As elections approach, school kids cast their vote against violence in Kenya
“You are coming with us,” the police officer says as he hauls the man out of the house, his wife crying hysterically behind them. Their daughter was kept home from school to do housework — an illegal form of child abuse—but at home, while her mother is out, her father sexually assaults her.
“Stop, please stop,” the child begs, quietly at first, then louder and louder until she can do no more than just scream. Two men who live nearby come into the room to find the two struggling on the floor. They pull the father off his daughter, attack him, and then bring a police officer to take him away. The girl sits shaking, wide-eyed and fearful. Her father doesn’t look back as he is led off in one direction, while his daughter is taken in another, to the hospital to receive medical care.
This is a scene being performed by school students in a short play competition, and the applause that fills the hall when it concludes testifies that it will be hard to beat. As the play unfolds, the 700-strong audience is packed into the school auditorium, some leaning in through doors and windows to catch a glimpse of the play. They are captivated. The children in white and blue uniforms wince in collective unison at the violence being portrayed on the stage before them then cheer together as justice is served.
As the curtains drop, audience members murmur in hushed tones, the grim subject matter is disturbing but not altogether unfamiliar to their lives. Kinyanjui Road School Headmaster Christopher Muguti says it is a story he is sadly familiar with: “More than once we’ve had cases of girls being abused by their fathers. You find children not performing academically, not playing with others. They are traumatized and they can’t work — you know something is wrong.”
The Kinyanjui Road Primary School is located in the Kawangware slum, a sprawling multi-ethnic community in the west of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city. When Muguti took over the top job in 2008, the school and the community were in the grip of turmoil following the country’s disputed national elections of December 2007.
“In 2008, a number of children transferred to other schools because they were afraid they’d be [ethnically] targeted. Even a few teachers left the school, and half of our students remained at home for three months, too scared to come to school,” added Muguti.
In the last national elections, as supporters of different candidates turned on one another, violence swept much of the country, and more than 1,200 people were killed. [i] In Kawangware, scores were injured and property was destroyed. Today, the school has undergone a revamp, and boasts colourful buildings, lush lawns, and a huge new hall. However, many children at the school still face poverty and other challenges outside the school gates.
Mary Aluel and Eugene Kwizera, both 14 years old, are members of the Kinyanjui Road School’s Kings and Queens for Change club. Eugene recently won an essay competition run by the Gender Violence Recovery Centre (GVRC), which also organized the theatre competition. Eugene’s essay argued passionately for domestic violence and child abuse to be dealt with publicly and become a top priority.
“The community needs to know that abuse is not character-building — it can destroy a child’s future,” he says. “People try to hide these cases, but if they see authorities will support them, then they will report the crime.”
In the winning play, a key role was played by the local chief, a source of traditional authority, whose leadership in ensuring justice through formal channels was instrumental in its resolution. Mary says the play showed young people what to do if subjected to abuse: “If someone came to me, I would report it to an older person, and if they hesitated, I’d go straight to the police.”
In the aftermath of the 2007 election, the GVRC handled 653 cases of violence, including 523 cases of rape. In the lead-up to the 4 March vote this year, the GVRC –in collaboration with UN Women– is working to map and promote health, legal and other providers across the country so that survivors of violence can access services.
A Gender Violence Hotline has been launched so that GVRC can provide immediate medical and psychosocial support to survivors, including collecting evidence, providing medical expert witnesses, and completing a post-rape care form, which is admissible in court. So far this year, the GVRC has run awareness-raising events in schools and communities across the country, like those at the Kinyanjui Road School.
“The children in places like Kawangware are learning to speak out against violence,” says Wangechi Grace, the GVRC’s Executive Director. “It’s every Kenyan’s responsibility to ensure peaceful elections. We must nurture our children from a very young age to be patriots and to learn the value of peace and participation in the development of their country.”
[i] Human Rights Watch reports http://www.hrw.org/africa/kenya