“I was sexually and physically abused in my uncle’s house for close to nine months,” 30-year-old Sophie Otiende recounts her painful childhood that she hopes to forget.
Otiende tells me she was only 13 years old when her rights were violated.
All the time the assault was going on, her uncle was just a bystander.
“Whenever my aunt would beat me up, my uncle did nothing. He just watched as I cried in pain. She had no reason for beating me up. When she woke with a bad mood, that would count as a reason,” Otiende says.
However, what pains her most was the sexual assault.
“I am not yet ready to say who sexually assaulted me, but it was someone in the house. It was not my uncle. We were so many people, not just my cousins and me,” Otiende says.
“It did not happen once, but several times,” she adds.
She tells me she would wake up every day at seven o’clock to cook and clean the house.
At no point did her aunt or uncle tell her she was supposed to be in school.
“One day, I refused to clean the house and do the dishes. I asked my aunt why am I not being taken to school and the feedback I got was a beating. She slapped and kicked me multiple times and told me I was there to clean the house, just that,” Otiende says.
She would clothe her younger siblings with school uniform and iron their clothes, hoping that one day, she would rock her uniform and go to school to also acquire more knowledge.
“I always asked myself why my uncle never told his wife to stop beating me. He did nothing. It was as if my screams were music to his ears,” Otiende laments.
Nine months later, her mother came to pick her up from her uncle’s place after their families financial status stabilised. She couldn’t believe what happened to her daughter.
“When I told my mum about what I went through, she cried all the way from Kisumu to Nairobi. For eight hours, she sat looking outside the window of the bus, perhaps regretting why they let me go to my uncle’s house,” Otiende says.
My dad, on the other hand, was not only mad but angry. At this point, Otiende says she had not told both her parents she was also sexually assaulted.
My father could not believe that I was turned into a slave.
He asked, “Why didn’t you tell us early enough?
“I did not know where to get help and I was only 13 years old. Plus with what we were going through financially, I thought it wise to just keep quiet,” Otiende told her dad.
The family decided to let the matter rest for a while until Otiende was ready to deal with it.
She saw a counsellor and was also taken back to school after her she finished her counselling sessions.
Fast forward to 2014, when Otiende joined the Awareness Against Human Trafficking, (HAART-Kenya) as a volunteer. She was exposed to cases of human trafficking, and that’s how she was able to identify what she went through as a child as a crime.
“2014 was the year I was able to define and name what I went through when I was 13 years old. My colleague in HAART called it human trafficking,” Otiende says.
Human trafficking can be defined as the illegal movement of people, typically for the purposes of forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation.
According to Maureen Mburu, a legal officer at The Cradle, a children’s foundation, cases of human trafficking are on the rise, even though they are often not reported.
“Without even looking at international cases, 40–50 per cent of trafficking cases occur locally. This comprises those who are coerced into labour or sexual exploitation,” Mburu says.
According to The Cradle, most of those coerced into labour are from Western, while those trafficked for sexual exploitation are in the Coast, as it is a tourist destination.
“We are not saying other regions do not experience trafficking. They do, but only a few cases are reported. That is the challenge the government and NGOs against human trafficking are grappling with,” Mburu adds.
A report published by the United States Department on Trafficking in Persons shows that only 153 cases of child trafficking were identified in Kenya. This is despite numerous legislations being put in place to deal with the matter.
The report identifies Kenya as a source, transit and destination country where men, women, and children are subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking. Children are subjected to forced labour in agriculture, begging, cattle herding, domestic service, fishing and street vending.
Girls and boys are also exploited in prostitution throughout Kenya, including in sex tourism in the Coast. At times, their exploitation is facilitated by women in prostitution, “beach boys” or family members.
According to the Counter-Trafficking in Persons Act, a person who trafficks another person for exploitation commits an offence and can be imprisoned for 30 years or fined Sh30 million or both, and upon subsequent conviction, can be imprisoned for life.
The Act also states that a person who finances, controls, aids or abets the commission of an offence is liable to the same penalty as the person who trafficks another.
Even though the Act is clear about what trafficking is and its consequences, many perpetrators end up getting a lenient sentence.
“For a case of human trafficking to be presented in court, three elements need to be adhered to: the act, the means and the purpose. The act will be looking at the steps a person used to get the victim, the means will highlight what measures perpetrators use to recruit the victim, and the purpose is to prove that the act was for exploitative purposes,” Mburu says.
The legal officer said most perpetrators escape charges because they don’t meet the three criteria. Most of them are charged with child labour instead.
Mburu further noted that most Kenyans think trafficking is an offence that happens abroad, but there are many cases locally as well.
“Most cases we handle at The Cradle are of parents who send their child to well-off uncles and aunts to live with them. Poverty has been cited as a key reason why some parents send their children to live with their relatives,” Mburu says.
“Some of these children who have been turned into slaves by the relatives live in our estates, but not so many people can identify them. Most of them think the child does not have good clothes like her cousins or that he/she is just shy.”
“What angers me most is that we (the society) have accepted we can live with relatives who, so long as they provide food and shelter, can abuse and not school us. When will Kenyans ever say no to this?” Otiende says.
Apart from not being able to identity a human trafficking case, Mburu says most people who know what the offence is tend not to report the case to the police because they’ve been threatened by the perpetrators.
Mburu says, “Some do not even know what the offence is. When you tell someone about a trafficking case, he or she assumes you’ve been arrested for drunk driving or violating a traffic rule.”
Eighteen years later, Otiende is yet to get justice for her case. She hasn’t reported it because she would need to consult with her parents, as one of the perpetrators is her aunt.
“I am still not sure if I want action to be taken against them. Family issues are a bit confusing. There are those who want to solve it over a cup of tea, while others opt to go the legal way,” Otiende says.
Mburu says that is a “good example” of the challenges they face when trying to get justice for the victims.
“Some families just want an apology, yet the victim, who might be a child, wants the opposite, because the abuse they went through is not equivalent to a five-letter word,” Mburu says.
“The most successful way to counter human trafficking, especially for children, is through securing conviction against the traffickers.”
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