How Kenya’s lax laws promote sexual abuse of minors online

abused girl

Online abuse has a sense of mental torture that lasts for years and is continuous in nature.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Sexually exploited children are often let down by the criminal justice system and the slow implementation of policies in the country, a new report has shown.

The 2022 report on child sexual exploitation and abuse, dubbed “Out of the Shadows Index 2022" developed by The Economist Impact indicates five barriers to justice for sexually abused children — legislation, policies and programmes, national capacity and commitment, justice processes and support service and recovery.

The report was researched and developed by Economist Impact to track and develop a global assessment of how countries are preventing and responding to Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (CSEA).  The report ranks countries on how their laws, programs and policies are effective in safeguarding the welfare of children.

The 2022 index shows that many governments are increasingly failing to create then policies needed to prevent and respond to CSEA.

South Africa is the only country from then continent in the global top ten in prevention and response to CSEA. It is ranked fifth after United Kingdom, France, Sweden and Canada. South Korea is sixth, followed by Australia, Indonesia, Turkey and Germany. Kenya is ranked 21, Rwanda 27, Tanzania 33, Nigeria 34, Morocco 36 and Uganda 37.

Since the first Out of the Shadows Index in 2019, there “has been a 36 percent decrease in the number of countries that have a national strategy or action plan that that specifically addressed child sexual exploitation and abuse.” 0

This came after a survey of about 60 countries globally, Kenya included, was done to assess the state of child sexual exploitation and abuse.

Kenya was ranked 21st overall and second in Africa for its strides in coming up with policies that avert and respond to child sexual exploitation and abuse. However, only victims and those that help them get justice feel the missing gap on implementation of policies.

Kenya has also been indicted as having the worst environment for children despite doing well in the overall ranking. The report attributes this to the country’s laws that should align with international standards.

For example, the report shows that there is ambiguity in defining some of the content of the law on the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography (OPSC) which has been adopted by most countries.

““Over 40 per cent of countries assessed for the index either do not explicitly define ‘child pornography’ or ‘child sexual abuse material’ in national legislation, or their definitions do not meet international standards. The goal is for all countries to adhere to the same clear standards and definitions, thus forming a shared global framework that will aid the prosecution of such crimes,” says the report.

Tsitsi Matekaire, Global Lead for Ending Sexual Exploitation at Equality Now said that Kenya currently has a robust policy framework that addresses child sexual exploitation and abuse.

"We have to commend the government for fast- tracking these policies in 2022, especially the revised Children Act (2022), the National Plan of Action to Tackle Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (2022 – 2026), and the National Care Reform Strategy for Children in Kenya (2022 – 2032). However, a key gap is the lack of awareness among communities, civil society organizations, and government departments on these policies. Kenya must accelerate awareness among these stakeholders, which will be a key step to ensuring their implementation and enforcement,” Matekaire said. 

Child sexual exploitation abuse is evolving with technology and perpetrators have already set a harmful trend online. While Kenya has an Anti-Human Trafficking and Child Protection Unit, not so many parents and guardians know of its processes.

“These days, most parents can afford to buy a smartphone for their children. Most of them have become content creators. It is when they are online that grooming from perpetrators starts and children are lured to send inappropriate material which is used as ransom when they threaten to speak out,” said Trace Kenya Executive Director Paul Adhoch.

“Child protection is only possible if there is increased involvement of children themselves in child protection leadership mechanisms. Those from marginalized communities are especially critical in adding the much-needed perspectives and solutions to prevent and respond to child sexual exploitation and abuse," Matekaire added. 

Ms Athena Morgan of the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children told Nation that the lack of knowledge for some caregivers is the first roadblock to implementing laws.

“The country has progressive laws but most of them have not been implemented. It is important that, once a parent finds out that a child is being exploited online, they should report it and not bury the issue. Parents should create safe spaces for their children in such cases. They can only ensure laws are implemented by sharing evidence of abuse and not hiding it because the abuser can only stop harassing other children if they are brought to book,” she said.

She said online abuse has a sense of mental torture that lasts for years and is continuous in nature.

“Psychosocial workers should know that online abuse is equally bad and they should treat it seriously just as they do physical abuse,” she added.

For offline cases in the country especially those in far flung areas, justice is mostly denied as perpetrators are rarely taken to court.

Said Matekaire: “Government departments such as the police, DPP and Judiciary need to be more assertive when it comes to tackling online sexual crimes against children. This also relates to how evidence is collected, stored and presented in criminal proceedings. The Department of Criminal Investigations is stepping up efforts to detect cases and gather evidence for prosecution, which is commendable. However, there is room to strengthen responses in this area, for example, by improving collaborations between the children's officers, who are first responders, and the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) in the investigation of CSEA cases."     

Ms Eunice Kilundo, who works with Child Fund Kenya, told Nation that, in most cases, marginalised children have no access to services and the protective mechanisms for such children are weak.

“Boys are at greater risk than girls in marginalised areas. We have observed that protection facilities for child sexual exploitation and abuse only house girls. The focus should be on both sexes,” she said.

“Retrogressive culture is also to blame for the slow implementation. When a girl is impregnated, some people would rather exchange cows and let the perpetrator walk scot free despite having committed a heinous crime,” she added.

She suggests that collaboration of different ministries in the country would go a long way in ensuring that children’s issues are well catered for.

Corruption also plays a role in hindering access to justice for victims.  Ms Mary Makokha of the Rural Education and Economic Enhancement Programme told Nation that she becomes emotional when a case she is following up on even gets the attention of the courts and the perpetrator is sentenced.

Adult offenders

“We are not going to do anything tangible for children as long as corruption still exists. You have to do so much for a case to be concluded. I feel that, as a country, we are still in denial and are yet to appreciate the magnitude of child sexual exploitation and abuse,” she said.

“It is sad that parents play a role in denying their children justice. I have seen cases in the village where, instead of parents going to the police, they opt to go to a pastor who reconciles them.”

“Other perpetrators pay the parents some money just to silence them. In the end, everybody else benefits after a child has been exploited except the child,” she added.

Some abusers find their way out of prison and still repeat their mistakes.

The report shows that only four countries have established rehabilitation programmes aimed at preventing a repeat of the crimes by adult offenders.

The country recently adopted the Children Act (2022) and the National Plan of Action to Tackle Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (2022-2026). Children’s advocates now want the country to raise awareness on such newly adopted laws for ease of enforcement.

"We encourage adopting a multi-sectoral approach in addressing child sexual exploitation and abuse. Kenya needs to adopt and implement legislative, judicial, administrative, educative, and other appropriate measures by engaging a range of private, public and governmental authorities to complement and support each other’s efforts," Matekaire said.

In addition to legislative and policy measures that clarify the accountability of the private sector and technology companies, Matekaire pointed out that the huge gap that currently exists in online and tech-enabled child sexual exploitation and abuse will require tech professionals to develop bespoke innovations to prevent production and sharing of child sexual abuse content in the digital space, as well as detecting and removing it.