We do not see her face, but her child-like voice gives us our first sound-bite; a story in two sentences. “He asked me to come inside to help sweep his shop. I came home crying.” I was sitting across from her when she said those words; her mother behind her, and her case worker just a few feet to my left. Due to their existing relationship and common home language, the case worker conducted the interview on my behalf. He tried to coax more of the story out of her but his gentle prodding was met with silence. “How do you feel?” he asked. Hands clasped tightly on her lap, feet swinging impatiently from a plastic chair too large for her tiny frame, she finally answered, “Sad.”
The Annual Crime Report published by Kenya’s National Police Service places sexual offences under the “Offences Against Morality” category. Rape, defilement and incest are grouped together with bestiality, indecent assault, abduction and bigamy. There were 6228 such offences reported in 2016, making this category the fourth largest contributor to the over 70 000 reported cases country-wide. It must be noted that defilement (defined as an act which causes penetration with a child) accounted for the majority of Offences Against Morality, with an alarming 4601 reported cases (bearing in mind, of course, that thousands more go unreported each year).
These cases however rarely result in convictions. A report by the National Council on Administration of Justice released in January 2017 states that 32 percent of sexual offences that make it to court result in acquittals, 63 percent are withdrawn and only five percent attract guilty verdicts.
This is particularly so in places like Busia County. Situated on Kenya’s western border with Uganda, it is little more than a thoroughfare where the only tarred road carries convoys of trucks between the two countries. Sixty-nine in every 100 residents are classified as poor. There is high unemployment and lawlessness, few opportunities and poor access to justice.
The interview lasted all of five minutes. We took great care to protect the girl’s identity. Her face was never shown, nor were the names of her or mother ever used. Even so, I asked myself if I had crossed a line by persuading a six-year-old to relive the day she was defiled; to tell this traumatic and deeply personal story to a complete stranger, and in front of an intimidatingly large camera?
My motives were perhaps morally justified. What is the role of a journalist if not to bring to light the untold stories of suffering and injustice, with the hope of making a difference? In this case to expose how Kenya’s justice system was failing in the prevention and the protection of its most vulnerable citizens from unlawful sex acts. But I had asked this of her and her mother in service of my agenda with no guarantee that it would bring them the justice they so desperately wanted and justly deserved.
That afternoon in the village we interviewed the mother first. I ask myself now why we didn’t just stop there. Though her mother had consented on the child’s behalf, we did not have to conduct that second interview. We could’ve taken some out-of-focus shots of the little girl playing in the background, and the point would still have been made. But to make her sit down and talk about the day she was defiled… was that perhaps a step too far? Was the intrusion into the personal trauma of a child justified?
As idealistic as it may sound, I acknowledge the power of journalism to advance justice, human rights, and a better understanding of the world and humanity. But there is a corresponding obligation upon journalists to exercise this power and privilege with great responsibility.
When the camera stopped rolling, the girl climbed off the chair and proceeded to play with the other children who had gathered. Her entire demeanour changed. Now, surrounded by friends and the comfort of childhood camaraderie, she was suddenly loose and light on her feet, floating on smiles, giggles and curiosity. As I watched her I was now certain that the five minutes spent with me must’ve been deeply uncomfortable. And as I reflect on it now, I wish I had not put her through that experience.
By the time the story went to air, it included the voices of teenage girls who spoke of illegal abortions and sexual violence in the home and school. Nurses, teachers and social workers told of the horrors they’d witnessed and the interventions they were attempting to implement. It also included an appeal to the First Lady of Kenya to engage with these stories, most of which were contained in letters addressed to her. She declined an interview at the time. But nearly two months later the case worker who had assisted me, told me of a surprise visit the First Lady paid to that community to deliver an ambulance to improve the capacity of the health services to respond to cases of sexual violence and other emergencies.
As for the young girl – in an all too familiar turn of events – the perpetrator proceeded to frustrate the mother’s judicial efforts. Evidence mysteriously disappeared, witnesses didn’t receive summons, scheduled court dates were cancelled or postponed at short notice. And with each court appearance costing the family nearly a week’s wages, they could barely afford to continue pursuing the case.