(Editorial published in collaboration with UNICEF, in Survival, the annual report of the Undugu Society of Kenya, 1994)

Being at the forefront of street children-related work in Kenya, it is sometimes necessary for the Undugu Society to assume the role of advocate. This is especially true when cases arise where it is obvious that the rights of the children, as espoused in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, have been violated. One such case occurred when government authorities decided to close down a rescue centre at Kariokor Market, one of the busiest sections of Nairobi. An extremely harsh crackdown left several boys incarcerated among adults- - a direct contradiction of the statutes related to child protection in Kenya. The boys were hounded and even physically assaulted during their ordeal. While it is true that many of these boys were not model citizens in any sense of the word, they are citizens, and human beings, nonetheless. And though we wish in all good conscience to be able to report that this incident was an isolated case of overzealousness by a few officials, we are sorry that our pursuit of the truth in such matters does not allow such a softening statement to be made. To the contrary, such occurrences are so commonplace that to report them regularly would entail the hiring of a full-time investigative reporter, to be assigned solely to the juvenile courthouse, the approved and remand school systems, and the police stations citywide. Reprinted here is the editorial column from the March 1994 edition of Flash, the in-house quarterly newsletter of Undugu.

In the April –June, 1993 issue of Flash, our editorial outlined the work being done by the Child Law Project, whose proposed Children’s Act seeks to refine and consolidate the often conflicting and unclear legislation pertaining to child protection. We noted then that Attorney General Amos Wako has said that this act should become law sometime during this session of Parliament.

To date, this has not yet been done, thus the Children and Young Persons Acts, Chapter 141 (last revised in 1972) remains the definitive legislation on cases specifically dealing with juveniles and others, including street children. In light of the recent developments involving the boys from Kariokor, it is instructive to note the following sections of this act, and we would ask the proper authorities to pause and consider whether the rights of these children are in any way being violated:

CAP 141, Section 23: (1) If any person who has the custody, charge or care of any child or juvenile-

(a) Willfully assaults, ill-treats, neglects, abandons or exposes him, or causes or permits him to be assaulted, ill-treated, neglected, abandoned or exposed, in any manner likely to cause him unnecessary suffering or injury to healthy shall be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine not exceeding five thousand shillings or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to both such fine and such imprisonment. . .

CAP 141, Section 5: Arrangements shall be made for preventing persons under sixteen years of age while detained in a police station, or while being conveyed to or from any court from associating with adults charged with or convicted of any offence other than an offence with which a person under sixteen years of age is jointly charged or convicted. . .

CAP 141, Section 14: Every court in dealing with a person under eighteen years of age who is brought before it shall have regard to his welfare and shall, in a proper case, take steps for removing him from undesirable surroundings and for securing that proper provision be made for his maintenance, education and training.

In the first two instances (Section 23 &6), readers of our special report in this issue (the closing of the Kariokor Rescue Centre) will not have to stretch their imaginations too far to acknowledge the possibility of violations against our children by the very agencies entrusted to protect them. With regard to Section 14, a recent visit to the Juvenile Remand Home in Kabete, (one of 10 such home throughout the republic) revealed a situation so shocking and depressing in its scope, that it is hard to imagine how the courts assigned to deal with these children would be able to abide by that law.

Built to hold 80-100 children, Kabete’s population fluctuates from 200-300 and has in recent months reached as high as 500. With manager Bakala Wambani lamenting a near total lack of funding from the government, the children held at Kabete have no salt or milk in their diets. Many appear to be malnourished, a worse condition than we find them when living on the streets. Scabies is rampant, as there are precious few medicines to treat this or any other illnesses. There are only two qualified social workers, with ten other staff members handing various responsibilities. Even with probation officers sent periodically from the Children’s Department to help follow-up the vagrancy cases (which constitute the majority), processing is slow. It is not uncommon for a child picked up on a street corner to end up spending more than a month waiting for some decision to be made on his future. In the meantime, those categorized as needing protection and care (P &C) are mixed together with those officially determined to require protection and discipline (P&D).  The result—hardcore cases end up influencing and often spoiling the more innocent children. In December last year, the government released 17m shillings from the Treasury, to go towards the “repatriation” of children to their home regions. Already dozens of children have been shipped to police station in places such as Kakamega and Mombasa.

This may stem the flow of children to the streets temporarily, but realistically it is like trying to empty a sinking canoe with a spoon. Long-term solutions are needed. Just as Undugu Society needs funding to maintain our programs, so the relevant government ministries need to allocate sufficient funds to improve the quality of services at the remand home and approved schools. It was pointed out to us that there was once a “ State Maintenance Fund,” which was used to finance the education of needy children. There were even cases of children being sponsored clear up to university level. Reviving this would be a major step in the right direction.

Without such efforts of good faith, and until policeman and others in positions of authority learn to treat street children as human beings, not whipping boys, the chances are the system will continue to further harden, rather than help, society’s most unfortunate souls.