What you need to know:
- Child incest is a notoriously underreported crime—sometimes with the unlucky victims remaining trapped in a pattern of sexual assault by people they trusted as protectors
- Mothers and other family members are silent, and generally, play pretend remaining invested in the preservation of the family, ignoring the glaring quest for emotional, psychosocial, and medical support for the abused and often hapless child
Last year, as the Covid 19 pandemic spread its tentacles, another shock wave was sweeping the country. Teenage pregnancies were on a sharp rise during the lockdown, with the pandemic forcing schools to be closed, and movements getting halted. In three months during the lockdown, 152,000 Kenyan teenage girls became pregnant — a 40 percent increase in the country's monthly average.
It is estimated that 4 percent or 1 in every 25 adolescent girls (aged 15-19 years) in Kenya, got pregnant or recently gave birth over the long recess.
While there were several reasons attributed to the surge, many quarters were alarmed that these cases happened when the girls were supposed to be under the close watch of their parents and guardians. "Who was making these girls pregnant?" many wondered.
Those in the know whispered, that close family members were responsible. But of course, no one dared to say this too loudly.
Incest, described as sexual relations between people classed as being too closely related, is on the rise and thrives under a culture of silence, stigma, and fear. While the act is illegal in Kenya, reports say that homes are no longer safe for girls as fathers, uncles, step-fathers, cousins, grandfathers, and brothers are among the top offenders according to national hotline 1195.
What's worse for the girls is that their mothers are also complicit as the abuse occurs.
Take the example of an 11-year-old girl from the Coast who after reporting to her mother that her father had defiled her received a thorough beating from both parents. Let's call her Rafiki to preserve her identity. The father, perhaps now more emboldened, continued to defile Rafiki for the next three years. Often sneaking into her bedroom every night, as his wife worked late nights.
She got pregnant three times. The father procured abortions for the first two pregnancies. As luck would have it, on the third occasion, teachers at Rafiki's school who had taken note of her growing tummy, soon realised that she was no longer pregnant. She had been taken to the same doctor who had terminated the earlier pregnancies, given birth to a baby, she said, that her mother got rid of somehow.
Upon her return to school, a teacher who had sought answers about the pregnancy only to learn of her ordeal, pushed her to report the abuse to the police. The father was arrested and jailed. But the mother would hear none of it. Together with her aunt, her mother began to threaten her, telling her she would be homeless if she did not retract her report.
She refused and true to the mother's words she was soon homeless. She had to be sheltered by her school until a good Samaritan came along to take her in.
In Mithi-ini Village in Makuyu, Murang'a County, in January, a father was found to have been defiling his youngest daughter, after the mother had sent away their eldest daughter to live with a relative following a similar sexual assault.
In Kiandutu slums in Thika, a husband would have sex with the wife and before ejaculating say "Wacha nikamalizie huko" (let me go and ejaculate there) he'd jump into his step-daughter's bed and "finish". The case was reported last year and The Centre for Domestic Training and Development (CDTD), a resource centre (especially) for girls and women in distress rescued the girl with special needs and has been taking care of her to date.
Cases on the rise
These are just a handful of the cases that are out in the public. But they tell a disturbing tale of a society seemingly silently gripped in the monstrous crime of incest.
"Child incest is a notoriously underreported crime—sometimes with the unlucky victims remaining trapped in a pattern of sexual assault by people they trusted as protectors," observed women and children rights crusader, Florence Machio.
As incest continues to be a taboo subject, the victims continue to suffer life-long repercussions. Incest is associated with particularly severe psychological symptoms and physical injuries for many survivors. Additional symptoms include low self-esteem, self-loathing, somatization, low self-efficacy, pervasive interpersonal difficulties, and feelings of contamination, worthlessness, shame, and helplessness.
As exemplified by Rafiki's case, mothers and other family members are silent, and generally, play pretend remaining invested in the preservation of the family, ignoring the glaring quest for emotional, psychosocial, and medical support for the abused and often hapless child.
"Over the years we've spoken so much about sexual abuse against minors...but not child incest—yes it is a subject that causes people to recoil, but we can no longer be quiet. It is a weighty issue that we must address now before it completely gets out of hand," added Machio.
At an event to launch a crusade against incest last month, institutions working in the areas of gender-based violence, sexual abuse, and child safety and rights, unveiled some mind-numbing statistics suggesting thousands of Kenya's children might have been abused and could still silently be undergoing incestuous abuse at the hands of those they trusted to safeguard their interests and protect them, just in the last two years.
And while most of the cases in the public arena are already running their course within the law and justice system, actors say many children will likely never get justice for the crimes perpetrated against them.
So why don't the girls' mothers or female guardians act? "The mothers are equally vulnerable…. or as helpless as the children being abused, and when you interrogate the background of such mothers you find they too are coming from similar abuse and it then becomes a cyclic process where the women and girls in the family are subject to abuse," Ms. Edith Murogo, the CDTD's founder and executive director, who has dealt with such cases for many years, says.
"They will tell you they couldn't come to the rescue of the girl because they can't fight against the husband who is the sole breadwinner. Others it is the shame of exposing the family to the world.... but in reality, what is happening is that these women too are not of sound mind, they're incapable of making rational decisions as far as the abuse goes.... their minds are imprisoned. They're battered day in and day out. They don't believe they have the strength to come out of such a situation. So they become bystanders," shares Ms. Murogo.
The activist says that often they have to rescue the girl's mother as well.
But Njeri Rugene the Founder and Executive Director - The Woman's Newsroom Foundation, says to deter the vice, mothers too need to be held responsible. "There should be no excuse for anyone let alone a mother to sit and watch a man defile their kids. It is simply criminal."
An inside look at the world of predatory relationships within the family unveils a culture of coercion, bribery, and pressure on many occasions for the victims to "forgive" the perpetrators and "move on".
"There is a conspiracy of silence...that mothers who should be protecting their daughters are ganging up with their husbands, the perpetrators," said Dr. Jean Kaggia, a Kenyan Obstetrician-Gynaecologist who founded Kiota Rescue Homes that take in girls facing crisis pregnancies.
"We've even seen Nyumba Kumi's protecting perpetrators because of the family's name... what family name is there to be protected in such an incident?" she poses while adding that even churches and other religious communities should be at the forefront of condemning these acts are silent.
"Between last year and now we have rescued 30 girls and 33 percent faced incest, that is 1 out of 3 facing incest. By the way, three out of 10 were defiled by their grandfathers," says Dr. Kaggia.
"In 45 percent of the cases that we've received, the neighbours are the ones that raise the alarm and bring the children to the healthcare facilities. In 20 percent of the cases, it is relatives and in 10 percent it is the police who will have brought the victims in," says, Mary Kanja a Counseling Psychologist at Gender Violence Recovery Centre (GVRC), Nairobi Women's Hospital.
Most counties, apart from Makueni, are yet to come up with intervention measures to deal with incest.
Yet according to experts, child sexual abuse impacts more areas in the public health spectrum and national development spaces than both the counties and national government care to admit.
"I hear there's a fund. Is it possible to use that fund to mobilise and help deal with this evil," implores Dr. Kaggia. "Also, can the church regain its voice and condemn incest?" she urges.
The loopholes in the law
Even when the cases are brought to the court of law, legal conundrums persist because of contradictions.
The Kenyan law under Section 8 (2) of the Sexual Offences Act provides that a person who commits an offense of defilement with a child aged 11 years or less shall upon conviction be sentenced to imprisonment for life. But Section 20 (1) provides that anyone found guilty of incest is liable to imprisonment for a term of not less than 10 years.
"So, what we've seen in practice is that sometimes perpetrators negotiate in terms of what is going to go into their charge sheet, instead of defilement, they opt for incest, and therefore they get 10 years," says Tabitha Griffith Saoyo, an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya with experience in the gender equality rights field.
The other problematic issue is that a 2016 high court judge ruled that sex among cousins is not incest, because certain cultures allow for cousins to marry.
Then there's the challenge of sexual relations between two minors. "The latest record that we have is that of a 15-year-old girl who was pregnant by her 17-year-old uncle; is that defilement? Is it incest? How do we go about charging them both? Or are they both children in need of care and protection?" Ms. Saoyo poses.
According to Saoyo accessing justice for the child victims would have to be managed wholly. "We must think of a full, 360-degree plan of action if we're to help the victims get justice. We'll have to think of the shelters because these are children who in most cases we'll have to protect from their own parents, we must think of how much interruption this case is going to bring in the life of the child and how long it will take in court, the stigma and whether culture, because we've seen elders getting involved in resolving such cases, is one of the barriers that is making it difficult for children to access justice.
Stop Incest Campaign
It is for these reasons that multiple organisations dealing with the rights of children have come together to spearhead a 'Stop Incest Campaign' tethered to the 1195 toll-free number for abused children to call and report incidences, in addition to the usual police hotlines.
Frowned upon and even considered taboo in almost every part of the country, it emerged earlier in the year that societies in Western Kenya were eliminating children borne out of incestuous relations.
"Incest is a national nightmare, yet it doesn't have people outraged, horrified, and mobilised. This is what this campaign is aimed at," explains Monica Sumbi a PR and Communications Consultant engaged in the campaign.
Dr. Linah Jebii Kilimo echoes the call for the development of devolved rescue centers. She says Women Reps and County first ladies ought to make it their mandate to mobilise resources for the construction of safe houses in the counties.
"There's no policy to manage these safe spaces so that they can get government resources. As a ministry, we're reviewing the anti-GBV policy and we're now including issues of safe spaces. We're grateful for the six rescue centres that the Civil Society and faith-based organisations have provided," the Chief Administrative Secretary for the State Department for Gender, says.
"I've been trying to push counties to go and benchmark from Makueni to see what to do. But county assemblies don't pay attention to human matters. Apparently, they prefer to focus on development...but what development? It must become normal in our conversations to talk about incest," she says.
Incest has far-reaching consequences to society
According to Margaret Njihia, Co-Founder and Lead Clinical Psychologist, Family Wellness Center, incest is a form of childhood trauma that affects the brain development of the victims.
"Children with a history of abuse, especially those below six years suffer from brain development issues," she says.
She adds: "A good number of them will have a history of childhood trauma, and end up with personality disorders...they're also four times more likely to get addicted to alcohol, drugs, or other addictions. They are also likely to exhibit criminal behaviour and mental illnesses, and are twice as likely to attempt or die from teen suicide especially if they have not received any form of psychotherapy or counseling."
Dr. Njihia warned that the lack of a well-coordinated national record-keeping system meant that many children were falling through the cracks unable to access requisite psychosocial care and justice.
This is a recipe for dysfunctional communities and society. "Majority of these children do not get access to quality counseling, justice services and that is why they live with the trauma. This contributes to a dysfunctional country," Dr. Njihia says. Scientifically, incest has been found to lead to multifaceted genetic disabilities in offspring.
The rising cases that have been in the media in 2021
- Just last month, a pastor was sentenced to 140 years in jail after a court found him guilty of defiling and impregnating his teenage daughters. The 45-year-old man pleaded guilty to defiling his two daughters aged 14 and 16 years, in Ndia, Kirinyaga County. Following repeated assault, the daughters got pregnant. One gave birth to a girl seven months ago. The other is still heavy with child. During sentencing the suspect told the court that he was aware that he committed a crime and had asked for forgiveness from both victims and the court, saying that everybody made mistakes.
- In February, a Molo court sentenced another man to life imprisonment for defiling his eight-year-old daughter. He too pleaded guilty to the incest charges. He had been incestuously abused her between January and February of this year at Kisii Ndogo village in Kuresoi North Sub County. The 28-year-old father had the little girl muffled, always telling her to keep mum, threatening her to never tell anyone, and had managed to cover up the abuse until one night the girl’s elder sister suddenly awakened by a confrontation on her sister’s bed, reported the incident to their mother.
- That same February, this time in Likoni, Mombasa another middle-aged man was being arraigned for defiling his 10-year-old daughter moments after she had been sexually abused by a neighbour.
- In Mwingi, in April this year, another father was caught on top of his 15-year-old daughter.
- In Tana River County a 50-year-old man had been defiling his two daughters aged 11 and 14 on a regular basis for a year before they reported him, and he was arrested in June.
Recorded cases of incestuous abuse from various centers
Kiota rescue center: 2011 to March 2020, of 145 pregnant girls rescued 11% from incest.
2020 to 2021, 10 out of 30 pregnant girls rescued were from incest. Meaning 1 in every three girls that was admitted at the center had been abused by a relative at the time of the pandemic.
Gender Based Violence (GBV) Hotline 1195: 59 incestuous cases out of 160 defilement cases reported for the last three years (2018 to 2021). Meaning 1 in every 2.7 reported defilement was incestuous.
Gender Violence Recovery Centre (GVRC): April 2020 to March 2021 of 2195 sexually abused children, 950 abused by relatives. Meaning 1 in every 2.3 reported defilement was incestuous.
50 boys sodomised: meaning 1 in every 19 incestuous abuses happened to a boy.
Police records: 2018 and 2020, 666 cases were of incest; of these, 67 were reported by boys who had been sodomised by male relatives. Meaning 1 in every 10 incestuous abuses happened to a boy.
The Population Council of Kenya Teen pregnancy data 2021
In Kenya, adolescents, who are aged 10 to 19 years, comprise about 24 per cent of the country’s population.
4% of 15-19-year-old adolescent girls are pregnant or recently had a baby over the long recess necessitated by Covid-19. This is 1 in every 25 girls aged 15-19 years.
2% - 4% of 15–19-year-olds got married
Who commits incest?
- Fathers: 59 of 160 incest cases
- Uncles: 36 cases
- Step-fathers: 20 cases
- Cousins: 16 cases
- Grandfathers: 14 cases
- Brothers: 7 cases
Data: National hotline 1195 for the January 2018-June 2021 period