Mary Mokakha was working as a local journalist in the Kenyan town of Busia, when the country was gripped by a devastating HIV epidemic.
For Mokakha, she could see the fallout of the epidemic affecting families all around her.
“Parents were dying of AIDS and children were left vulnerable, particularly girls,” Mary told international women’s rights organisation Equality Now. “Many had nobody left to care for them so were unable to continue their education and ended up becoming embroiled in prostitution and child labour.”
“These girls were very much at risk of sexual exploitation and abuse,” she said. “As a result, some contracted HIV and so the cycle continued. Vulnerable children were defiled and nothing was being done because they had no protection or access to justice.”
“But,” she said, “it was the rape of a 1-month-old baby that made me realise that I had to take a stand.”
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She launched the Rural Education and Economic Enhancement Programme (REEP), an NGO to help the families affected by HIV/AIDS and protect the children made vulnerable by the epidemic — including those who have been raped or sexually abused.
Her work has made a huge difference to the lives of survivors and their families.
Over the past three years, REEP has dealt with over 12,000 cases of children who have been sexually abused — many of whom come from very poor families who have very little idea about child rights.
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While a lot has changed since the HIV epidemic of the ’90s, according to Mokakha, the root causes of abuse remain.
“Families in this community are poor, law courts are far away and so predators know there will be no repercussions,” she continued.
And the responsibility of dealing with crimes and problems in rural areas often falls to the village elders.
“The phrase used locally is ‘to finish it’,” added Mokakha, “The perpetrator would bribe the family by giving them a goat, some maize, a small bit of money — to finish the issue so no further action would be taken.”
The police meanwhile would often sit the victim’s family and the perpetrator down together in the same room and tell the family to forgive them.
Police corruption can be a serious obstacle in achieving justice for a victim, with perpetrators bribing officials to lose files, fail to collect evidence, even adjourn court cases. According to Mokakha, some police even charge victim’s families the equivalent of around $19 to report a crime — an impossible sum for many.
“Before REEP, most families didn’t know anything about children’s rights so going to court never occurred to them,” continued Mokakha. “Also, our law courts are very far. Everyone knew these children would not be able to afford to travel to report if something happened to them.”
But with help from Equality Now, REEP has now trained over 200 paralegals to provide free legal advice to these families, and support them through the legal process.
One of these was Emily (not her real name).
When she was 11, Emily was out collecting firewood near her house when she was raped by a 30-year-old man. Her mother Margret was out at prayers and her father was also away from the house when the attack happened.
“She was crying, bleeding, and looked very afraid,” said Margret, 48, of the moment she came home and found her daughter. “I asked her what had happened and she told me who had attacked her. He was not from our village, he was employed in the area by a neighbour and Emily was able to say his employer’s name.”
Margret first went to their village leader to report the attack, and then to the police, leaving Emily at a neighbour’s house. She removed Emily’s clothes and took them to the police station as evidence. The police said they couldn’t arrest the attacker then, because it was dark outside and he might run away.
In the morning they arrested the man, and Emily was taken to hospital.
Thanks to REEP, Emily and her family received legal advice, counselling, and financial support so they could afford to make the long journey to the courts. REEP provided a paralegal to accompany Emily and her mother to the trial, and give Emily advice on how to tell her story to the court.
When it was discovered that Emily had contracted HIV as a result of the attack, she was invited to REEP’s support group.
“I used to think that I was the only one,” Emily, now in her final year of primary school, told Equality Now. “But when I came to REEP I realised there were others who had been through the same thing.”
“Before, I was lonely and fearful,” she continued. “I didn’t want to speak to anyone but now with REEP’s help, I have overcome that fear.”
Both Emily and Margret testified against Emily’s attacker during the trial. But theirs is a typical example of how corruption can hinder the fight for justice.
The doctor who had examined Emily in the hospital didn’t come to court to testify. The first time he was due to appear, he sent a message to say he was sick. The second time, he just didn’t appear. Emily’s family believe he was bribed so he wouldn’t speak in court.
The last day they were in court, Emily’s attacker never even turned up, and Margret and Emily still don’t know where he is, or whether he’s in jail.
“I feel bad, I feel pain from what has happened and I just want justice,” said Emily. “I feel all men are bad, and if I see men walking down the road when I am going home I feel scared.
“I still collect firewood, but I go with other children and I don’t go far from home,” she added. “If I could pass a message to other girls, I would tell them to take care of themselves. And to the boys and men, I would tell them that they should respect girls and not be violent.”
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Both Emily and her mother are thankful to REEP and to Mokakha for the support they received during the trial, and since.
“Women and girls should be more empowered so they can take care of themselves. Girls shouldn’t drop out of school or get pregnant, they should be taught life skills,” said Margret. “I am very grateful for what REEP have done, and they should continue to support more people and empowering them more.”
“I love Mary, and I pray for her before I go to bed. She empowers me and makes me feel strong,” she added. “I want to give Mary even more power so that she can fight for our rights even more.”
It has been far from an easy journey for Mokakha, who has come under fire for going against cultural practices in seeking justice for attackers and their victims.
“When I started I thought that if I could uncover the corruption, the community would demand change,” added Mokakha. “But much of their anger has been directed against me. People say things like ‘If you don’t stop beating women, Mary will take all of you to prison’. I explain that it isn’t me who imprisons them, if they have broken the law it is the court that jails them.”
“But people still say I am cruel and unforgiving,” she said. “I think a lot of that hostility is because I am a woman speaking out in a patriarchal society. I receive death threats every day so I keep people at arm’s length. I never know who I can trust.”
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