship had so much fieldwork, I really felt as though I was able to fully immerse myself not only in Kenyan culture, but also in the Kenyan criminal justice system. For example, on July 21st, Ashley and I spent less than one hour at the office. We started off the day at 7:00 talking about our internship in Kenya on the radio in Isiolo, we then conducted a guardian interview at the office, we then participated in a women’s support group meeting, and finally we ended our day at 18:00 in town to conduct another guardian interview. Continuously meeting passionate people wanting to contribute to the 160 Girls Project aiming to protect children from sexual abuse was truly inspiring.

On the radio for the second time in Isiolo with Gerald (Access to Justice Program Manager), Denson (Radio Host) and Ashley (Equality Effect Intern).

On the radio for the second time in Isiolo with Gerald (Access to Justice Program Manager), Denson (Radio Host) and Ashley (Equality Effect Intern).

My colleague Ann, social worker at Ripples International, introducing Ripples International to a women’s support group.

My colleague Ann, social worker at Ripples International, introducing Ripples International to a women’s support group.

I often found that while studying law, there is a disconnect between the judgments we read and the people’s stories behind these judgments. Studying for my extra-contractual law exam in first year, I found myself trying to memorize the case Bazley v Curry as if it was simply a case that I had to understand in order to do well on my exam. I stopped myself after a moment to think about this case which involved a Children’s Foundation employee sexually abusing children. What was I doing? I was simplifying this horrible story into a set of legal rules that I could use to answer the fact pattern on my exam. This moment of reflection made me aware of my lack of knowledge on the stories behind the decisions that I read for my law courses.

This internship has been a great way to fill the gap that I experienced in my law courses. As part of our police monitoring work, my colleagues and I closely followed around 40 cases by visiting police stations, contacting guardians and attending numerous court hearings. Not only did I know the case files of the survivors very well, but often, I interacted with the girls who lived at Tumaini Rescue Centre. I could piece the difficult stories we read in case files with the girls I spent time with at the shelter. While knowing the girls’ stories made my work difficult emotionally, interacting with the girls, and seeing how wonderful they are, really gave me hope that the support they receive from Equality Effect and Ripples International is bettering their lives.

Almost every Saturday, Ashley and I went to Tumaini Rescue Centre to play sports, draw and dance with the girls. Above is a picture taken when we were drawing with chalk in the yard.

Almost every Saturday, Ashley and I went to Tumaini Rescue Centre to play sports, draw and dance with the girls. Above is a picture taken when we were drawing with chalk in the yard.

A beautiful work of art found in Tumaini Rescue Centre to highlight the importance of expressive art therapy.

A beautiful work of art found in Tumaini Rescue Centre to highlight the importance of expressive art therapy.

Ashley and I met with one of the girls after she was discharged from the shelter. We had gone to her step-father’s judgment hearing in Githongo Law Courts where he was convicted to life imprisonment for sexually abusing her. Talking with her was truly inspiring. She first said the following: “I’d like to thank Ripples. Going through the case wasn’t easy at first, but I overcame.” She told us that Ripples International’s counselling gave her the courage to testify. Ashley and I even bonded with her after she told us, “I dream to be a lawyer. I especially would like to help the girl child.” We talked about law school and encouraged her to keep working hard in school. It’s wonderful to see such a strong girl wanting to give back to other survivors of sexual abuse. I hope her dream of becoming a lawyer comes true because we need compassionate and caring lawyers to advocate for children’s rights.

  This picture was taken during our meeting with this brave survivor who wants to become a lawyer!


This picture was taken during our meeting with this brave survivor who wants to become a lawyer!

Our internship was challenging at times, but overall, the experience was incredibly rewarding on emotional, social and legal levels. However, in court, I did encounter some access to justice issues that organizations such as Ripples International and Equality Effect are trying to mitigate by providing legal support to survivors.

Delays

One big problem was delays in court. We would often go to court and matters were delayed for many reasons: the magistrate was not in, the accused was not in custody, the accused was in custody but was not brought to court, the hearing was rescheduled. These delays were incredibly frustrating, particularly because at Tumaini Centre rescuing the girls is usually temporary. Thus, girls are often discharged after they testify. When court hearings are delayed, this means that the survivor cannot testify, thus cannot be discharged, and therefore cannot go back to school. A magistrate was worried about the delays for one of the girl’s case as not going to school would go against the best interest of the child. In Kenya, the best interest of the child is a primary consideration “in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies”. [1] This is an interesting difference with Canada, where the best interest of the child is a main concept in family law, but not a general overarching concept in all actions involving children.

Cross-Examinations

Another occurrence which shocked me in court is that the accused in Kenya will often cross-examine the witnesses (including the victim), as most accused are not represented by a lawyer. While Legal Aid and Pro-Bono programs are in place in Kenya, most are not yet operational. Our coworker in the Access to Justice Department noted that in theory, Kenya has great laws, but that in practice, it’s often a different story. I attended two victim testimony hearings during my three months in Kenya, and both times the accused cross-examined the victim. One time, I was the only person sitting between the victim and the accused. I felt like a buffer, but not a sufficient buffer to prevent further harm to the victim. This is an access to justice issue on two different levels. First, the accused person is disadvantaged because he/she does not know the procedural and evidentiary rules. Second, this impedes on the survivor’s emotional access to justice as being cross-examined by your perpetrator is a form of re-victimization. In Canada, it is very rare for an unrepresented accused to cross-examine the victim in a criminal case because of applications made by prosecutors under section 486.3 of the Criminal Code to appoint counsel for cross-examinations. This reality in Kenyan criminal law courts demonstrates a need for the implementation of testimonial aids.

Finally, awareness campaigns are really important to make sure the laws to protect children—the Sexual Offences Act, the Children Act, the Kenyan Constitution—are fully implemented. I ended my enriching internship on a very positive note. I helped the 160 Girls social worker, Cornelius, facilitate a “Girls for Justice” Public Legal Education session in a primary school. The children asked very thoughtful questions and were eager to participate when we taught them the 160 Girls anthem “Say No”.

Cornelius at the “Girls for Justice” Public Legal Education seminar.

Cornelius at the “Girls for Justice” Public Legal Education seminar.

I will never forget this internship, and I hope to come back to Kenya one day. Until then, asante sana (thank you very much) for this beautiful experience and tutaonana (goodbye and see you again) Kenya.

Beautiful Kenya.

Beautiful Kenya.

[1] Children Act, The Republic of Kenya, Revised Edition 2012 [2010], Chapter 141, s 4(2).

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