IRENE* lies down on the small mattress, tucked away behind a make-shift sheet hung up to give her some privacy. Next to her sleeps her five-day-old baby. It is a sweet scene, but sadly, it masks a tragic past. Irene is just 14 years old, and the father of her child is her uncle. She comes from a village almost 300 kilometres away from Nairobi, having been sent into the bustling capital city by her parents, who believed that her uncle would help her go to a good school.
But when she arrived, her uncle took her for an HIV test which was confusing—she didn’t understand why they were doing it. When the results came back, and he discovered she didn’t have HIV, the rape began. He sexually abused her for five months before kicking her out into the streets. Not knowing what to do, she began walking to her rural home - a journey that can take by car takes six hours. Fortunately, she was found by a pastor while on her journey, and who introduced her to a woman that knew of a small centre in Nairobi that helped children that had been sexually abused.
That evening, she was taken to the Mary Faith Children’s Centre, and then to the national Kenyatta hospital the day after, where they discovered she was almost five months pregnant.
At first sight, the little children’s home tucked away in the dusty back streets of Nairobi looks like many others. The centre currently has 37 children of all ages who, looking at them playing, you would find it hard to believe that, except for 10 of them, they are all survivors of severe domestic and sexual abuse. Irene is not alone in her predicament— there are also seven other young girls who live here with their babies.
Mary Njeri Daniel is the heroic matriarch behind the centre. She has dedicated the past 11 years to children like these. Having been abused by the people closest to them, they are unable to go home and, like in the case with Irene, Mary takes them in.
Angel without wings: Mary Njeri Daniel
But she doesn’t stop there. Mary is a force to be reckoned with. Having volunteered in the Kenyan government’s Department of Children’s Services, she knows the system, and the types of cases to expect. She intends on bring the perpetrators of child violence to justice. She is well known by police stations and officers across the city, regularly getting phone calls regarding suspected cases of child abuse. Once she takes them in and opens a case file, Mary will fight for the rights of the child and for justice. To date, she has worked on 58 cases, and has never lost a single one. She says this is “because I work on it very much to make sure it doesn’t get lost”. She has also never hired a lawyer.
It’s not easy though, particularly considering the immense trauma the child has faced. One of the smallest boys in the playground was particularly shy but still affectionate. His name is Moses and he is just four years old. His school uniform hides a terrible secret, which is a shocking amount of scarring across his torso, arms and legs. He is one of the newer children in the centre, brought in about six months ago, after his neighbours heard screaming coming from his house.
It turned out his father had been sexually abusing the little boy, and particular time he threw scalding water over his little body. Moses managed to survive the burns, but he is still too traumatised to talk about what had happened. Mary worries that he will not be able to speak even a few words in court that might support the case against his father.
At times like this, the case will rely on the doctor reports which confirm that sexual penetration has occurred, or on the services of counsellors who volunteer at the centre.
Aside from justice, Mary also ensures that the children are all getting an education. Recognising the psychological trauma the children have borne and the stigma that the girls who are pregnant face in regular schools, Mary started her own school in 2005. Today, 37 children attend her modest school, which educates the younger children.. The school barely keeps going, kept afloat by donations, and struggling to pay its teachers, who are already on meagre pay. She says she is currently trying to find enough money to send three girls to high school next year, at a cost of 33,500ksh ($318) for the entire year.
To date Mary has helped 256 children. Most of her cases have echoes similar to Irene’s: absent parents, a long way from home, young and vulnerable.
Sexual abuse against minors is unfortunately common. It transcends nationalities, races and state lines. Worldwide, 40-47% of sexual assaults are perpetrated against girls aged 15 or younger. In the cases that Mary is dealing with, again like many other parts of the world, nearly all of the atrocities were carried out by a relative. Only a couple of them weren’t and those were situations where the children were working as maids.
What is also disturbing is how widespread child abuse is in the country. A 2010 survey on sexual violence against children found that before the age of 18 during childhood, 32% of females and 18% of males experienced sexual violence.
What is encouraging is not only that individuals like Mary exist - willing to give up everything to support these vulnerable children, but that, surprisingly, she also has faith in the country’s judicial system which - in the cases she’s worked on at least - has ensured that these perpetrators of violence are brought to justice.
*Not he real name. All names of children have been changed in this article to protect their identity
—Photographs by Trisala Bid, M&G Africa