Creating Good Lasting Connections

2015 Rodriguez MariaBy Maria Rodriguez

I have crossed the half point of my internship in Kenya, and although this blog post was originally going to be about my experience as a white (mzungu [1]) girl in Kenya, I realized that there was something more important that I could share.

I am a law student, and while at law school I have learnt about substantive law and procedure, here in Kenya I have learnt that being a lawyer is not only about what you know but it is also about the relationships you are able to build with the people around you. In other words, relationship building has proven to be a key element of my work here in Kenya and I want to explain why.

As I had said in my earlier post I am working with the social workers of an organization that seeks to protect and bring justice to girls’ victims of sexual and physical abuse. The job involves going through their files, filling in forms, attending court to monitor their cases and going to police stations to inquire about the investigations. While going through the files and filing in forms are standard activities in most law-jobs (or any desk job for that matter), I have come to realize that the biggest and most important part of my work has been the fieldwork because of the human component. Indeed it is through my fieldwork that I have had the opportunity to meet and establish a relationship with police officers, magistrates, prosecutors, and other relevant stakeholders. These relationships have allowed me to learn much more than most of the paperwork because I have been able to engage in meaningful discussions about the law in Kenya, the value and place that children should have in society, and the different challenges that these stakeholders are facing when trying to seek justice for these girls.

Part of the benefits of making contacts and establishing good relations with the different stakeholders, besides their willingness to help when you are trying to inquire about a case, is the network of key people that you can build. For instance, every time my co-intern and I go to a police station for the first time we make a point of meeting the officer in charge (OCS) and explaining the purpose of our visit. More often than note, the OCS are very happy to greet us and have many questions for us (probably because we are white girls in very rural Kenya). However, regardless of whether my whiteness has a part to play in the way some people welcome us here, the relationships that we have been able to establish with our visits have proven to be very important.

imageIn one particular occasion, after we explained who we were and why we were there, the police officer in charge invited us to his office and began to tell us why he (unfortunately it is usually a he), appreciated our work and why he thought more organization like Ripples were needed for Kenya’s victims of abuse. Essentially, while waiting for a the police file of the girls we were inquiring about, the OCS told us about the biggest challenges he was facing and confided in us what he thought would be a good course of action for these girls. That conversation was much more informative and fulfilling than any paper work I had done.

There was another occasion when we went to a Law Court to get a copy of a judgement for a girl’s file that had been left un-updated for a long time, and the Magistrate invited us into his office. He was interested in knowing what we thought of the legal system here in Kenya compared to the Canadian one. Talking to him made me realize that on paper Kenya and Canada’s legal systems are not so different. Both countries were colonies of England and thus both countries use the common law, (with the exception that in Canada Quebec uses the civil law for some matters). In fact, the laws in Kenya exist and are good. The new constitution[2] enshrined the basic rights of children. But the problem is the implementation of these good laws. One thing is to change things on paper, and another thing is to change people’s attitudes and behaviour.

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As a matter of fact, corruption runs deep within the police forces in Kenya[3]. At least six times when I have been doing fieldwork I have been in a vehicle that has been stopped by the police and driver has given out money. It happens everyday. It happens everywhere. And it’s a vicious cycle. Indeed, some of the families of girls that have been abused are so poor and so used to the corruption that they will make an arrangement with the family of the perpetrator to brush off the abuse and get in exchange some little money and some livestock. It is as if the words justice and legal system meant nothing to some people because all they have been used to is “under the table deals”. But, these are the kinds of issues that matter when you are doing human rights work, and these are the kind of issues you can only acknowledge by going out into the field, talking to people and experiencing it first hand.

Now, after 6 weeks and a half here in Kenya, it is clear to me that these issues are the reason why human rights work is about people, why the human component in any job is fundamental, why I find so fulfill and gratifying to spend my Saturdays playing with the girls of the rescue center, why meeting with police officers, Magistrates and prosecutors and listening to their queries and concerns has made me a better lawyer-in-the-making, and why these experience so far has been one of the greatest learning experience.

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Lastly, and going back to why creating good relationships is important, I would like to share that in the last three weeks two girls have found justice as their perpetrator (their own respective fathers) were sentence to life in prison. Those convictions represent an incredible win in the fight against child sexual assault in Kenya. Coincidentally, both case were heard at the court I had mentioned in my previous post, where the magistrate keeps things tight and seeks expedient justice for the victims. Having the chance to get to know this Magistrate is one of those human relationships that I have found so valuable of my work here because it made me realized that what ultimately really matters in human rights work is making allies with the people that also want to make a difference. The human rights battle is not a battle you can fight alone. It is a battle society needs to fight collectively. So go out in the field and meet people and make valuable connections.


[2] https://www.kenyaembassy.com/pdfs/The%20Constitution%20of%20Kenya.pdf

[3] http://www.transparency.org/country#KEN

The Court System in Kenya: New Environment and First Impressions

2015 Rodriguez MariaBy Maria Rodriguez

Two weeks and a half have past since I arrived in Kenya but the experience has been so intense that it feels as if I have been here for a longer time. I have learned so much about Kenya and its people, (and I have so many stories to tell!!!), but this post is about the way their court system works.

I am in Kenya because I am working for an organization called the Equality Effect that strives to protect the rights of girls and women by promoting environments safe from sexual violence, education, and fulfillment of their economic potential[1]. The Equality Effect’s work in Kenya is done in collaboration with another organization called Ripples International[2] which seeks to safe lives and serve children.

Evidence of the Equality Effect and Ripples International’s work to protect girls’ rights is the “the 160 girls” project[3], which was a successful constitutional challenge to the Kenyan government for the failure to protect girls who had been defiled through a proper investigation and prosecution. “The 160 girls” project has now become a landmark decision in Kenya and both Ripples and the Equality Effect have embarked in the incredible task of ensuring that this promising project is put into action and thus brings real change to Kenyans. My work here is closely related to this project. I am here to support the Ripples’ staff in their daily work while attentively monitoring the impact that “the 160 girls” decision has had on the functioning of justice system. As such, part of the job includes going to police stations to inquire about the status of the investigation of a file, or going to court to monitor the developments of a particular case, among other things.

Given that most of the work here is confidential, I cannot give too many details of the cases and their development. Nonetheless, I will try to convey a snapshot of how the justice system works here in Kenya.

I have already attended four court hearings in these past weeks. From those four, three cases were adjourned to a later date because the given Magistrate in charge was either being transferred to a different court or not present that day. Apparently transfers are very common in the Kenyan justice system. Indeed, Magistrates and police officers are constantly moved around stations and courts across the country. I have been told that the transfers are simply the way the system is set up and that therefore it is unpredictable when or why a Magistrate will have to leave a case unfinished. What is certain, however, is that without a proper transition system between officers or between Magistrates, most cases end up forgotten or have to be re-started. Working with the Ripples social worker, I have encounter that this transferring around is a great challenge for bringing redress to these girls victims of abuse. When officers are transferred sometimes investigations have to be re-started, as we were told it happen for one of the girls. For one other case, the defense lawyer argued that the trial should restart because the new Magistrate would not be familiar with the file. Fortunately, on this occasion we were accompanied by a lawyer who put up a lot of resistance to such proposition. However, the Ripples social workers that go to monitor court hearings are almost never accompanied by a lawyer. This puts some cases at the mercy of the prosecutor who is not always as committed to the cases, as you would want.

Another element that I found interesting of how the courts work in Kenya regards the layout and organization of the court. Although I am not too familiar with how it functions in Canada, it really stroke me that here in Kenya the accused persons of the many cases the court will hear on that day, (because the court hears a mix of cases in one same sitting ranging from property and money disputes, to defilement and abuse), are all mingled within the public. You only realize you’ve been sitting next to someone that is an accused in a case when their names are called up and they have to stand up. In fact, during my first time in court the perpetrator of a case we were following was sitting right across on the other benches. I was stunned to realize that the man that had a raped and impregnated a little girl was just sitting there, across from us. Quickly I realized that that is the way it works and that no one really seems to notice it or be bothered by it. Indeed, even those accused persons that are in custody are brought in by an officer and, sometimes, are sited on a section of the same benches that public uses for lack of better place!

However, although the space is limited and the Magistrates are transferred constantly leaving unfinished cases behind, I attended a hearing at a court that stood out to me; it stood out not because of its facilities or location (it is actually in a very rural area), but because of its Magistrate. In fact, unlike the first three court hearings I went to, the court was called into session on time, there was an order to the way cases were being called out, and the Magistrate was not interested in adjourning cases just to move one. He took his time with each case listening and ensuring that the best course of action was taken. He spoke loudly (because Kenyans are the most soft-spoken people I have met!), and he was interested in making time as productive as possible. Granted this Magistrate was not being transferred, the feeling I had after leaving was not that of frustration, as I had experienced before with the other hearings, but of satisfaction that something had been achieved on that day, even if not a concluding sentence.

This last court hearing showed me that even though things are not as efficient as you would want, there are people who fight against the clustered system pressing for efficient sessions and who are committed to bring justice and doing the right thing no matter how difficult the environment and circumstance. It’s inspiring and sheds some hope for these beautiful and strong girls who have gone through so much already in their short lives. It makes my work worth it and it shows me that one case at a time will slowly create a ripple effect of change as to how rape is investigated and prosecuted here in Kenya. We will see if I can witness that ripple effect in the next 8 weeks that I will be here!


[1] For more information about the Equality Effect visit: http://theequalityeffect.org/

[2] For more information about Ripples International visit: http://ripplesintl.or.ke/

[3] For more information follow: http://theequalityeffect.org/160-girls/

 

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