A few on-the-job lessons

2012-Priya-MorleyBy Shantha Priya Morley

I am writing this update from the ‘meeting room’ at our host organization, which has been transformed for the past two months into the interns’ ‘office’ (along with our evening and weekend offices – the one café in town with real coffee and our living room).  I am bundled in a woollen sweater, with leggings and socks under my black skirt; outside the office window, the view beyond the immediate foliage is obscured by mist and drizzling rain.

Lesson number one: July is winter in the Central Highlands, and Kenya gets cold!  While I was finishing the term in Montreal and preparing to spend my (Canadian) summer in Kenya, and despite the warnings of travel books and my wiser friends, I can’t say that I ever really believed that my in-case-of-emergency sweater would be as necessary as it has become.  However, having grown up on the West Coast of Canada, even in Kenya I’m always prepared for rain.  My weather realization is but one of many lessons learned over the past two months.

Although I attend court every week with and for the girls, I have to date had only one very “legal” meeting for which I thought my well-travelled suit would be necessary.  Early one morning, a few weeks into the internship, my co-worker and I received an unexpected call from the Nairobi-based lawyer leading our case.  He explained that he was in Meru (his home area) for a few days, and would like to meet up with “his law students”.  On Monday, we donned our suits, put on our best shoes, ensured we were altogether presentable, and met with the lawyer at a local café.  After he explained in more depth the assignment we had been given, he mentioned some legal briefs we should use as precedent.  We hopped into his car and headed out to his parents’ place to both see the briefs on his laptop and check out the house he is building near his parents’ property.  After driving on a few paved roads, and then a few more dirt roads, we arrived.  He took us to the unfinished house and walked right up the rickety ramp and inside onto the mud floor.  The dozen male builders stopped, stared, and then laughed outright at my co-intern and I following the lawyer through the house (with no roof or finished walls) and ducking through the doorways and under wires as he explained the floor-plan to us.  The lawyer, true to form, repeatedly warned us: “you are entering at your own risk; there is no insurance here!”

After we sufficiently amused the builders, he took us next door to his parents’ property.  Instead of going inside, we walked past the farmhands, past the chicken pen, and descended through the farm.  The lawyer trudged ahead, determined to show us his innovative water source, while my co-intern and I lifted up the hemlines of our skirts and folded up the sleeves of our blazers, trying our best to avoid the acacia bushes’ spear-like thorns.  After observing and complementing the farm and the water source, we ascended back to the house.  There we resumed our ‘legal meeting’ and looked through the necessary legal briefs, before heading back into town with a bagful of farm-fresh oranges.  When considering our attire, my co-intern and I have often referred back to this adventure and have erred on the side of expecting unpredictability.  Lesson number two: even legal meetings may not be strictly legal, and only wear blazers when absolutely necessary!

A couple of Saturdays ago, I had another experience which affirmed the unpredictability of much of my work here.  Arriving at work expecting a day of legal research and writing, my co-intern and I were informed that we could accompany the head social worker to the hospital to pick up one of the girls and her six-day-old baby.  We left the shelter and walked up the hill to meet the car.  As we passed one house, we heard a baby crying.  As this is well within the prerogative of babies, we were unfazed and kept walking.  The head social worker heard another sort of cry and, looking back, saw a young boy cowering on the ground with a grown man looming over him.  She stormed into the compound, with us in tow, and was joined by three male passers-by who also heard the boy crying.  The four of them interrogated the boy’s father about the physical abuse he was inflicting on his son, and the head social worker pulled the boy away and behind us for protection.

She proceeded to put the boy’s father to shame by fiercely explaining to him exactly how children are supposed to be treated and how terrible his actions were.  The mere presence of the three (large) men added emphasis to her words and enabled us to easily keep the boy to one side.  By a stroke of luck, the pick-up truck that was intended to take us to the hospital arrived.  The boy and the boy’s father, who was suitably ashamed of his own actions, entered the pick-up with us.  We drove into town and stopped to wait for another social worker to come and meet us.  While waiting, the boy’s father exclaimed over his cell-phone “I’ve been arrested!!!” (by the head social worker).  Indeed, when the other social worker arrived, he took the boy and his father to the police station, followed up on this incident of abuse by the father (and the much more serious pattern of abuse by the step-mother that was uncovered).  [The boy is currently staying with a family friend until he is sent to boarding school in his aunt’s village, and he is doing very well!]  After this exchange, we continued to the hospital and met the latest addition to the shelter’s family.  All in a day’s work, as they say.  The third lesson, exemplified by this incident, is quite obvious to anyone spending time in the shelter: there are always children in need of protection, and the social workers here are never off the clock.

While my co-intern and I have spent a substantial amount of time in court and completing our legal assignment, we have had many other adventures in the field.  I have gone with a social worker to a girl’s parent-teacher conference; have received fresh sugar cane and heard stories of the Kenyan independence movement from the grandfather of a defilement victim while on a home visit; and have acted as a sort of human protective shield for a girl while her large, aggressive, and unsupportive family attended her court hearing – to name a few.  These experiences have been informative, have complemented the legal work extremely well, and have ensured that my internship remains very busy, unpredictable, and fulfilling.  I look forward to seeing what the next month will bring!

Reflections on a Week in Meru, Kenya

By Shantha Priya Morley

After ten days in Kenya, it feels at once that I have been here for months and that I arrived yesterday. This is largely a product of the sensory overload that I have been experiencing since my arrival. After flying for two days across the world, I arrived in muggy Nairobi. Some hours later, after a quick sleep, the other Canadian intern and I met up with a social worker from my host organization and drove up to Meru, in the Central Highlands of Kenya.

The ride was somewhat exhilarating, as the driver was new to the road and to each of the numerous potholes that met our path – they were certainly successful in slowing us down, and it took quite a few hours longer than expected to reach Meru. Early the following morning, we started work.

My host organization’s initial focus was HIV-Aids, and one of the programs that is still ongoing is to ‘sponsor’ children living with HIV – paying for their food, health care, school fees, and education to ensure their basic needs are met. It has since expanded to meet the pervasive problem of girl child “defilement” (the term used for rape in the Kenyan Constitution).

My work for the Equality Effect is based out of the organization’s rescue shelter, where girls who have been defiled or abused are kept safe when there has been no action to arrest the perpetrator, when the court case is ongoing, and/or when the girls’ families are unwilling or unable to protect them from further harm.  It is a great experience to be working in close proximity with the girls and to already be going so frequently ‘into the field.’

One of my first tasks was accompanying a social worker to the Meru Court to observe and document a defilement trial. This visit made tangible the inadequacies of the Kenyan court and police systems and the resultant access to justice issues that I had read about in preparation for the internship.  Defilement cases – if they even make it to court – proceed over many months and in bits and pieces. One court date might be set with the purpose of hearing less than an hour’s statement from a witness or two, and the judge will set the next date weeks or months in the future.

When the girl testifies, the physical limitations of the courtroom can result in the perpetrator being just metres from where she is sitting as she speaks.  Even worse, because few have legal representation, the perpetrator has a right to cross-examine the girl himself. Finally, the prosecutors in Meru are all police officers and not lawyers, which begs questions not only of their capabilities but also of the impartiality of prosecution when police misconduct plays a role in any given case. Seemingly, when the perpetrator has a criminal defence lawyer, and the girl’s only advocate in the court is a police officer/prosecutor, the pre-existing power imbalance is unduly exacerbated.

These brief observations highlight how even when a “defiled” girl overcomes the many obstacles she faces bringing a claim – the great stigma attached to defilement; her family’s impoverishment, lack of resources, and isolation in rural areas; the trauma she experiences; and police indifference or complicity – she must overcome further obstacles in court. I look forward to sharing more details of my legal work here soon!

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