Transforming Child Justice in Kenya

By Irũngũ Houghton

A decade ago, I found myself on the wrong side of the law and face to face with a child defilement case. Monday’s launch of new judicial strategies and institutions offers new hope that we can bring down the insane current levels of violence against boys and girls.

Driving past Thika town, I was stopped by a traffic officer who insisted I was speeding. A familiar conversation ensued. I elected to go the honest route and take a speeding ticket. A few days later, I listened horrified as a boy of 7-9 years describe his anal rape by his uncle in an open court. Still shocked when my name was called, I started by apologising to the Judge for wasting the court’s time, pleaded guilty and paid my fine.

When Chief Justice Martha Koome was appointed two years ago, this column predicted access to justice would be her main legacy. This week, the Judiciary did not disappoint. In a colourful ceremony, the President of the Supreme Court launched their Access to Justice Child Strategy, Sexual and Gender based Violence (SGBV) Strategy, a Convicted Sexual Offenders Electronic Register at Kibera Law Courts and a special Sexual and Gender Based Violence Court and Registry.

Fifty per cent of Kenyans or 23.8 million are children under the age of 18 according to the new 2023-30 strategies released this week. Sixty per cent of children interacting with our courts are victims of sexual offences. A further 20 per cent are victims are victims of emotional abuse and physical assault and a smaller percentage are being prosecuted for petty offences like theft or substance abuse. Others will be children grappling with the distress of divorce and the custody and maintenance battles that often follow the collapse of their parent’s marriages.

At least 225 children are currently in jail with their mothers. 90 per cent of these mothers are single parents and at least 39 per cent of them of those jailed without their children have no way of supporting the children left behind. No less than 147,352 boys and girls are currently in our courts seeking justice from perpetrators in most cases by adults they know.

Ebbie Noelle Samuels is probably one of Kenya’s most infamous cases. Ebbie was killed while supposedly in the safety of her school in 2019. After a four year struggle for justice courageously led by her mother, Deputy Head Teacher Elizabeth Wairimu Gatimu has been dismissed from her position by the Teachers Service Commission. The Deputy is currently in detention awaiting prosecution for the killing of the young Ebbie.

Unlike many countries, child rights are clearly framed within the Kenyan constitution and the Children Act (2022). What has missing has been a clear police direction, guidelines, and an institutional capacity to ensure child-friendly courts and child-centred justice for all.

The new judicial strategies and institutions seek to pre-empt the conditions that give rise to children in conflict with the law. They emphasise dispute resolution as an alternative to the often costly and protracted legal cases. They propose detention as the last resort to avoid the increasing trend of children in corrective institutions or protective custody. Legal empowerment and public awareness are critical, and the Judiciary seeks to work with a diverse set of allies to create a whole of society child justice approach.

Most exciting perhaps of the new initiatives is the rolling out of the Convicted Sexual Offenders Electronic Register at Kibera Law Courts. The rising cases of repeat sexual offenders has been a major challenge in ending impunity. New courts specialised in sexual and gender-based violence cases provide the opportunity for the first time for children and other victims to stand in court behind screens or to anonymously testify remotely.

These reforms will directly address the fear, intimidation, re-victimisation and fatigue, victims and witnesses go through in protracted hearings. Let us congratulate the Judiciary for these bold new steps to ensure that indeed, justice is our shield and defender for the nation’s children.

Irũngũ Houghton is Amnesty International Kenya Executive Director and writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]