NAIROBI, Kenya Sep 13 – Sharon (not her real name) left her home in Western Kenya in 2017 to live with her paternal aunt in Nairobi.
Her mother was happy that her daughter could finally join a good school in the city with the help of a ‘doting’ aunt.
The opportunity came at the right time, when Sharon’s mother could barely afford her school fees, being a sole breadwinner after her father became an alcoholic.
A week after she arrived at her aunt’s home in Nairobi’s Lucky Summer, life took a different turn.
At the age of 14, Sharon was robbed of her childhood.
She became the house girl for the family of five. Sadly, she worked continuously – for long hours and without days off.
Prolonged days of hard labour with only few hours of rest in the night left the young girl desperate and traumatized.
“I would wake up at 4am, prepare my younger cousin for school, prepare breakfast for the rest of the family, clean the house, and I had to ensure all the work was done before leaving for school,” Sharon recounts.
“On Saturdays, I would start doing the laundry very early in the morning, I do general cleaning of the house, wash dishes, then go to Kariobangi to pick bales of flour for my aunt’s shop. I would carry six bales (one at a time). So I would make six trips.”
A one-way trip would take Sharon about 30 minutes’ walk. But returning from Kariobangi to her aunt’s shop in Lucky Summer would take longer – because she had to carry the bale of 12 packets of flour, weighing 24 kilograms, on her back.
As weeks turned into months and months turned into years, Sharon’s absenteeism from school became recurrent.
Sharon thought she had seen it all, but the worst was yet to come, to add to her misery.
Her aunt stopped paying her school fees and assigned her more backbreaking responsibilities.
She was forced to clear heaps of gravel (changarawe and kokoto) for her aunt’s construction project.
For several weeks, Sharon made countless trips filling up a bucket with the gravel and carrying it on her head until she delivered enough required for the construction.
“I first had to do the house work early in the morning. Then proceed to Kasarani to carry the gravel. I used to carry so many buckets that I lost count, but they were more than 20 buckets in a day. Then I would go home in the evening to continue with the house chores,” she recounts.
“Tell Sharon that I want to see the heaps of kokoto and changarawe cleared and brought to the site,” Sharon remembers vividly her aunt yelling at the top of her voice, which was unnecessary, because she could hear her clearly. “There was no need of sending my cousins because I could hear her.”
By this time, the young girl was tired. She couldn’t bear it anymore. She wanted to escape.
“I was very sad. I just wanted to go back to my mother, but my aunt refused.”
Though she suffered acute chest pains, she had to continue working for her callous aunt.
Fortunately, in June this year, a police officer who had spotted her on several occasions working as a construction laborer rescued her.
“The officer took me to the police station (Kasarani) and after that I was brought to the shelter,” she recalls.
In a video recorded by the officer, Sharon’s shoulders resemble those of a bodybuilder.
“At first she was not willing to talk about it because she was afraid of her aunt. At last she was convinced and accepted to open up,” said Winfred Mutuku, a social worker with Centre for Domestic Training and Development (CDTD).
At 17 now, Sharon is happy that once schools re-open she will join class eight through the help of CDTD, which provides shelter to victims of trafficking and of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Were it not that she repeated and missed classes, Sharon would be in form three, like her peers.
Considering that her case is in court and her affluent aunt wants her back, she will remain under protection until her safe reintegration is assured, unless the court rules otherwise.
“As a procedure, we will launch an inquiry which involves visiting her family to ascertain if it is capable of protecting her, if not, we have to come back with her,” says CDTD Founder and Chief Executive Officer Edith Murogo.
But on the downside, the court could order Sharon to be returned to her family, ‘which leads to victims being returned to the same abusive environment’, a concern that Murogo is appealing to the court system to consider before ordering the integration of victims of SGBV and human trafficking.
Again, as required by law, Sharon cannot stay at the shelter for more than three years – unless a party in the case pleads for an extension, based on the argument that reintegration will jeopardize her safety.
On the other hand, CDTD, like other non-governmental organizations that provide shelters, are reeling in the backdrop of high and fast-growing number of victims in need of protection overwhelming their resources and capacity, meaning that it is in its best interest that survivors such as Sharon are safely reintegrated.
When Sharon was rescued, she was first taken to an orphanage, before she could get space at the shelter.
“The disaster is that only few counties have rescue centres. These few are mostly run by NGOs. We are filled to capacity and overwhelmed. We are struggling to make ends meet, because we have no government support, forcing us to rely on the goodwill of well-wishers to cater for the swelling numbers,” Murogo explains.
In July 2020, the Ministry of Public Service and Gender recorded a 55 per cent increase in SGBV cases–based on data from calls received through the national helpline. The increase was linked to the coronavirus restrictions announced in March
Sharon was trafficked, but is lucky to have been rescued.
Unfortunately, thousands of other children trafficked for work are still stuck, in what the African Network for Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN) describes as the worst forms of labour exploitation.
“The case from Western Kenya is one amongst many that constitutes numerous exploitative scenarios against children,” says ANPPCAN’s Programme Manager, Evans Munga, who explains that Western Kenya is one of the areas marked as a source, transit and destination for victims of human trafficking.
“We see a lot of inter-county movement in Bungoma, Kakamega, Kisumu, Malaba and Busia (all in Western Kenya) where children are transported to work in sugarcane plantations, sand harvesting and in offloading of cargo from lorries transiting at the border between Kenya and Uganda,” Munga adds.
Identified as sources and destinations of trafficking in children, Busia, Moyale, Marsabit, Mandera and Nairobi counties are currently under a study dubbed ‘Building Foundation for Child Trafficking for urban and rural Kenya, a joint research by ANPPCAN and Terre des Hommes.
ANPPCAN established that whereas poverty is a major push factor contributing to trafficking of children for labour, lack of awareness in the society amplifies the vulnerability of families, leaving them more exposed to exploitation by traffickers.
“The traffickers do their research and exploit vulnerability based on the gap they see. Somebody comes from urban (centres), they know that you are unable to live to the standards, they tell you: ‘I need a girl so that she can help me then I can provide a few things’. Because of the state you are in within the family, you hand in your child–willingly or unwillingly,” Munga says, apportioning blame on family members as enablers of human trafficking, especially child labour.
In the process, Munga says, a child is moved from their guardians and transported in an organized way to destinations where they are exploited, under the guise of giving them education and a better life.
When children forced into labour cannot bear it anymore, they run away from their hosts, exposing them to other forms of trafficking – especially sex tourism–creating a vicious circle of abuse and exploitation.
“At some point, the child gets tired and moves out. Out there, she is on her own. She is more susceptible to real traffickers who exploit her sexually,” Munga warns.
The International Labour Organization puts the number of children exploited for labour at 152 million globally, with 72 million of them working in harmful work.
Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic is an additional hurdle, subjecting more children to the worst forms of labour and exploitation.
Kenya has reported a spike in the number of cases of children exposed to child labour since March 2020, when schools closed following the coronavirus outbreak, that to date has kept children at home indefinitely.
“There is a difference between assigning children reasonable duties and exploiting them. But abusers disregard this. The long-term emotional and physical effects on children exposed to labour exploitation are terrible. Let it be our responsibility as a society to selfishly guard them so that they can enjoy the rights to play, enjoy their childhood and get education,” Murogo advises.
Judie Kaberia is a fellow of the Resilience Fund of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime