Whole-school confrontation of child sexual abuse in Kenya

[Individual articles from the Summer 2016 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

As many as 30% of Kenyan children have experienced sexual abuse, much of it in school (Violence against Children in Kenya). Too often, victims are blamed while perpetrators go free. Confronting this culture of impunity requires mobilization of the whole school community. One Kenyan primary school succeeded in engaging broad stakeholder collaboration to address a pattern of sexual abuse. In response, the school extended its
child protection network and improved school governance.

Initially, the head teacher was isolated in his attempts to address the situation. After receiving complaints about the sexual abuse of girls by three new teachers, he investigated and reported the cases to his administrative superior and the school’s board of management. They took no action. Family members and police were suborned by the
offending teachers, who also intimidated another colleague involved in the investigations. One abused girl was transferred to a distant school by her family with financial support from an accused teacher. Another girl’s mother asked the school to drop the investigation after the accused teacher persuaded her it would only “stress” her daughter during exams. A third girl, who with her mother’s support had rejected the teachers’ advances, was repeatedly told in class that she and her mother were prostitutes. Other children reported bringing money or drugs to the same teachers to avoid beatings. Letters suspending them were countermanded by the school’s administrator. When the head teacher brought their cases to the board of management, the chair determined they were misbehaving to gain money and influence. Afraid of losing teachers, the board decided to appease them. The board duly voted to increase the teachers’ salaries and appointed them to leadership positions.

Blocked at every level, the head teacher was at a loss until an MCC worker witnessed a girl flee the school office after a beating. Dissatisfied with the responses of the administrator and chair of the board, she approached the head teacher. He summarized the situation of sexual abuse and violence. Recognizing that the problem required whole-community intervention, the MCC worker urged the head teacher to call parents and church and board
members to meet with school leadership that afternoon. (The meeting was stormed by armed bandits who were never apprehended.) She also informed her MCC supervisors.

The next day, the MCC Kenya Representative and a member of its advisory board met with church authorities. The pastor of the school’s founding church then called together school leadership and asked for the immediate dismissal of the offending teachers. He led a restructuring of the board and a review of its policy documents. The head teacher advertised for new teachers and conducted background checks on qualified applicants. After they were hired by the new board, the whole staff reviewed school practices of restorative discipline and active nonviolence. A parents’ meeting was held to explain the firing of the teachers, which met with strong approval.

Some of the abused girls were no longer in the school. The head teacher coordinated support for a remaining girl who was found pregnant, including medical care and family counseling so the girl could stay in school. Teachers and pupils were counseled to treat her like any other student and protect her from ridicule. She sat for the school-leaving exam at the end of the year and won a place in secondary school.

With the new board’s support, the head teacher contacted the government’s local Children’s Officer. She began visiting the school once a week to counsel teachers and students on child protection. She also brought in local organizations to conduct programs on children’s rights and safety. Teachers and parents were also trained to discuss sexuality with children. A locked concern box was installed and opened regularly by a team of teachers, resulting in early detection of problems and a sense of being heard. In developing its new three-year plan, the school set a goal of “Strong, whole-community school leadership [that] collaborates to protect children from harm.”

Through engagement with senior leadership and conveying a sense of urgency, MCC played an important role in confronting a pattern of abuse. But the wisdom and will to transform the situation came from within the community. The school has since developed stronger internal communication and effective collaboration with local child protection
agencies. Greater trust has led to the creation of a written financial policy and representatives from the whole community are involved in designing the school’s child protection policy. Successfully confronting sexual abuse fostered this new sense of ownership and teamwork. Now that the school operates as a whole community, it can act more effectively to protect its children.

Benard Okumu is head teacher at an MCC partner school in Kenya. Jodi Mikalachki is education coordinator and advisor for MCC in Kenya.

Learn more:

Kenya: A Community-Based Approach to School Development. Aga Khan Development Network. 2015.

“A Whole-School Approach.” Kids Matter. https://www.kidsmatter.edu.au/primary/awhole-school-approach

Ruto, Sarah Jerop. “Sexual Abuse of School Age Children: Evidence from Kenya.” Journal
of International Cooperation in Education 12 (2009): 177-192.

Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN). Sex Abuse in Kenyan Schools. 2011.

Violence against Children in Kenya: Findings from a 2010 National Survey. Summary
Report on the Prevalence of Sexual, Physical and Emotional Violence, Context of Sexual
Violence, and Health and Behavioral Consequences of Violence Experienced in Childhood. Nairobi, Kenya:United Nations Children’s Fund Kenya Country Office, Division of Violence Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, 2012.

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