Incest: A tale of families’ dark secrets behind closed doors

Incest in the family is destructive and disruptive to the survivor and  the whole family, who in most cases, hide the "family secret” to “protect the name”.  

Photo credit: Pool | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Twins Miriam and Martha, 14, were defiled by their father.
  • Their elder sister was also defiled; now has mental health issues, has a baby and expecting another one from her dad.
  • Some mothers accuse minors –when they are defiled - of having ‘snatched’ their husbands.
  • Deep in poverty, these women depend on their morally deprived partners to provide for them.
  • Girls disowned by their mothers who choose to side with abusive fathers and step-fathers are particularly afflicted.

Miriam and Martha are 14-year-old twins.

Today, the minors are rebuilding their young lives from a shelter that hosts survivors of sexual abuse aged between three and 14 years.  The story of these teen sisters is sad. They are survivors of defilement - victims of incest, rescued from their abusive father in late 2020. He is believed to have consistently abused and violated them. They are now at a safe house - away from what should have naturally been the warmth of a family.

Good Samaritans happened on their case by coincidence.  Their saviours are two young women who were moved by the sorry plight of a former classmate - the twins’ elder sister. They were concerned that despite having had some good post-secondary school training and landing a job, she had lapsed and was literally languishing at her rural home. They found their friend in a sorry state.

In addition to having mental health issues, she had also had a baby and was expecting another one.  They embarked on the most immediate need - medical care and building a decent house for her.

She lived with her father, her younger siblings and step mother in the same compound. Buoyed by support from friends and well-wishers, the two women made constant trips to check on their friend, help her access medical care and follow up on the house project.

During one such visit, one of the twin minors approached them.  She desperately needed somebody ‘safe’ to confide in.  It was an appeal for help; to be saved from their biological  father who was not only sexually abusing both (twins) but had also subjected their elder sister - the woman they had come in to help - to the same, for years. And as if the bestiality by the father against his young daughters was not horrendous enough, one of the girls was again defiled by an elder brother, as he threatened her with a knife. Father and son were still at large by the time of filing this story.

The violation against the minors’ elder sister, the girl narrated, had led to the second pregnancy -and the family was “suspicious” that the young woman’s first child had also been sired by their father. But that was a dark family secret - although an open one that people could only speak about in whispers. 

“This hit us like a thunderbolt,” explains Doreen, one of the Good Samaritans.

Indifferent and almost hostile

“We had to take some few hours off to digest the heavy information,” the 23-year-old woman adds. 

She says the revelation also helped explain why the elderly man appeared indifferent and almost hostile to their project to help his eldest daughter.  Indications were that he wanted the family left alone, according to Doreen.

The days that followed the girl’s exposé became a nightmare for the Good Samaritans.  Efforts to rescue the two children to safety became laden with barricades placed by the perpetrator. At some point, one of the rescuers was arrested and detained temporarily at a police station, when they went to make a report, and accused of giving false information to the police.  After a lengthy struggle that included threats, the minors were placed at a safe house outside their home county, where they are now getting psychosocial and other support, to help them heal and reconstruct their shattered lives.

“The whole journey, from when we started our interaction with this family to the rescue, has been one huge nightmare,” adds Becky the other Good Samaritan

When I spoke to Becky and Doreen, a few days after helping the minors to safety, the two women were traumatised and had to take time off to also heal; with the help of a counsellor.

“I did not think it was possible for a family to be that broken, quips Doreen.

“And yet there were some in the community privy to this but chose indifference, never mind  the plight and suffering of the of girls and their older sister – who are badly injured by defilement and incest,” she adds.

 “That loud silence, the criminality of a horrible father and the impunity surrounding it, has almost made me lose faith in humanity. We have had long and difficult nights.” 

The host at the safe house says while the minors are settling down to their new life in the company of peers who have survived similar violations, they are able to slowly share their pain. However, they occasionally contend with nightmares and flashbacks that haunt them, as the gravity of their violations unfold.

Defilement and incest in the family is destructive and disruptive. And not just to the survivor, but also to the whole family, who in most cases, work overtime to “hide the family secret” in order to “protect the name”. 

Considered taboo

Sadly, this is done without giving a thought to the harm it does to the victim. The fact that incest is considered taboo in the African setup and also a crime in Kenya, does not make it any easier for survivors to access justice. The victims - including minors, are usually left to shoulder the blame of the bestiality that befall them, even as they carry the emotional and physical burden of sexual assault and violation of dignity.

“It is double suffering for such girls particularly in cases where they are defiled by fathers or step-fathers, only for their mothers to side with their husbands against the daughters, says Dr Jean Kagia, gynaecologist and author of My Life, My Dignity, a book about the dignity of human life. 

“Some of these mothers accuse minors –when they are defiled - of having ‘snatched’ their husbands.”

Dr Kagia speaks from experience; she runs a crisis pregnancy rescue centre and has taken care of more than 160 girls in related difficulties - since 2011 when she founded the Murang’a and Kwale counties based Kiota Rescue Centre.

“When we started, it never occurred to us that we would ever witness such decadence and breakage of the moral fibre to such low levels.  That those, who should be protecting their daughters - grandfathers, fathers and brothers - are the ones violating them. If this girl is not safe with the nucleus family, how can the extended family protect her?” the doctor poses.

The chairperson of Protecting Life Movement Trust, which runs the Kiota Rescue Centres, Dr Kagia admits that they have, in recent times, witnessed a worrying increase in cases of incest.

The renowned pro-life, however, observes that the publicity and awareness that has been created around sexual and gender-based violence is  emboldening more people, including family members, to report violations without fear of repercussion from the abuser.

She cites the example of the January 14, 2021, unprecedented sentencing of a Kirinyaga man who was handed a 140-year jail term for defiling and impregnating his two daughters aged 14 and 16.

“Such penalties not only help to deter and possibly (eventually) uproot this criminality, but it will also help abused and threatened children to fearlessly report, aware that their abuser will be arrested and jailed and will not return to threaten them,” Dr Kaggia says.

“It will encourage those who have been fearing to speak out.”

Most Kenyans welcomed the jailing of the 51-year-old father on his own admission by Senior Principal Magistrate Anthony Mwirigi.  In handing out the sentence, Mr Mwirigi correctly observed that the sex pest had ruined the lives of his two minors with one already a mother, from that double criminality of defilement and incest.

Heavy burden of trauma

Ms Watetu Maina, currently managing about 65 abused girls at the Talia Agler Girls Shelter (TAGs) in the outskirts of Nairobi, states that survivors of incest-defilement and rape carry heavy burden of trauma from the assault by family. 

Those disowned by mothers who choose to side with abusive fathers and step-fathers are particularly afflicted. In addition, the minors and young women - victims of incest - are usually stigmatised, slurred and denounced, leaving them lost and helpless, especially when they are left with pregnancy and a baby, never mind in situations where incest is deeply offensive and taboo.

“The thorny and touchy question at that point is; ‘what next for their lives? Will the community accept them and their babies and will they be able to ever shrug off the incest/taboo tag? Will their babies grow without stigma in that society? Who will address their psychological and emotional state?” Ms Maina avers. 

Half of the 65-girls at TAGs, she explains, are victims of SGBV with 11 being survivors of incestuous sexual abuse.  Chief culprits in these cases include biological and step-fathers as well as some close family members.

The director of Talia Agler Girls Shelter Edith Murogo, says abused girls (within the family) end up stigmatised and ostracised by communities which give them the tag of taboo kids. 

Photo credit: File | Kanyiri Wahito | Nation Media Group

Ms Edith Murogo, executive director at the Centre for Domestic Training and Development (CDTD), which runs the TAGs shelter, says the breakdown of the moral fibre in the family and community perpetuated by a weak justice system that allows sex abusers, including perpetrators of incest and defilement, get away with it.

“In addition, the breakdown of the moral fabric in the community, is a contributor to this state of things.

“These abused girls (within the family) end up stigmatised and ostracised by communities which give them the tag of taboo (kids),” Ms Murogo observes.

“The community had a role in raising a child.  Today, it no longer takes a village to raise a child. We have become very individualistic.  What happens in our neighbour’s house becomes none of my business, even when it is perversion being perpetuated,” she adds.

Most troubling is the issue of mothers who not only sit back passively and watch as their husbands defile and rape their biological and step daughters, but also support these abusers. This is as intriguing and shocking as it is revolting.

The story of 12-year-old Lola, a child with special needs, is sad, vexatious and infuriating. Before she was rescued a year ago, the step-father would repeatedly defile her in the presence of her mother.

“As soon as he would have intercourse with me, he would casually remark that he has to finish it off with (by defiling) Lola,” the woman explains away the abuse. 

On why she did not report the horrendous behaviour and cruelty, she cites, fear of violence and poverty, claiming that the perpetrator husband was the family’s bread winner. A neighbour who was alerted by one of the minor’s siblings, reported the brutality and abuse to a child’s officer. The abuser has been on the run since while the mother and daughter were moved to a safe house. Such ghastly stories are as rampant as they are stressful and heart-breaking.

Continually defiled by an uncle

Take the example of 15-year-old Irene, a mother of a seven-month-old baby. She was continually defiled by an uncle, forcing her to drop out of school on getting pregnant. Fortunately, the abuser was arrested.

Meanwhile, Irene was rescued by some children’s officers and has since been living at a safe house. However, three recent attempts to reintegrate her with her family have been unsuccessful after relatives, including the abuser’s mother and wife, denounced her and threatened her, the baby and her minders with violence, “for shaming the family”.

Irene’s future and that of her baby now lies in the safe house’s management following the family rejection.

“When such happens, the family becomes divided and even broken as this perversion continues to be perpetuated. Women who want to safeguard their marriage, by any means, become prisoners of culture because they want to be seen as married and raising children in a ‘whole family set-up’” Ms Murogo notes.

To fight these abuses, she speaks of the need to create awareness on child protection matters within communities, to remain alert and vigilant.

“We also need to demystify who sex pests are. They are parents, rich and poor people. Sex offenders are within the community and they could also be religious leaders. Communities need to be sensitised to take action not to protect sex offenders,” Ms Murogo adds.

She advocates for enough resources be injected into institutions that handle SGBV cases including the police.  She speaks of a culture of impunity, which has been created around sexual abuse, by the failure or inability to preserve evidence relating to the crime.

How widespread is this criminality: “It is on the increase and it is a huge problem made worse by the fact that it is hardly talked about because of the cultural and societal stigma,’’ says the CDTD director.  “It is like a no go zone.”

To fight incest, agents and co-perpetrators such as mothers and other guardians perpetuating the vice need to be targeted for empowerment on child protection and safety issues.  Some of those well placed to do this are social workers employed by the government and community health workers.

“Specific, individuals in communities can be monitors for SGBV and can work together to occasionally visit families,” Ms Murogo, who also leads The National Shelters Network, submits.

Ms Winnie Syombua, lead gender trainer at the Voice for Women and Girls’ Rights-Kenya, a Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) project, says the community should not sit back as rights of girls and young women are violated, whether by family members or otherwise.

Journalists, Ms Syombua states, have a bigger role of investigating and exposing the crimes including the perpetrators. This will create awareness against incest and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence. However, it is critical that journalists do so within professional ethics to guard against traumatising the survivors further.

“The need to report defilement and other sexual offences cases in a sensitive way to uncover the crimes cannot be gainsaid,” she observes. 

Destroying the minor’s life

“The media is a powerful partner in the fight against violations of girls and women. But the investigations and reportage must be done within the confines of ethics of journalism, to protect identities of the victims, and avoid double-trauma,” Ms Syombua, whose organisation (JHR) mobilises media to spread human rights awareness, says.

Why would a mother cover-up for a partner sexually abusing her child, to the level of rejecting and destroying the minor’s life?

Shame, the fear of rejection including a shattered self-confidence as well as stigma are some of the issues that make such women stay on in their broken situations that leave them with low self-esteem, says Ms Eunice Olawo, a counsellor and psychosocial trainer at IREX. 

“It is the greatest level of humiliation, abuse and rejection for the woman, when her husband or partner goes to such levels as to sexually abuse her own daughter, the counsellor notes. With literally nothing more to lose, the woman stays on,” she adds.

Ms Murogo observes that most women who find themselves in such situations are “prisoners of their economic situations. Deep in poverty, they depend on such morally deprived partners to provide for them.  These cases have become more apparent during Covid-19 times and has seen an unprecedented rise in SGBV cases.

Besides, because of years of living with such indignity where a partner defiles and rapes own daughters, the matters weigh heavily on such women affecting them emotionally, physically and psychologically, the CDTD boss says, citing experiences from the cases they have dealt with especially as they move to reintegrate abused girls from the shelter with their families.

“The women are usually mentally ill because of withstanding horrendous acts of abuse for long. So, they live with depression.”

If we do not act with the seriousness to find ways to arrest violations such as incest, we are, as a society, raising and rearing monsters. Once a mother is caught up in such deeply humiliating situation, observes Ms Syombua, instead of blowing it, many opt to cover it up.

“In most cases, they fear because the defiler is a person of authority (in the relationship) and so, keeping quiet becomes the best option,” she observes.

In the face of the rising increase of incest and other forms of sexual abuse cases, notably since Covid-19 struck in March 2020, it is critical that the Judiciary and related systems ensure the wheels of justice grind faster so that survivors access it while the perpetrators and their conspirators are punished.

Imposing maximum penalties prescribed in law will serve as a deterrent. In the case of incest for instant, the Sexual Offences Act provides a life imprisonment for perpetrators who defile or attempt to defile minors.  

Some names have been changed to protect identities of the victims.

Njeri Rugene, is consulting Editor and founding director, The Woman’s Newsroom Foundation. [email protected]. @nrugene.