A recent report by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics shows that one in every four girls and one in every nine boys undergo sexual abuse before attaining the age of 18.
The report also reveals that only 41 per cent of females and 39.2 per cent of males who experienced any form of violence disclosed their ordeals.
What is even more shocking about the findings by KNBS is the fact that the risk of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) is higher for children living in poverty and for those who have experienced other forms of violence or abuse in their home or community.
“Most of the children who experience any form of violence or abuse are afraid of speaking especially if they suspect they are not in safe environment for them to open up or they will be victimized if they share their experiences,” says Ann Wambui, who runs Neema Rescue centre, a sanctuary for survivors of SGBV in Nyeri county.
It is the want of these safe havens and her own childhood experience while growing up in Kiawara slums in Nyeri that prompted Wambui -also famously known as Wambui Wa Ciana- to start empowerment sessions for school going children.
At the time, she would use such sessions at the YMCA to distribute sanitary towels and food to the young boys and girls.
But it was an incident in 2017 that pushed her to quit her job as credit manager at the Bank of Africa, Nanyuki branch and set up a rescue centre for SGBV victims.
The 30-year-old mother of two narrated how her heart broke after one of the girls she was counselling committed suicide after being sexually molested a second time.
“I kept feeling helpless because I had allowed her to go back to the same toxic environment after the empowerment session. Beyond encouragement, I could not take any other step to get her out of the situation or to protect and that troubled me. I had also encountered many situations where young girls would travel all the way from Nyeri to Nanyuki looking for my help and I thought of setting up a permanent premise where I could rescue these children and shield them from getting abused again,” says Wambui.
After working for one year and three months as a banker, Wambui quit her job in 2019 to pursue her passion as a children rights activist.
Part of her send-off package went to renting a two bedroomed house in Thunguma on the outskirts of Nyeri town where she could host the victims.
Wambui says that the first donations towards supporting her course came from her mother who donated her (Wambui’s) old bed to the centre.
Her local church also donated table and plastic seats and from those humble beginnings the rescue centre started its operation.
Today, Wambui runs the centre with the help of Ellah Musasia who is the director , a matron and cook.
The victims depend fully on the support of well-wishers to operate, though, Wambui sells branded merchandise mostly T-shirts and scarfs to supplement such donations.
In the three years that the safe haven has been in operation, 24 minors have passed through her hands.
The centre is currently home to four boys and 14 girls with the oldest being 17 years old while the youngest is a year-old boy.
“We receive calls from as far as Samburu and Busia counties to come to the aid of children who have been violated. We mostly work with the police and the children welfare offices. In most cases, we get these distress calls from members of the community who give us anonymous tips,” says Wambui.
After they are rescued, the victims are first taken through a medical check-up and numerous counselling sessions to help them recover from the trauma.
Out of the 14 girls under her care, three of them are ambassadors who Wambui says help to raise awareness among their peers concerning SGBV and who to speak to in the event one is defiled. Wambui says that not all cases end up at the rescue centre.
In most instances, the process involves establishing whether the SGBV victim has other close relatives who can take them in.
At other times she is forced to refer the children to other homes depending on the nature of each case.
“Most of those who end up at the centre are those who do not have kin to fall back to. The rescue process involves delving into the victim’s background to see if they can be taken in by close relatives before, we can admit them into the centre,” she narrates.
Sadly, Wambui admits that in nearly all instances that she has been called to rescue a minor, the perpetrator is often closely related to the victim.
The other big challenge she has encountered in her years as a child rights activists is numerous instances where perpetrators fight tooth to nail to circumvent the legal process.
She also says that unlike in the past where the larger percentage of SGBV victims were thought to be girls, boys have not been spared.
“We concentrated too much on the girl child and forgot about our boys. The sad reality is that we have boys being sexually molested and physically abused but the only difference is that boys are not as expressive as girls,” she says.
A few years ago, a local NGO- Action for Children in Conflict (AfCiC) termed children endangered species due to increasing cases of defilement being recorded in the country.
Unfortunately, according to the organization, many of these cases do not see the light of day since 90 per cent of the children are defiled by people known to them; relatives, fathers, uncles, brothers or cousins and even grandparents.
“Studies have shown that defiled children prefer to keep mum because when they report, a relative would be arrested and maybe he or she is the breadwinner of the family. Action for Children in Conflict (AfCiC) believes that the Kenyan child who is protected by international and national legislation should not have to live in fear of speaking out about defilement and encourages the family members to report those involved,” says AfCiC in its 2014 report.
According to Section 8(2) of the Sexual Offences Act of 2006 any person who commits an offence of defilement with a child aged eleven years or less shall upon conviction be sentenced to imprisonment for life.
Section 8(3) of the same law also stipulates that any person who commits an offence of defilement of a child aged between 12 to 15 years is liable upon conviction to imprisonment for a term of not less than 15 years.
Yet despite the stiff penalties spelt out in the law, cases of defilement in Kenya have been on a steady rise over the years, posing a grave challenge to the social and moral fabric of the country.