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Story Publication logo September 25, 2014

Kenya: Sexual Violence, Poverty, and Child Mothers in Busia County

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Image by Paul Nevin. Kenya, 2014.
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Kenya continues to lose 7,000 mothers to preventable deaths each year. If the solutions are known...

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Girls and young women under the care of Rural Education and Economic Enhancement Program in Butula, Busia County, Kenya. The writing on the wall is a quote from Augustine of Hippo: 'Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.' Image by Adiba Khan. Kenya, 2014.

Beatrice is sitting at the edge of her seat as she speaks quietly about how she became pregnant at the age of 15. She looks away when she describes her frustration. On her way home from the market one day, her 17-year-old classmate raped her.

"Because I am a child, it's not that easy to give birth," said Beatrice. "I don't even know how to take care of the baby. I can't buy its clothes."

Beatrice is one of thousands of girls and young women who have come under the protection of Rural Education and Economic Enhancement Programme (REEP), an NGO that serves Busia and Kakamega counties in western Kenya. Mary Mokakha, the head of REEP, explained that their child protection program takes care of children who have been raped, forced into marriages or sex work, physically and mentally abused, or diagnosed with HIV/AIDs.

"Many of our children have been defiled and the pregnancies are due to defilement," said Makokha. "[The community wants] to make it out that everything is beautiful. They don't know what I'm seeing. People are not aware."

Makokha sees these brutal cases as a manifestation of moral decay in the community; she often encounters irresponsible parents and an apathetic police response.

In 2013, Liz, a 16-year old girl in Busia, was gang raped and beaten by six men, who were arrested and released after they finished their sentence of cutting grass. In response, 1.8 million supporters around the world signed the campaign, Justice for Liz; the case is now ongoing.

Over the course of eight years, REEP has brought 527 out of about 8,640 cases of child rape to court. Makokha explained that the process of bringing rapists and abusers to justice is often hindered by corruption in the legal system or families making deals with the accused. She pointed to poverty as an explanation for this corruption and compromise. In cases of incestuous rape, family members may stay silent if the rapist pays them off.

Makokha has found that many of the pregnant children she works with are sexually active with their peers. The province of Western Kenya has the second highest fertility rate in the country, as reported by the 2008-2009 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey.

"This place is highly Catholic, so contraceptives are out," said Makokha. "We are telling children [they] should not know anything about contraceptives, but we are not—as parents—guiding the children."

The lack of parental support can extend to post-pregnancy as well. When Beatrice found out that she was pregnant, her mother was angry and did not accept her circumstances. After REEP intervened to offer counseling and support, her mother slowly accepted her pregnancy and now helps take care of the baby.

Forty minutes from Makokha and REEP, Busia District Hospital is the biggest referral hospital in the county. The nurses in the Family Planning Department find that most pregnant teenagers do not come to the hospital to deliver, fearing judgment and stigma.

"These younger girls, when they come [to deliver at the hospital], it's because they've been brought to us by organizations that deal with rape cases," said Florence Owino, the nursing officer in family planning, referring to organizations like REEP. She says some girls want to deliver at home but end up in the hospital when there are complications.

While the sight of very young mothers is common in Busia County, stigma persists outside the hospital as well. Some are thrown out of their houses, some are ridiculed in their classrooms, and some became pregnant by rapists who try to contradict rape accusations by spreading slander throughout the community.

Beatrice says she did not face issues at school while pregnant, but she had to leave school after giving birth to her child. She believes that things can change in her community if the boys and men change their ways, and if girls stay inside at night.

Only four years older than Beatrice, Wanchiko, 19, has her own story to tell of unintended pregnancy. When Wanchiko wanted to begin her artisan training, she was in need of materials. She had no money, and started a relationship with a man in order to pay for the materials. At 18, she became pregnant, and she is now married to the man.

Sarah Wanaswa, a nurse at the Busia District Hospital, explained that most pregnant young girls she sees have had unintended pregnancies. She says rape is often a cause of pregnancy, but poverty is another significant factor. Some children have to find a way to pay for food, school fees, or uniforms on their own—hardships that can lead to exchanging sex for money.

Wanchiko considers herself an orphan, although her father is still alive. She had turned to the man who is now her husband for money because her father refused to support her financially. She sought protection from REEP when her husband started abusing her at home.

Makokha is no longer surprised by the cases that come to REEP. She hopes to create a rescue center for these children and continues to call on parents and local authorities to create change.

"This is a patriarchal society, and unless we as women come out to protect the girl-child of this community and make very hard decisions, I'm sorry, but we are losing a generation," said Makokha.

(The names of Beatrice and Wanchiko have been changed to protect their identities.)

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