By Yulia Yugay
“Karibu Kenya!”, says our smiling taxi driver, as he welcomes Nicole, my co-intern from University of Toronto, and myself. We spend the night in the hot (for us, Canadians, who just got out of 6 long months of winter, but definitely not so hot for the locals) and humid Nairobi. The next morning, our driver Charles, who is an hour and forty minutes late (our first encounter with the notion of “African time”), picks us up, and drives us to Meru. On our way, we get a brief insight into Kenyan history, politics, economy and climate. We discover that we arrived right in time for the avocado season and learn about the infamous Kenyan nyama choma (roasted meat) for the first time. Within 5 hours, we drive past countless hills, maize fields, and banana trees. We cross through very dry and then rainy regions, follow along the Tana river (that, as I tell my mom to reassure her, did not flood the Meru region) and, of course, catch a glimpse of Mount Kenya.
Ripples International as an organization
As an intern at the equality effect, a Canadian NGO fighting for the rights of women and girls in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi, I have an opportunity to spend my summer working with one of its international partners in Meru, Kenya called Ripples International. The latter works with children through a number of platforms that include a primary school, a medical centre, an access to justice program, the New Start baby rescue centre and Tumaini rescue shelter that most of my work revolves around.
Tumaini stands for “hope” in Swahili, which perfectly reflects what this shelter is to Kenyan children. Girls and boys aged between 3 and 18 who were and/or are at high risk of being victims of defilement (child rape), child labour, early marriage, and FGM are rescued and sheltered there. Most of the girls at the shelter were victims of defilement; many of them are (very) young mothers, who stay there with their babies. Spending time with these children is my favourite part of the internship so far. During every visit, I am amazed by their good heartedness, love for learning, sincerity, and joie de vivre. On the other hand, every time I discover their individual files that explain why these innocent children are rescued in the first place, my heart breaks anew.
Court watch, police monitoring, home visits
In addition to sheltering and counselling, Ripples International takes on the monitoring of the girls’ treatment by the police and of their court cases. An important part of my work consists of preparing for, attending and accompanying girls to their court hearings. Moreover, we contact and visit police stations and the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions to follow up on cases, when things slow down and fall through the cracks.
Unfortunately, simply getting a defilement case to proceed in court is a challenge on its own. Firstly, the incident(s) has to be reported to the police, where it is recorded in the Occurrence Book and a P3 form (medical examination report) that has to be completed both by a police officer and a doctor/medical specialist is issued. The police has to take the witness statement of the victim, visit the crime scene (which is almost never the case due to either reluctance or logistical issues/inaccessibility of the place), collect evidence and/or admit the evidence provided by the victim, interview and take the statements of other witnesses, where applicable, and finally take the required steps to arrest the suspect and lay charges. This process is not extremely time consuming and complicated but each of the multiple steps is an opportunity for the police to ask for bribes and frustrate the victim’s access to justice.
Our internship takes place five years after the ground-breaking 160 Girls decision that previous interns had described at length had been rendered. In short, Ripples International, together with the 11 petitioners, won the constitutional challenge, as a result of which the High Court of Kenya found that police treatment of victims of defilement violated their constitutionally protected rights and “created a climate of impunity for defilement as perpetrators were let free”. Thus, the National Police Service was ordered in May 2013 to conduct “prompt, effective, proper and professional investigations”. Five years down the road, although significant improvements can be seen, the work that Ripples International and the equality effect do on police monitoring is far from being completed.
Secondly, even if the victim is past the first hurdle and the case does proceed in court, they face issues ranging from delays to absconded perpetrators and even corrupt magistrates. Because Ripples International admits girls from all over the country, I had the opportunity to attend several defilement cases before different regional courts. In my six first weeks in Kenya, about half of the hearings I attended were pushed to a further date because “the court is out on official duty”, the testifying Investigating Officer is caught in preparations for a national holiday, or the accused’s lawyer isn’t ready to proceed, to name a few. Even if witnesses fail to appear in court for no good reason, the most severe consequence they face is a 500 shilling fine (roughly equivalent to $5 USD). Furthermore, in a significant number of cases, the matter is either withdrawn or abandoned because the perpetrator escaped and cannot be found (or the police are not looking for him).
Home visits are another insightful part of my internship; they are both eye opening and humbling. Being welcomed into homes of ordinary people, have them open up and tell us about one of the most desolating events in their family history makes riding 3 matatus (community cars) with at least 7 other people in it and a boda boda (motorbike) each way worthwhile.
All in all, while writing this blog post I’ve come to the conclusion that with all its issues and challenges on both individual and institutional levels, Ripples International offers a strong shoulder and great support to loving children and their families while they undergo the roughest and most challenging times. This support is particularly important in a system where things being done the way they should be is a tremendous achievement, and where the government and its organizations do not make access to justice for victims of defilement easy.