By Shantha Priya Morley
After ten days in Kenya, it feels at once that I have been here for months and that I arrived yesterday. This is largely a product of the sensory overload that I have been experiencing since my arrival. After flying for two days across the world, I arrived in muggy Nairobi. Some hours later, after a quick sleep, the other Canadian intern and I met up with a social worker from my host organization and drove up to Meru, in the Central Highlands of Kenya.
The ride was somewhat exhilarating, as the driver was new to the road and to each of the numerous potholes that met our path – they were certainly successful in slowing us down, and it took quite a few hours longer than expected to reach Meru. Early the following morning, we started work.
My host organization’s initial focus was HIV-Aids, and one of the programs that is still ongoing is to ‘sponsor’ children living with HIV – paying for their food, health care, school fees, and education to ensure their basic needs are met. It has since expanded to meet the pervasive problem of girl child “defilement” (the term used for rape in the Kenyan Constitution).
My work for the Equality Effect is based out of the organization’s rescue shelter, where girls who have been defiled or abused are kept safe when there has been no action to arrest the perpetrator, when the court case is ongoing, and/or when the girls’ families are unwilling or unable to protect them from further harm. It is a great experience to be working in close proximity with the girls and to already be going so frequently ‘into the field.’
One of my first tasks was accompanying a social worker to the Meru Court to observe and document a defilement trial. This visit made tangible the inadequacies of the Kenyan court and police systems and the resultant access to justice issues that I had read about in preparation for the internship. Defilement cases – if they even make it to court – proceed over many months and in bits and pieces. One court date might be set with the purpose of hearing less than an hour’s statement from a witness or two, and the judge will set the next date weeks or months in the future.
When the girl testifies, the physical limitations of the courtroom can result in the perpetrator being just metres from where she is sitting as she speaks. Even worse, because few have legal representation, the perpetrator has a right to cross-examine the girl himself. Finally, the prosecutors in Meru are all police officers and not lawyers, which begs questions not only of their capabilities but also of the impartiality of prosecution when police misconduct plays a role in any given case. Seemingly, when the perpetrator has a criminal defence lawyer, and the girl’s only advocate in the court is a police officer/prosecutor, the pre-existing power imbalance is unduly exacerbated.
These brief observations highlight how even when a “defiled” girl overcomes the many obstacles she faces bringing a claim – the great stigma attached to defilement; her family’s impoverishment, lack of resources, and isolation in rural areas; the trauma she experiences; and police indifference or complicity – she must overcome further obstacles in court. I look forward to sharing more details of my legal work here soon!