SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Now, a story that might not be appropriate for young listeners. In many parts of rural Kenya, cases of child rape are usually resolved within the family by elders. But recently, activists in eastern Kenya have begun filling courthouses, issuing threats and supporting families to move these cases into the judicial system. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports that even then, they face huge challenges in getting justice.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Garissa is in a part of Kenya that quickly starts looking like Somalia. Children herd camels. Men wear flowing sarongs and women, colorful khimars. Most of the people who live here are ethnic Somali. About 20 minutes from town, I visit the home of an 11-year-old girl. She's in the dirt yard switching between washing dishes and playing with her friends. But the world she knew ended when she was raped allegedly by her uncle. Her dad, Osman Abdullahi, says she appears to be recovering physically, but emotionally, it's still brutal.
OSMAN ABDULLAHI: (Speaking Somali).
PERALTA: "She's lost her virginity," he says. And when she fetches water, adults, other kids will point at her and say, she is the girl who was raped. Abdullahi says, out here, the Somali community usually relies on the concept of maslaha to handle these cases. The elders of the two families come together to work out a solution. It usually ends with a payment, and sometimes, the little girl is married off to her rapist. Abdullahi never objected before, but now, he wants this practice to end. It's his daughter, and he's not cutting a deal with the other family. He wants the perpetrator to face justice in a court of law.
ABDULLAHI: (Speaking Somali) If the courts charges the perpetrators, the others will see what happened to the other guy so that they will stop.
PERALTA: Surveys have found that a third of girls experience sexual violence in Kenya. Rape is illegal, but courts have had little success convicting perpetrators. Activists in Garissa believe here the problem is bigger because rapes are not reported and because they are handled informally. Activist Yussuf Salah says because the money goes to the elders, not the victims, they don't want to give up power. According to activists and government officials, that means cases of rape are often thwarted. Witness statements and medical records disappear. Charges are inexplicably dropped. So activists have taken to babysitting these cases. They hang out at courthouses and police stations watching for suspicious meetings, checking that papers don't leave offices.
YUSSUF SALAH: We have even at our own level, sorry to say, we have even threatened some people of the court and at the police level.
PERALTA: Benjamin Kinoua is a child protection officer in the county. He repeated on record what two other government officials told us in confidence. He says, unfortunately, the judicial system seems just as fraught with corruption as the traditional system. He has seen hospitals charge very poor families $20 for what should be a free forensic exam. He has witnessed judges drag out a case for years.
BENJAMIN KINOUA: But the victims and their family members are determined to seek justice through the system.
PERALTA: A few days later, Abdullahi, his daughter and the rest of her family show up to court. Halima Hassan, an activist, guides them.
HALIMA HASSAN: (Speaking Somali).
PERALTA: She says, over the past couple of years, there have been lots of cases of men raping girls, some as young as 5. They pay a little money, and life goes on, but the girl's future ends there. There's no more education. There's no chance of them getting married. Watching this court like a hawk, she says, is her contribution to justice.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Somali).
PERALTA: The family is expecting a trial, but instead, the judge adjourns to give the alleged perpetrator a chance to get a lawyer. And he moves on to the next case.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Somali).
PERALTA: Meanwhile, I get a copy of the charge sheet and show it to the family.
HASSAN: (Speaking Somali).
PERALTA: The alleged perpetrator is charged with attempted rape, not rape. His wife and the victim's aunt, Fartum Hassan Abdi, left him after the incident. She cannot believe it.
PERALTA: She puts her hands over her face. She says she found her niece bleeding outside her house. The doctor examined her and found injuries consistent with rape. Then Abdi has a realization. She didn't have money the morning she went to the hospital, and the doctor asked for $20. Maybe, she says, he didn't fill out the form properly. It was her fault, she says. She didn't have money for a bribe. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Garissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.