Monday, June 17, 2013

We are the monsters under the bed.

Legislation to protect the rights of children needs to be enforced and the law followed to the letter. The national and county governments need to put in place social services necessary for decent working conditions and protection of child domestic workers such as medical insurance and pension contribution schemes. (Protection of child domestic workers vital, Daily Nation, 17/06/13)

Clement Njoroge is right; the law on children must be upheld, especially when it comes to the unresolved question of child workers. Child labour in Kenya is pervasive and prevalent. Its pernicious effects can be seen in the faces of children whose future prospects amount to domestic drudgery at the hands of their families, strangers and the State. The law on children in Kenya has evolved since the 1970s; the attitude of Kenyans towards the rights of children have not.

The last public figure of any level of notoriety to address the plight of children was the former First lady, Lucy Kibaki. Her infrequent interventions regarding the sexual exploitation of children were welcome in the face of the continued silence of others with even bigger political bullhorns such as the self-styled MP for Children, Millie Odhiambo (who once was the CRADLE boss.) Whenever the news media reported incidents of child sex exploitation, whether at the hands of Kenyans or foreigners, the First lady spoke out forcefully and passionately hoping that the State would take action to secure the safety, rights and welfare of children. Both the ministers for Internal Security and for Gender, Children and Social Welfare sat on their hands while Kenyans and foreigners go away, literally, with murder.

The Constitution speaks of the rights of the child and the responsibility of the State and parents to secure these rights. Three years after the ratification of the Constitution, Kenyans continue to blithely ignore the plight of hundreds of thousands of children, simply because they are not their children but someone elses. It no longer takes a village to raise a child; it has become the preserve of the parents. Even the traditional temporary care given by grandparents and other members of the extended family is, nowadays, by accident and not deliberate. Especially in single-parent households, the responsibility of looking after the welfare of children is increasingly being left in the hands of a single adult who may or may not have the time or resources to dedicate to the child while at the same time pursuing a career.

In the past week, fifteen girls in a primary school near Kitale disappeared from their school because they had been impregnated. While being interviewed on TV, the deputy principal, who is a woman, went out of her way to blame poverty and ignorance for the situation the girls found themselves in. The parents and police, education officials and child welfare officers were at pains to explain how, because of meager resources, they were unable to trace the girls who had run away because of the shame of the pregnancies. What is notable about the situation is that a large number of girls were impregnated at the roughly the same time, ran away from home, and all the State could do was wring its hands in despair. Why isn't the Director of Public Prosecutions filing charges against the deputy principle and the parents for neglect and child endangerment? The boys, or men, who impregnated these girls continue to walk free. This is the attitude that we bring to the protection of the child in Kenya.

While child sexual exploitation continues to occupy acres of media space, child labour gets nary a mention. Children form the bulk of the informal sector, but because of their "invisibility" their exploitation and mistreatment continues unchallenged. It is not uncommon to find children barely into their adolescence caring for the children of well-to-do relatives while their peers read up on the latest Harry Potter or engage in FPS games on their XBoxes or PS3s. It is not uncommon to find children being exploited as beggars by adults on the streets of Nairobi, tagged with the pejorative "Street Families." You will find children on construction sites and semi-legitimate "food stalls." All along their parents, teachers, faith-based organisations' leaders and the State will pretend that the problem does not exist. While we harden our hearts to the plight of Kenya's children, it is inevitable we harden them to the suffering of others and contribute, inexorably, to the spiral of violence we are witnessing today.

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