Unmasking the rising tide of defilement and incest

The rising tide of defilement and incest

What you need to know:

  • Kenya continues to record a rise in cases, especially sexual abuse, with many young girls and boys turned into soft targets in the eyes of their relatives.
  • In the process, some teenage victims give birth while others develop health complications.

I am in Mtongwe Vijiweni village, Mombasa County, where I meet Gladys* seething with rage after her nine-year-old daughter was defiled by an uncle.

Vivian*, whose both parts were defiled, was threatened not to reveal the act. Medical records indicate that she was molested repeatedly, over a short period.

For Gladys, December 2018 remains imprinted in her memory. It is the month her now 12-year-old daughter lost control of her stool, and started experiencing pain while peeing because someone had tampered with the pipe in her anus.

Vivian* would typically go by her grandmother's house after school and wait for her mother, who ran her own business, to pick her up later. On this particular day, Vivian says only her uncle was home after her grandmother left.

Whenever Vivian visited her granny, the uncle wouldn't let her go outdoors to play with friends but instead followed her around. After marking his prey, ultimately getting his way with her.

“He called me, pushed me inside the house, and locked the door from inside. He made it a habit, repeatedly defiling me both in my vagina and the anus; and warning me to stay mum about it,” Vivian narrates.

Because of her age and probably the fear the uncle induced in her, she never spoke about it.

Unfortunately, Vivian could no longer maintain the secret after the traumatic events that followed. No matter where she sat, she kept inadvertently helping herself to pee. Her mother got concerned.

“When my daughter, who was in Class Three then, could no longer help herself wherever she sat, I realised there was a problem,” Gladys tells Nation.Africa, holding back her tears.

“At times, I would even cane her [for messing herself], but she could not reveal what had happened to her.”

Nation Media Group reporters Angela Oketch and Fatma Bugu interview an SGBV victim in Likoni, Mombasa County, on November 19, 2023.

Photo credit: Wachira Mwangi I Nation Media Group

Despite consistent interrogation, Vivian did not open up to her mother.

Her situation got worse; she started passing blood and pee. Gladys brought her in for check-up. Doctors at Maange Hospital in Bamburi, Mombasa, said she needed urgent gynaecologist intervention.

Vivian opened up to the specialist regarding her uncle’s uncouth act. She, however, asked the doctor to keep the information a secret as her uncle had threatened to kill her if she disclosed what had happened to anyone.

Medical examinations verified that she was violated. Worse still, a vein in her anus had been damaged, adding to her already severe anguish.

The physician suggested that the issue be corrected with a procedure, but Gladys lacked the funds. She returned home. Meanwhile, the doctor provided her with a report and advised her to contact the police.

She told her in-laws about the ordeal and that she planned to report the incident. Only her father-in-law stood by her. Her husband, mother-in-law and other in-laws demanded that the issue be resolved within the family space.

“We will not air our dirty acts in public, yet you are still married to my son; these are my grandchildren, and the person who has committed the act is also my son,” Gladys quotes her mother-in-law as having said.

Nonetheless, she reported the matter; the perpetrator was on the run. Last year, he was arrested but later released while the case was ongoing.

Gladys left the home and moved with her two other children to a house they had built together with her husband.

Since then, her life has not been easy and she fears for their lives. Relatives have threatened and demanded that she vacate the house.

“My mother told you to drop the case, and you insisted you want justice for your daughter; go ahead and have it. I will not be part of the case,” Gladys narrates what her husband said.

Vivian’s health was deteriorating, and she couldn’t walk well, yet her mother did not have money for the operation. Gladys sought a second opinion and planned to settle the bills with the income she generated from selling ice cream and juice.

An X-ray confirmed that the damaged vein could be rectified. She was put under the doctor's care.

“I struggled to get my daughter back to her feet. We would do sit-ups and Kegel exercises. She wore diapers to school to ensure she did not mess herself up. Luckily, after five months, it stopped, though her lower tummy still hurts. Psychologically, however, my daughter is not okay,” she says.

From the mother's and teachers’ observations, Vivian turned wild and fought with other pupils. Her performance also dropped.

“I face the same problem at home; she is always absent-minded; she does not listen and is very wild, ready to fight her elder sister.

“My other worry is that in all the hospitals we visited, there was a disclaimer from doctors that there is a possibility that when she matures into a woman, she may be unable to have children. This worries me a lot. I just want justice for my daughter,” cries the distraught mother.

Sadly, Vivian's defilement case is one of many across the country. Kenya continues recording a rise in defilement cases. Many young girls and boys have been turned into soft targets in the eyes of their relatives, who should be their protectors.

Child and legal experts attribute it to a culture of tolerance for sexual violence on minors that tends to protect the aggressor, mostly a relative or close family friend. Hundreds of girls have been defiled, a considerable number by close relatives.

Less than a kilometre away at Utange Majaoni in Shanzu, Mombasa County, I meet Brenda* carrying her two-month-old ‘half-brother’. Unlike in other cultures, including in western Kenya where she wouldn’t be allowed to breastfeed the child; in the coastal region, it is not taboo.

Her stepfather, whom she trusted and would consult whenever she had difficulty in her studies, impregnated her.

Her mother married the man while she already had Brenda from a past relationship. The young girl expected a fatherly treatment to prevail. She was wrong.

The 12-year-old is a victim of incest and defilement. She met her ordeal in their two-bedroom mud-thatched house. It was dead in the night, she narrates, when she was defiled. She was asleep when she felt someone touch her and warn her not to make noise.

Her mother had travelled. He tiptoed into her room, holding a knife. “You either do as I say, or I kill you, choose,” the step-father reportedly said.
She obeyed. In two hours, according to Brenda, the father “repeatedly” defiled her.

“He painfully forced himself and raped her. He left her bleeding and in pain… he went back again and defiled her. As if that was not enough, he did it again in the morning. He threatened to return for her if she ever reported to anyone,” says Brenda’s grandmother.

“I just want him arrested,” says Brenda, who has since gone back to school. She is, however, not settled since she has to come back home during the break to breastfeed her baby, and now it is upon her grandmother, a casual labourer, to ensure Brenda and the baby are well fed.

Brenda’s mother, unfortunately, remained in the dark as she suffered in silence. She contemplated telling the mother, but the threats weighed her down. Only after four months did her teacher notice changes in her, and her mother was informed.

She then revealed that the pregnancy she was carrying was her step-father’s. The man has been on the run to date.

“The family is against us taking the matter to court, but I am happy that through the help of the International Centre for Reproductive Health, Kenya, the matter has since been reported. We hope to get justice for Brenda, we will be patient,” says Brenda’s grandmother.

In the Mikindani area of Jomvu, Mombasa, one would mistake Mary’s* child for her younger sister. A 22-year-old neighbour’s son impregnated her when she was nine.

“My daughter did not even have breasts. She had just had her first period, and just like that, she gave birth. The boy is on the run. I hope she will be given the justice she deserves,” says Mary’s mother.

She tells Nation.Africa that whenever she passes near the neighbour’s house or sees the boy’s mother, she feels like doing something horrible. However, they have been counselled and the matter has been reported. She hopes justice will prevail.

These three children are among hundreds of girls who have been defiled across the country. Their predicament also thrusts them into conflict with their communities because of existing beliefs and traditions on incest, exposing them to inhumane treatment, which appears not only rampant but generally condoned.

Society to blame

Mary, Vivian, Brenda and numerous victims of defilement are not just victims of beastly men but also a cruel society that has refused to let go of its warped traditions.

The result is a generation of young girls nursing traumatic experiences into adulthood.

According to the Kenya Information Health Survey data, defilement cases have been on the rise in many counties for the last four years, with Kakamega and Mombasa leading. Experts attribute increased reporting of cases to awareness and availability of services.

Among the reported victims of incest, girls outnumber boys by approximately 10 to one, even though it is suspected that the number of abused boys may be under-reported.

Kakamega, for instance, has reported 1,065 sexual violence survivors this year alone, and 75 per cent of the numbers are defilement cases.

In the last few years, the numbers have been increasing. In 2020, the county recorded 860 rape survivors, and in 2021, it dropped to 720. In 2022, the number almost doubled, with the county recording 1,206 cases.

Even with the survivors, not so many are presenting the cases within 72 hours as per the Ministry of Health directive, so they are started on prevention drugs, hence many get infected without reporting.

From the data, only 526 presented within 72 hours in 2020; in 2021, only 416 out of the 720 rape survivors reported. In 2022, the number increased to 720 out of the 1,206; this year, only 523 were reported within three days from the 1,065 survivors.

The Gender-Based Violence Rescue Centre in Mombasa, run by the International Centre for Reproductive Health, reports that between April and June 2022, 128 cases were reported. Of these, 114 were defiled, with ages 12 to 17 recording 83 cases (77 females and six males), and the 6–11 age bracket recording 22 cases.

From October to December 2022, there were 135 survivors (17 males and 118 females). Of the cases reported, 89 per cent (120) were defilement/rape, continually remaining the most dominant type of violence over the years.

Between April and June 2023, the centre recorded 104 survivors who reported for medical services, with women suffering more at 91 per cent compared to men at nine per cent.

In July and September, 102 survivors (21 males and 81 females) received counselling services, clinical HIV testing and linkage to antiretroviral drugs, pregnancy and referral, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), and legal justice.

“Women made up the largest survivor cohort with 81 cases compared to 21 men of the cases reported in this period,” says Mary Mugo, a paralegal with a GBV centre at the Coast General Hospital.

Mary Mugo, a paralegal with the International Centre for Reproductive Health (ICRH) based at the Coast General Teaching and Referral Hospital GBV Centre, during an interview on November 19, 2023.

Photo credit: Wachira Mwangi I Nation Media Group

She says police referrals constituted the largest link model at 56 out of the total cases, followed by self-referrals and community, constituting 20 cases receiving GBV response services.

The county clinical officer and gender coordinator in Kakamega, Rose Muhanda, acknowledges that sexual violence is on the rise.

“Two years ago, it recorded 17,000 cases, but as of this month, it has reduced to almost half. We are at 9,000 and hope to reduce further to even no cases.

“The response to GBV requires support from other sectors. The county has built a recovery centre at Kakamega General Hospital that admits victims, for free, making it easy for clients to report,” she says.

Initially, most cases went unreported, however, in Kakamega now, with the vibrant advocacy and response teams at the sub-county level representing the victims pro bono, even the perpetrators are afraid of committing the offence.

“We do not allow families to settle matters. Through training from Jhpiego, we have an advocacy team on the ground, working with lawyers representing victims for free.”

Ms Muhanda says the county has a robust multisectoral collaboration and has identified champions to spearhead calls for action in GBV matters. “This must end,” she says.

She explains that the cases reported at police stations and in hospitals are those that their teams have identified, cautioning that a significant percentage of cases still go unreported.

Funding, she notes, is one of the biggest hindrances to justice for survivors.

“If we get funding, we can respond well to matters of GBV,” says the clinical officer, observing that her team looks forward to doing parental guidance, community dialogues and continued advocacy, with political goodwill.

“Our children are suffering,” she says.

Viviane Mmbaka Komwonyo, attorney and principal legal adviser to Kakamega County, attends to hundreds of cases weekly, most of them involving minors.

“Defilement and rape are the highest form of GBV in the county, at least because they are being reported. We have had children as young as two years, being defiled and killed,” she says.

“We have liaised with the Law Society of Kenya to ensure advocates support the victims pro bono, with the assurance that they (lawyers) are facilitated to attend court, and produce witnesses. This has led to justice for many survivors,” Ms Komwonyo says.

In 2022, the county developed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with stakeholders to ensure victims get justice.

Through the MoU, the county government committed to providing accessible services to GBV victims.

“With availability of funding, we plan to bring more lawyers on board,” she says.

The county has allocated Sh100 million in the current financial year to fight SGBV, though Ms Komwonyo says it is insufficient.

“We need more funding to reach more people. We have set up a rehabilitation centre in Shinyalu sub-county; it is operational. Victims are housed until justice is served. So far, three cases have been concluded. Four are in court, with many on the waiting list,” she says.

Legal protection

Sections 20 and 21 of the Sexual Offences Act say both males and females can commit the offence of incest.

The law further says that the penalty for incest or attempted incest is a minimum of 10-year imprisonment or life imprisonment in the case where one of the involved parties is a minor.

However, a judge may be lenient on two consenting adults if it is proved that they did not know about a blood relationship between them before the sexual relationship.

The head of Sociology Department at Moi University, Prof Maasasabi Masinde, tells Nation.Africa that the rise in incest is an indication that caregivers are losing traction.

He explains that victims of paternal incest endure more emotional, physical, self-identity and interpersonal difficulties during and shortly after the incest cases are terminated.

“We are living in a society where men see minors as mature women, more so when they are drunk,” Prof Masinde says, warning that if the victims are not properly counselled, their relationships with men and sexuality are likely to be adversely affected.

Many emotional problems may emerge from the abuse, including avoidance of both intimacy and emotional bonding, adds Prof Masinde.

According to Joan Ngetha, a counselling psychologists and child therapist working at the GBV centre at the Coast General Hospital, if defilement and rape victims are not counselled, they tend to lapse in future.

Counselling Psychologist Joan Ngetha, one of the staff members at the Coast General Teaching and Referral Hospital GBV centre, during an interview on November 19, 2023.

Photo credit: Wachira Mwangi I Nation Media Group

“When a child is not taken through psychological support, they tend to struggle immediately after the incident, the stress level hikes the inability to make small decisions, and they are unable to do homework or socialise. Trauma kicks in, and they have deep wounds in the mind,” she says.

They are likely to develop mental problems, and studies have shown that they can turn into perpetrators, with some children ending up being addicted to sex.

“Research has shown that some addictions in sex are as a result of a child being violated early in life and there was no adequate mental, psychological support and the turn out of the child's behaviour cannot be positive,” she tells Nation.Africa.

Ms Ngetha says children need post-trauma counselling. “This is only terminated when we feel the parents and the child are doing well, but it’s always open for them to come back when they do not feel okay,” she says.

In a week, she attends to about 11 children, which she says is still high and needs to be brought down. According to her, most cases are reported during school holidays.

*Names changed to protect the identities of victims.