Covid-19: Safe houses need State support to stay afloat
They sit quietly in the sitting room of this neat house in Kigumo, Muranga County. They are fidgety and occasionally exchange inaudible notes – almost whispering.
Two of the three girls aged between 11 and 16 years, are visibly pregnant. The oldest whose delivery is in a week or less, is clearly anxious. She dropped out of school in Form One and does not know what the future holds.
She has accepted her fate and already feels attached to her unborn baby. She is, however, unsure of how and where she will raise it. Her mother kicked her out of home the moment she discovered she was pregnant.
The youngest is a bubbly girl who appears glad to run errands for her older colleagues. She shows no signs of pregnancy. After all, “she is too young” and in fact, looks younger than her 11-years.
This house, a crisis pregnancy rescue centre, is their temporary home. It houses pregnant girls -mostly abandoned and rejected by their families – never mind that some of the pregnancies-are a result of incestuous defilement or rape. The girls’ tales are too sad to bear.
The Rescue Kiota provides distressed girls with temporary safe space, a feasible alternative to abortion. They get medical care before and after delivery- including pre-natal and ante-natal services.
Kiota project is led by a group of Christian professionals The Protecting Life Movement Trust who are mainly doctors. They professionals led by the executive director and leading gynaecologist Jean Kagia are anti-abortion advocates.
They ensure the girls deliver safely then ensure the young mothers and their little ones move on, either back with their families, or to any other places of comfort.
The 11-year old Scholar, shyly informs visitors who accompanied Dr Kagia to the centre, that she too is pregnant, about four months pregnant. That image of little Scholar admitting her status, with a somewhat sad and uneasy expression, a lesso wrapped around her small waist, is unforgettable. How would she, at that age, safely give birth?
Six months later, during a visit to The Talia Agler Girls Shelter (TAGs) in the outskirts of Nairobi, Scholar comes to mind. I recount her story and my fears to Ms Edith Murogo, TAGs executive director.
BACK TO SCHOOL
“Are you by any chance talking about the girl over here?’’ Ms Murogo inquires, as she leads me into one of the hostels. Sitting on a bed, struggling to breastfeed a little boy, is the 11-year old Scholar! She safely delivered and both have a new home at TAGS.
Eleven months later, the young mother is back home with her mother in Bungoma County, after the two were reconciled and she is back to school.
Lizzy Auma, 17, is a mother of one. She was gang-raped by four men including her employer, whom she worked for as a house-help. The orphan was only 15 when the defilers attacked her at the ‘employers’ home when his wife was away.
Traumatised, hopeless and helpless, her woman employer advised her to procure an abortion but she refused. She was then thrown out of the house, into the streets. A Good Samaritan rescued her and took her to a shelter within Nairobi.
The home could, however, not accommodate her after she gave birth and she was taken in by another one where she is raising her two-year-old son.
Last week, she walked into the office of the Shelter’s director, a letter in hand. She handed it to the ‘Mum’ and walked off hurriedly, worried she may have broken protocol by her action.
An excerpt of the one page letter, reads: “I appreciate you coming into my life because you have now made me know the love of a mother… you have made me and my baby feel so loved and appreciated….I cannot stop wondering just who I am to you, for you to love and care for me this much…”
Lizzy, whose mother died while giving birth to her, was raised by her father who later died in mysterious circumstances. Her only sibling also died. Just before the deadly Covid-19 kicked in, she was set to start some course funded by her shelter home.
“Shelters are the missing link in gender-based violence (GBV) intervention and they are critical for the victim’s interim support and rehabilitation,’’ says Ms Murogo.
“It provides a springboard for the survivor to be able to believe in themselves (again),’’ she adds.
The support survivors receive at safe houses, shelters and temporary accommodation, include access to legal aid, specialised trauma counselling and legal aid.
Cases of rape, physical and general violation of women’s and girls’ rights, have spiked in the country since Covid-19 struck in March, despite mounting anti-GBV campaigns by women rights organisations and partners.
The Ministry of Health says 5,000 SGBV cases had been reported by July 23, with 70 per cent being under 18 years. Efforts by most victims to access justice during has equally become a daunting task. Most lack financial and emotional support and consequently, are left to nurse and live through their pain and trauma.
While shelters, temporary accommodation and other safe spaces are key in helping SGBV survivors restore their dignity and pick up the pieces, reports indicate there is a shortage of the same, with almost none that is government operated.
There are, however, a number of them run by organisations and a few individuals that shelter vulnerable girls, women-victims of SGBV, child labour victims as well as trafficking.
The cases of Lizzy, Scholar and other girls at TAGS and Rescue Kiota shelters are examples of credible work some Kenyans are doing to assist vulnerable girls and women to rebuild their lives.
However, most of these shelters operate on shoe string budgets. Some get occasional support from donors, while others have to seek alternatives means to raise funds.
During this Covid-19 period, management of shelters and related safe houses say they have documented increased numbers of SGBV cases mostly girls. They note that child abuse cases perpetrated by parents and other close family members are on the increase too.
Ten-year-old Christine is among tens of girls recently rescued from abusive situations and found a home at a shelter. When we visited her last week, she was nursing a deep cut at the back of her head, inflicted by her mother. She is lucky to be alive, says a neighbour, who was among those who rescued the girl and took her to a nearby clinic.
Neighbours then took her to a relative, but the girl was too traumatised. A children’s officer referred her to the shelter she is currently in.
With her at this shelter, is an eight year-old girl rescued from the wrath of a step-father notorious for battering her. The minor’s body carries fresh wounds and whip scars.
Then there is a 15-year-old girl – victim of child labour. She too, was saved by children’s officers, last month and referred to the shelter.
The primary school pupil was found at a quarry in the outskirts of Nairobi, where she was subjected to forced labour by a relative. She is a local victim of child trafficking. There are a number like her in this shelter.
“There has been an increase in referrals to our shelter (TAGS) since Covid-19 containment measures started, and we are worried we may not be able to receive all the referrals now,’’ says Ms Edith Murogo, who is also the executive director of Centre for Domestic Training and Development (CDTD).
“This calls for State and non-State actors to work together to get solutions to address issues of safety, especially for children,’’ she adds.
Most shelters such as TAGs, only admit victims (mainly girls) referred to them by officers from the Department of Children’s Services and the Police Service. Most work in collaboration to help survivors repair their lives.
Rescue Kiota, for example, only takes in pregnant girls and once they deliver, they transit to other shelters with their babies, in a structured network.
“It is time the government looks into ways of supporting existing shelters in the frontline to provide SGBV services to survivors,’’ she notes.
“Most of them work almost on bare hands to ensure they provide the much needed services without government support.’’
Women’s rights organisations have severally called on the government to support those running shelters and other rescue centres. They also want counties and the national government to not only make shelters a priority by establishing them, but to also take SGBV issues seriously.
The government should set aside a budget to fund SBGV by existing shelters and safe houses; they need support to help restore victims’ dignity.