I was 16 when I went to the office of a member of parliament to collect a bursary for my education. I entered that room a young girl, full of hope and excitement for the future. I left stripped of my innocence and fearful of the world and people around me.
Sexual violence against children is a silent global scourge. It is destroying the futures of children and adolescents everywhere. In my country, Kenya, the problem is particularly acute.
And when I say the “problem” I am not talking only about the crime. I am also talking about our response to it.
After I was raped, I felt completely alone. There was no one to help me cope with the physical impact the violent abuse had on my body. No one was there to hold my hand and walk with me through my emotional trauma. No one helped me at school, where my mind constantly played back the moment I had been forced to pay for my school fees with sex.
Growing up, I never dreamed of doing the work I do today. It was not my childhood ambition to set up a safe house for victims of sexual violence, but in 2014 that’s what I did, founding the Maisha Safe House for girls in Nairobi. It was never my mission to co-found the Brave Movement and unite survivors around the world in the fight against childhood sexual violence, but I have done that, too…
My experience made this path unavoidable. I could not sit by while other children had to navigate life after sexual violence alone as I did. I could not watch as my government, and governments around the world, avoided the responsibility that every state has to protect children and support survivors. And, on a personal level, I could not heal from my own trauma without helping others to heal from theirs.
So what is wrong with our response to childhood sexual violence?
A key problem, especially in societies where sexual violence is still a taboo subject, is that the physical and medical needs of survivors, including children, are simply ignored.
It’s easy to jump straight to the quest for justice, and focus on questions like “How will she get justice?” or “Was his abuser caught?”. Justice is crucial – in its own right, for the safety of others, and for healing. But when the focus is only on law enforcement and court process, the emergency holistic health response children need after they have been violated can be forgotten. As a result, resourcing this response is forgotten, too.
The physical impacts of rape are severe. Too often I’ve seen young girls physically disfigured from rape.
Many of the girls I help have become pregnant as a result of the abuse they suffered. Every day I see the physical impact pregnancy has on these children’s bodies. Every day I witness their distress as they try to cope physically and mentally with nine long months of pregnancy. When a 12-year-old girl goes into labour it can be life-threatening. And even if she survives, her recovery often proves slow and painful. She struggles to walk properly, let alone run, play and dance as a child should.
Here in Kenya and elsewhere, most children are forced to carry these pregnancies to term, partially so that the babies they birth could serve as evidence in any criminal case that may be pursued against their abusers. But evidence and justice at what cost? At the expense of a child’s emotional and physical health? To me, that is not justice at all.
The second area in which we are failing our children relates to the wounds we can’t see. The psychological scars from sexual violence last a lifetime.
It is agony that refuses to lessen with time, instead intensifying as a child is silenced, shamed and isolated.
I know this agony because I experienced it myself. As I got older, I started hurting even more. I realised someone in a position of power had taken advantage of me when I was helpless and vulnerable. I realised it was that power that had kept me silent, afraid to seek help, aware that his money would easily buy innocence and compromise my legal case. I started to become angry.
Instead of healing and moving forward, I built a wall around me. A shield I thought would protect me from people who could try to hurt me again in the future. But I was alone inside those walls. The shield did not protect me; it trapped me.
My silent and lonely suffering was not unusual. The trauma of sexual violence keeps victims silent for decades. In Kenya, only two of five females who have experienced childhood sexual violence tell someone about the incident. And even if they do speak up, only 10.7 percent successfully receive services for sexual violence.
What’s worse is that in many countries there is a time limit – criminal statutes of limitations – on prosecuting child sexual abuse crimes. The Brave Movement recently released a report on how these limitations are allowing child abusers in Europe to operate well into old age and denying survivors access to justice.
Although in Kenya we do not have these legal limitations on criminal cases, there are many societal limitations and obstacles to reporting childhood sexual violence. It is shocking that governments and authorities are failing to keep children safe from sexual violence, but what is even more shameful is the wilful perpetuation of a stigma that discredits the word of young women and children.
Finally, there is no justice without reparation.
It is wrong to say that justice has been delivered when a perpetrator is jailed. Children who have been subjected to sexual violence have their futures stolen from them. Their education is cut short. They are shunned by their communities. They are left with babies to provide for without resources or income.
Justice is delivered only when survivors are given the financial and social support to reclaim their lives. And that must come from those responsible for creating a society in which children are not safe to thrive.
I have walked countless times to hospitals with girls who have been abused. Held hands in court with children forced to face their abusers. Been the arms teenagers fall into when they have been thrown out of home and left with no one to turn to.
The government in my country – just like many others around the world – is letting our children down. If those in positions of power cared for children, they all would be safe – they would be playing, they would be going to school. They would not be feeding babies as they stand in court corridors.
It is time to use our collective voice to demand action. I am calling on everyone who care for children, in Kenya and beyond, to join forces and create a society that refuses to tolerate sexual violence. I also want them to join forces to help all victims, everywhere receive the support they need and deserve.
Only by doing this can we ensure that our daughters, sons, students, friends, siblings – all the young people in our lives – will be safe and free to grow to their full potential.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.