Defilement: The silent epidemic
What you need to know:
- According to the 2019 Violence against Children Survey by the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, around one in two young adults in Kenya experienced violence as a child.
- Defilement is thriving and deepening its roots by the day; this is an unusual time as the spine-chilling menace becomes a daily occurrence in Kenya.
Eva* was in Grade One when their male house help defiled her at her home in Kiambu County. She was barely seven.
Several times, the crooked house help would lure her with a few sweets and commit the criminal act. Her mother one day noticed something amiss.
“When my mum asked me why I was bleeding, I told her I had been stabbed by a stick. For all I knew, whatever the house help did was stab me with a stick,” she says.
Innocently, she told her mother the house help gave her sweets in exchange for being “stabbed”.
“I do not know what happened next, but I never saw that man again. I later realised he was arrested, but before that, I remember seeing him being beaten up by neighbours and my uncles,” she says.
By then, her mother worked at a tea factory while her dad worked far from home. Most often, she would be left home with the servant.
“To be honest, I had a terrible childhood. It was traumatic,” she says before excusing herself, the interview is too much for her.
Her story is not different from that of Wanja*, who was defiled several times by her uncles and stepbrothers at her homestead in Busia County.
She had no one to turn to because her parents worked far from home and rarely visited. It all began when she was 12 and went on until she completed high school. She knew it was a shameful thing, but if her family could turn on her, what of strangers? For her, home was no longer home.
“I got addicted to sex and I had a lot of it on campus. I did not know how to maintain healthy platonic relationships with my male friends. I knew they all wanted sex and I gave it to them freely,” she admits.
It was only later that she learnt of sexual addiction, went for counselling and realised her case was abnormal and that being defiled in childhood had affected her perception of sexuality and sex.
Wanja’s case is a typical response to people subjected to immense trauma during childhood, Arthur Muturi, a psychologist based in Nairobi, explains.
“People with childhood traumas have trouble establishing and maintaining healthy relationships. It is common for them to be attracted to unhealthy individuals and emotionally unavailable or abusive persons, as these individuals fit their trauma identity.
“Since traumatic feelings are familiar to them, they will choose these abusive relationships even though they know these are not the right choices,” Mr Muturi adds.
Defilement affects the survivors in adulthood. They develop problems with trusting other people. Often, they will exhibit feelings of paranoia and have constant suspicion that other people will harm them. Many often turn to drug and substance abuse.
This happened to Wanja, who, upon suffering bouts of depression while on campus, resorted to alcohol. She has since quit drinking.
While in abusive relationships, the victims usually seek validation from their abusive partners and often do not receive it because their partners know they have an uncontrollable desire for physical intimacy stemming from their past.
“This can explain the prevalent separations and divorces among this group. When one’s feelings are not validated, they may be hesitant to express them again and thus try to seek self-gratification,” he says.
According to the 2019 Violence against Children Survey by the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, around one in two young adults in Kenya experienced violence as a child.
The report established that 46 per cent of 18 to 24-year-old women faced at least one type of violence – physical, emotional or sexual – during their childhood, while the prevalence of child marriage among girls stood at 23 per cent.
This is despite Article 53 of the Kenyan Constitution that recognises the right of all children to be protected from abuse, neglect, harmful cultural practices, violence, inhumane treatment and punishment, and hazardous or exploitative labour.
In the National Prevention and Response Plan on Violence against Children in Kenya (2019-23), the government intends to reduce violence against children by 40 per cent.
Mercy Mwende and Susan Sindani, co-founders of Empowered Women Collective, provide online and physical counselling to victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and have established an online forum where victims connect and share their experiences.
They also share employment opportunities for women to pursue professional and personal growth.
“Defilement and sexual abuse are complex issues and have various contributing factors. Often, there is power imbalance, with the abuser having more power than the victim; this could be their school teacher, family members, employer, religious leaders and others in positions of authority,” Ms Mwende says.
Other factors include societal and cultural norms that propagate patriarchy, subjecting women and girls to abuse, poverty—which pushes them to aggressive men hoping to get financial favours in exchange for sex—and lack of education and awareness.
“It is important to note that these factors intersect and reinforce one another, and different communities and contexts have unique risk factors that contribute to the prevalence of defilement and SGBV,” Ms Sindani says.
As the team leader at Youth Changers Kenya (YCK), Venoranda Rebecca has dealt with cases of defilement and SGBV.
The YCK has developed a sexual violence education and advocacy programme that strengthens stakeholder capacity to address sexual violence. It also provides psychosocial support to survivors and enlightens girls on sexual violence referral pathways.
One case Ms Rebecca cannot erase from her mind is that of a 14-year-old girl who was defiled by her uncle several times. We will call her Jewel*.
“She was scared of sharing this with anyone because no one could believe her story. Jewel had resorted to self-harming behaviours and had attempted suicide multiple times. We provided counselling services, and, years later, Jewel continues to manage anxiety and depression,” she says.
Counsellor Rebecca explains that often, sexual offenders have experienced physical and emotional neglect during developmental years and consequently cause harm and pass on trauma to children as a form of getting back their power.
“Sexual offenders tend to display psychopathy traits and anti-social personality, and are impulsive, aggressive, lack empathy, violate the rights of others and repeatedly break the law,” she says.
Human rights defender, Grace Kalekye, notes that the issue of domestic violence, SGBV and defilement remain rampant in several parts of Nairobi.
She was involved in the case of a four-year-old defiled by her mother’s boyfriend on Githurai estate. We will call the child Zawadi*. She is now 14.
So bad was it that at some point, when her mother came in with a male guest at home, she hyperventilated and could not breathe for several minutes until the guest left.
Sadly, her single mother, a woman with no sustainable job and heavily relying on the offender for sustenance, never pressed charges when her daughter was defiled—her sole reason being fear of societal stigma.
Ms Kalekye is particularly concerned that homes are unsafe for children and women, who are subjected to horrible living conditions, often battered and raped by their husbands.
“I know several women being abused by their spouses. They keep asking me: ‘Even if you are beaten, what will you do?’ Wives are being raped after being brutally beaten but, feeling gagged, cannot report,” she says.
She says most SGBV and defilement cases often fizzle out, attributing this to reasons that include lack of evidence and flimsy excuses such as “she fell in the bathroom, slid and hurt herself.”
Others are; the fear of taking their children’s cases to the police as they have seen other cases fall apart; toxic love relationships where the woman fears what will happen to her after her spouse is arrested; and the popularity of Kangaroo courts.
Ms Kalekye currently coordinates open discussion forums with young girls and married women.
To ease access to police services for survivors of SGBV, Kenya launched its first-ever policy for the National Police Service (NPS) integrated response on October 13, 2021. Named Policare, the policy provides comprehensive support services, including legal, psychosocial support, police and health for survivors at no cost.
After numerous phone calls to the police headquarters, The Voice was directed to Policare headquarters in Nairobi Area Police Station where Inspector Nelson Mwiti, who currently runs the countrywide programme, sits.
Shockingly, Mr Mwiti revealed the Policare programme has yet to kick off, blaming this on the lack of funds.
The hotline number given for Policare service on its website and social media posts is dysfunctional. The technical committee working on finalising the strategies and standard operating procedures of Policare said they were working on creating other hotlines.
For now, a toll-free line number, 0800730999, issued by the Directorate of Community Policing, Gender and Child Protection of the National Police Service directing survivors to the NPS headquarters, works.
“Whereas we may not give the data on child defilement and SGBV cases owing to the sensitivity, I can tell you for sure that the trend is on the rise, but we hope to upscale Policare services to all 47 counties as soon as we get enough resources,” he said.
*Names changed to protect identities.