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Harry Shier, Learning and Development Officer recently conducted a monitoring trip in Kenya to visit Misean Cara funded projects working in the human rights sector. Read Harry’s blog below.


A Human-Rights-Based Approach to Keeping Children Safe in Kenya

“A right, in its fundamental sense, is power held by the powerless” (Katherine Hunt Federle)

When people talk about child safeguarding, I sometimes get the feeling that they see it as primarily a matter of keeping out of trouble and covering your back (like a tax audit of a safety inspection).

My recent monitoring trip to projects funded by Misean Cara in the human rights sector in Kenya showed me a completely different perspective; an integrated, pro-active, human-rights-based, missionary approach to keeping children safe, which I would like to share.

JRS Kakuma - Chidren at play in JRS school for special needs in Kakuma refugee camp.

JRS Kakuma – Chidren at play in JRS school for special needs in Kakuma refugee camp.

Kakuma Refugee Camp 

My first visit was to the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) project at Kakuma refugee camp in the far north-west near the South Sudan border. This project works in the demanding environment of a vast refugee camp where all are vulnerable, all are displaced, all are impoverished and at risk, living at the margins of society.

In this context JRS seeks out the most vulnerable, the most at risk, and the most in need; in this case specifically children with special needs and survivors of violence, trauma and abuse. They provide safe havens where those who have suffered most are protected, where they can find healing, and from where they can reintegrate into society. Many of the JRS team in Kakuma are themselves refugees, strong in empathy and compassion, doggedly committed to keeping children safe.

TFGM - Maasai girls participate in TFGM's alternative right of passage ceremony.

TFGM – Maasai girls participate in TFGM’s alternative rite of passage ceremony.

Termination of Female Genital Mutilation (TFGM) 

Next I travelled to Isinya, in the Maasai country south of Nairobi, where I met Loreto Sister Ephigenia Gachiri and her team at the Termination of Female Genital Mutilation project. Throughout much of Africa girls are routinely mutilated in the name of tradition. The power of culture and conformity is so strong in these communities that loving parents actively collude in the violent abuse, mutilation and humiliation of their daughters.

Because of the way FGM is embedded in local culture, it is difficult for outsiders to understand its significance or to develop effective interventions. The strength of the TFGM team is their understanding of, and sensitivity to, local culture. From this starting point they work through alliances with key actors and influencers from within the culture to organise advocacy and awareness-raising. Although their focus is on protecting and empowering girls and young women, they also work with boys and men, and count many male community leaders among their allies in influencing cultural change.

Key to this is their understanding of the significance of coming-of-age ceremonies or “rites of passage” in African culture, and the development of alternative rites of passage which do not subject girls to mutilation and humiliation.

Through this combination of strategic thinking, insider knowledge and unswerving commitment, the TFGM team is safeguarding many thousands of girls and young women, bringing about significant and sustainable changes where other approaches have been unsuccessful.

HAART - Harry Shier meeting the HAART team in Nairobi.

HAART – Harry Shier meeting the HAART team in Nairobi.

HAART (Awareness Against Human Trafficking)

Then I visited HAART (Awareness Against Human Trafficking), a project supported by Misean Cara member VMM International in Nairobi. They started with awareness-raising and advocacy to put an end to the scourge of human trafficking, but as their influence and reputation grew, they increasingly found themselves involved in locating and rescuing victims. As there was no trustworthy service that would keep these survivors safe so they could find healing and reintegration, HAART set up their own survivors’ refuge; a place of safety that also offers skills training and trauma counselling.

Haki Yetu - Haki Yetu team hosts Misean Cara members' meeting in Mombasa to share their human rights based approach.

Haki Yetu – Haki Yetu team hosts Misean Cara members’ meeting in Mombasa to share their human rights based approach.

Haki Yetu

My final visit was to the Haki Yetu project in Mombasa, led by Kiltegan Missionary and human rights campaigner Fr Gabriel Dolan. For Haki Yetu, the human rights approach is front and centre of their strategy (“Haki Yetu” is “Our Rights” in Swahili). The team supports and accompanies the poorest, the most vulnerable and the most disadvantaged in society to claim their rights and to demand justice from power.

They work on a variety of human rights issues including land rights, housing rights, even fishing rights; however, for children one of the most important and most shamefully violated of their rights is the right to live without violence, and to be protected from abuse, exploitation and mistreatment. Facing a legal system where the abusers are often powerful and protected, while children are vulnerable and unprotected, the Haki Yetu team is on the children’s side, re-balancing the scales of justice in their favour, and ending impunity for abusers.

Don’t get me wrong: Safeguarding is, and always will be, an obligation and a duty (not to mention a condition of funding); we must have policies, we must follow guidelines, and we must not fail to report failings in the system.

And yet, on behalf of Misean Cara I was privileged to get to know these four projects where keeping children safe is not a matter of policy compliance signed up to to keep the money flowing. For these projects, keeping children safe is what they do. Each of the projects takes up the challenge in its own distinct and innovative way; but for all four of them, upholding every child’s right to live without violence is the very essence of the missionary approach.

Photo caption: Haki Yetu – Haki Yetu team and local human rights defenders meet Harry Shier in Mombasa.