11 August 2014

Kenya's Own 'Erin Brockovitch' Changes Lives of Girl Survivors of Sexual Abuse

Meru — Surrounded by endless rows of green tea plants, Mary carefully picked a leaf and placed it into a basket next to her. It seemed like an ordinary day at work for the 13-year-old girl from Meru, in Kenya's Eastern Province. After work she escaped to the adjacent farm for privacy, but was instead attacked and raped by a middle aged man. "My grandmother took me to the police to make a report, but they didn't arrest him. I was told he bribed the police," Mary* tells IPS as her 11-month-old baby girl sits on her lap.

Mary, now 14 years of age, and her daughter live at Ripples International's Tumaini Girls' Rescue Centre in Meru, Kenya. It houses 15 other girls like Mary, three of whom have babies of their own, all born out of the sexual violence perpetrated against them.

"Sexual abuse is known as defilement under Kenyan law. All of our girls here have been defiled by either family members, neighbours or employers. One girl was even defiled by a police officer," Mercy Chidi, founder and director of Ripples International, the organisation which established Tumaini Girls Rescue Centre, tells IPS.

Chidi is a social worker, not a lawyer, but her human rights advocacy makes her a respected figure in Kenya and beyond. She has provided shelter to survivors of sexual abuse, female genital mutilation and child marriage at Ripples International. The organisation's faith-based approach makes creating fundamental change in the livelihoods of Kenyan girls its mission.

"It started over 10 years ago with abandoned babies and orphans. We gave them a home," Chidi says. "We also provide HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention."

A 14-year-old girl named Grace*, looking much younger than her stated age, takes a seat on the couch in front of the television at Tumaini Girls' Rescue Centre. She is HIV-positive.

"I was raped by my father," she tells IPS as her voice quivers. Grace has been living at the shelter for the past year, trying to keep up court appearances and her anti-retroviral medications. She's also trying to get back into school.

Fiona Sampson is a Canadian lawyer and the executive director of Equality Effect, a human rights organisation working to advance the rights of women and girls in Kenya.

Sampson met Chidi in 2010 during a human rights course in Toronto, Canada. She calls Chidi the "Erin Brockovitch of Kenya" due to her relentless pursuit of justice for Kenyan girls.

"Mercy asked if the Equality Effect would help her develop a legal advocacy solution to the defilement problem, and the failure of police to enforce existing laws, and we said 'yes.' The Equality Effect was already working in Kenya on other projects," Sampson tells IPS.

Sampson brought together legal experts from Canada, Kenya, Ghana and Malawi to pursue a class action lawsuit, which came to be known as the 160 Girls case. The 160 refers to the number of girls selected, even though only 11 petitioners were named in the claim. These girls faced discriminatory police treatment, including police rape.

"We argued that the police treatment of the girls' defilement claims was discriminatory and violated their human rights in contradiction of the equality guarantees in the Kenyan constitution and regional and international human rights law," she says.

In 2013, the 160 Girls went from victims to victors. The judge read the verdict in a Meru, Kenya courtroom: "By failing to enforce existing defilement laws, the police have contributed to the development of a culture of tolerance for pervasive sexual violence against girl children and impunity."

Muthomi Thiankolu is a constitutional lawyer and lead counsel on the 160 Girls case at the High Court of Kenya.

"In Kenyan law, defilement is sex with a minor. Someone under the age of 18," Thiankolu tells IPS. "The court ruled police must enforce the laws under the constitution, and properly investigate cases of defilement and rape."

Mary bounces the baby on her lap. She now feels the law will protect the both of them. The child starts to giggle and a smile comes over Mary's face.

"At the time it happened, I was working to make money to pay school fees," she says. "Now, living here at the centre, I'm arranging to go back to school."

*Name changed to protect their identity

Edited by: Nalisha Adams

The writer can be contacted on twitter @adambemma

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