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COVID-19 lockdown measures push GBV, child sexual exploitation in Kenya

Collins Odhiambo

Nairobi, Kenya-As Kenyans are preoccupied with fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, the government restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the virus are having a toll on the school going children, an unintended consequence of the lock-down measures.

Apart from a considerable surge in crimes like domestic violence, the rise of sexual abuse on women and children captured the attention of the nation, and now there are calls for government’s intervention.

The COVID-19 lockdown measures such as curfews, stay-at-home restrictions and continued school’s closures are also affecting children, with online criminals and sexual predators taking the advantage of kids confined at home. The government says schools remain closed until January and this has left the teenagers mostly idle and susceptible to sexual perverts. The result is that child abuse and exploitation is on the rise and parents are facing an uphill battle to combat the vice.

As of July 2020-three months under lock-down-Kenyan media reports suggested that a staggering number of 152,000 teenage girls got pregnant. It is suspected that some of these girls were abused by close relatives and domestic workers, as they stayed at home. Others, because of poverty, were engaging in commercial sex work to survive. Just recently, as Nation reports, a woman’s triplets, who were to sit for their final primary school exams, gave birth to twins each. This translates to six babies from her three daughters. His domestic worker is responsible for the pregnancies.

Dr. John Mugo, an education expert, while writing for K24 TV in April 2020 said teenage pregnancies were a result of the teenagers being idle at home.

“Their [teenagers] stay at home may increase the cases, yielding to school dropouts especially for countries that have not implemented school re-entry policies.” He added that many children are engaging in child labour and subjected to child abuse at a time the country is preoccupied with the COVID 19 fight.

Since the teenagers would be having too much free time, he argued, they would experiment with drugs, cyber-crime and teenage sex. Now the sexual predators are out engaging in the reprehensible behavior of luring young girls and boys into sex orgies, drugs peddling, trafficking among others.

In October 2020, a school girl went missing and the search for her was launched by the police. Days later, however, she was found at her aunt’s place in Kisumu, Kenya. A man was arrested and accused of luring her into coming with him to Nairobi, a distance of more than 400 kilometres. The police confirmed this, further explaining how the man befriended the girl before luring her all the way from her aunt’s home and only released her after her the photos of girl were circulated by the police.

“Intelligence drawn from forensic analysis led detectives to a social media platform where the suspect befriended and lured the minor to his house, where the two are suspected to have cohabited for the period before Masumbuko facilitated the minor’s escape to her aunt’s place in Nyakach, Kisumu County,” the police said in a statement.

In another case, weeks later, the police arrested 40 teenagers for engaging in parties characterized by drinking and drug abuse. In Nairobi’s Mountain View estate, the police found 44 minors and recovered alcohol, bhang and used condoms. At the time of arrest, the police believed the teenagers were lured into sex and drugs.

Also in Maralal town, in a house, the security officers arrested about 15 boys and 5 girls from a local secondary school. In the teenagers’ possessions  were beverages, cigarettes and khat.

“They were heavily intoxicated and could not immediately comprehend where they were and what they were doing,” Assistant Chief, Celina Lemakara said.

On May 26, 2020, a German national, Thomas Scheller, was arrested in Kisumu County for defiling a 13-year-old child and exposing them pornographic videos.  Still in Kisumu, the police broke into a house and arrested a woman with girls and teenagers. It believed they were shooting pornographic videos.

According to Kenyan police, there is an ‘online cartel’ luring girls confined in their homes into sexual orgies. The police warning was a reaction to another case of school girl who had gone missing. A woman made an impassioned appeal on social media in a video that went viral about her cousin who had gone missing. Her cousin was in company of seven other girls while the aunt feared she had been kidnapped. She says in the video:  “My cousin along with the 16-year-old girls, six of them, have not been seen since.”

However, three of the seven girls, including the woman’s cousin, were rescued. And upon interrogation, the girls said they were invited to go for modelling in the city through social media.

But the reasons the teenagers give for engaging these vices can be stunning.  For instance, they say they engage in sex orgies and drug abuse to escape boredom.

Saida Swaleh, a social worker in Kibera slums, claimed that teenagers revealed that they were doing drugs and having sex ‘for the fun of it’. 

“The children are bored. They have stayed home for many months with nothing to keep them busy. Add that to the fact that they are at the age where they experiment the most-and the result is a disaster.”

Poignantly, these cases paint a dire picture of the situation for the school going children, with the police imploring parents to watch out what their children are doing, especially with the smartphones, if they have to keep the online criminals at bay. But the worst is on the horizon as the coronavirus is raging unabated. This suggest that children will still be outside schools, remaining exposed to the traps of the criminals.

And now confronted with the spike in these cases, many Kenyans are calling for tougher policies and urging parents to be more vigilant. Some parents, busy trying to bring food on the table, are being blamed for failing to monitor their kids. They are accused of being detached from their children and even more worrisome, of permitting their children to have access to their smartphones, without monitoring what their activities on the gadgets. Some parents also stock alcoholic stuff in the houses within the reach of their children.

The police have warned parents to monitor their kids.

 “The Directorate of Criminal Investigation(DCI) cautions parents to be vigilant in monitoring what sites their children visit on the internet, especially during this Coronavirus period where kids are being issued with electronic gadgets to attend online classes.”

However, while some Kenyans who are incensed that these pedophiles are having a field day point fingers at parents, others, like Wandia Njoya disagree.

Taking to social media platform Facebook, she wrote that in order to escape boredom, teenagers have no option but to turn to TV and social media, and other activities they find exciting.

“Which space is available to teenagers to explore the world besides TV and social media? They want fashion, but they see Kim Kardashian because we don’t know Vivienne Taa. They want music but they can’t get teachers because teachers are not being trained. They want to cycle but there are no bike paths. Uhuru Park has been carved off for another concrete monstrosity. Did you see what happened to Kwani? Or Story Moja festival? What else is there to do other than party?”

Although the huge responsibility of keeping an eye on the teenagers  to stop them from going off the rails rests on their parents and guardians, it is a lot to expect that the parents alone can do this. Government intervention is required to rein in the online criminals.

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