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Kenyan children still face trafficking despite legislative efforts

Raw sewage running between the ramshackle homes leaves a pungent smell throughout Nairobi’s Korogocho slums, where Sheila Naliaka earns a pittance by roasting and selling ground nuts.
This informal settlement is the only neighbourhood Naliaka, 25 and a mother of two, has ever called home. But no activity can mask her sorrow. After marrying and giving birth to a baby boy, her infant was taken away.
“I was just here, roasting my groundnuts here so I can sell them and my baby was sleeping inside the house. When I went in to check on him, he was gone! I started screaming and attracted neighbours who were also perplexed at this”.
Naliaka and her tiny son were victims of a thriving trade in people trafficking in which women and children are the main targets and Kenya an international focal point.
The 2016 Global Report on Trafficking of Persons by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime indicates that 79 per cent of trafficked individuals around the world are women and children, while in Sub-Saharan Africa, majority are children. An article by the UN magazine Africa Renewal indicates that a total of 2.5 million people were trafficked around the world in 2008 alone, including more than 1 million children.
And a 2015 report by the National Crime Research Centre places Kenya as the largest transit point, with 65 per cent of all trafficked persons passing through the country to their destinations. The report identifies Ethiopia as the largest origin and South Africa and Saudi Arabia as the biggest destinations.
The trauma suffered by Naliaka and others has prompted new debate about children’s homes, with advocates of “deinstitutionalization” calling for their progressive closure, to be replaced by foster care and the return of children to families.
The evening after Naliaka reported the abduction to the police, two people came to the house to warn her and her husband about going after the baby.
“They were dressed all in black and told us that if we ever go after our child or pursued the case that we had already reported to the police, then they were coming for us. Later, I learnt from a female officer that our case at the police station was filed as that of negligence of the baby,” Naliaka explains, her eyes welling up with tears.
Naliaka did not give up at first. She continued to search for her child and learned from a nurse that he had been taken to one of the children’s homes in Nairobi. But she was advised to stay away as these people “meant business” and were ready to kill her.
“That woman was so good to me. She told me that these were powerful people who would do anything to sell children out of the country or even locally,” she says.
Further outside Nairobi in Ruiru, Ann, a 36 year-old and childless, says she was arrested for procuring a child.
“My friend and workmate at the time had told me about a way to get a child so easily if I was just willing to part with some cash. I paid Sh460, 000 and went with her to Thika to collect the baby. “She was a week old”, says Ann, a florist at the time, who only gave her first name.
“I never reported back to work because of the embarrassment since my colleagues had known about this and also knew that I was never pregnant,” she said. For 20 years, Ann and her husband had been unable to conceive a child.
“Before doing all this, I had discussed with my husband after the doctor told us that we were not going to have a child. That is why we were so desperate and ended up getting the child, a girl, from these people. Neighbours alerted the police and I was arrested while my husband was away at work but he bailed me out after a week. “People had never seen me pregnant,” added Ann.
Meanwhile, much of the dealing around child trafficking seems to focus on children’s homes. John, a social worker at one home in Nairobi, says a lot of children at the institution are clearly not there to stay.
“Yes, we have children who might only be here for a week and the next day they are anywhere, but mostly in South Africa,” says John, not his real name.
“I don’t know why many Ethiopian parents believe that South Africa is an ideal place for their children to live and grow up but they themselves sometimes bring their children here for sale.
Their names are changed and once they have the necessary documents, they can go to South Africa under that care of their new foster parents. This happens a lot,” he adds.
A report released in September 2018 issued by Disability Rights International DRI and  Kenyan Association for the Intellectually Handicapped (KAIH) said authorities should protect families, “so that the pressures of poverty, disability, and stigma do not force them into a situation where they feel they have no choice but to give up a child.”
Kenya, it said, had “not yet implemented a program that would prevent new placements in institutions or created the support necessary for children to be reintegrated into society”.
Peter Kamau, the Director and Co-founder of the NGO Child in Family Focus-Kenya and a former institution resident, says governments must underpin the importance of raising a child in a family setup.
“Love, one-on-one care and attention, safe spaces to play and learn, trusting relationships and strong community connections are things that all children need to grow up happy, healthy and strong that only a family can provide,” he says.
“Families affected by poverty are more vulnerable to separation. While institutional care only addresses one symptom of child poverty, strategic investment in child protection systems with families at the centre addresses the root causes of family separation by linking education, health, social care and other relevant services at grass roots level. This can have significant economic benefits,” Kamau noted.
Kenya has some of the best laws to protect children, experts say but implementation is the problem.
“Children are always at risk. And this risk is majorly attributed to vulnerability at the childhood level. These is what individuals take advantage of and make promises to families and/or children themselves”, says Moses Wangunyu, World Vision Kenya’s Technical Specialist for Child Protection.
Wangunyu says his group has urged the Cabinet Secretary for Labour and Social Protection to ensure children’s rights are upheld under Article 53 of Kenya’s constitution and the National Plan of Action on Children 2015-2022. “We are also involved in revising the Children’s Bill of 2018 that is meant to bridge the gaps left by most of the legislation that came before the new Constitution.”
The 2010 Counter trafficking of Persons Act stipulates that any person involved in recruiting, transporting, harboring or transferring a person unwillingly and/or one who, for the purpose of trafficking a child; adopts or offers the child for adoption, fosters or offers the child for fostering and offers guardianship or offers the child for guardianship; commits an offence. Offenders are liable to 30 years imprisonment or a fine of not less than 30 million Kenyan shillings.
Despite numerous requests, no one at the government’s Children’s Department at the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection was available to comment on child trafficking or efforts to combat it.
Isaac Mwaura, former MP for Ruiru and now a nominated senator, says “powerful cartels” were overseeing the trade in children.
“There is a cartel, very powerful. People have made a lot of money out of it. In fact, I remember coming across somebody who was actually telling me to get into the cartel. I was very shocked that somebody would approach me and tell me that there is a way in which they traffic children when they are going to international conferences; for couples abroad who cannot get children,” Mwaura explains.
The Ministry of Interior and the Children’s Department, he says, is not implementing Kenyan law and families are falling victims to “lies” of a better life for those sent abroad.
“We need to do a lot with regards to this because this is how Africa gets deprived of its own people; people are denied their own childhood. You know, exploiting other people’s poverty is totally unacceptable,” the senator said.
As for Naliaka and her husband, nothing matters but the hope and desire to see their son again.
“I just wish that there is a way things were reversed and my son came back to me. I would do anything for it. Knowing he could be anywhere or even dead is something that I will never get an answer to,” she says, while placing her groundnuts into rolled cone-shaped pieces of newspaper to be put out for sale.
“I would rather they even show me his grave and I will be satisfied,” concludes Naliaka with a heavy heart.
By Dominic Kirui

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