More than 1,000 teachers have been fired for sexually abusing girls over the last two years, according to a new report from the Kenyan government. Last year, 600 teachers were dismissed over allegations of sexual abuse, and 500 more have been let go this year. The allegations range from inappropriate kissing and touching to impregnating girls as young as 12.
Although the number of reported cases represents less than half of 1 percent of Kenya's 240,000 teachers, the firings underscore a serious epidemic of sexual abuse in the country, say child advocacy and women's rights groups.
"In this year's report of abuse in relation to children, sexual violence topped the list at 86 percent," said Brian Weke, the program manager of the Cradle, a Kenyan child advocacy group. The report states the highest number of abusers were fathers, followed closely by neighbors and teachers. Weke said he'd witnessed the abuse himself while visiting an elementary school in western Kenya where a teacher had impregnated at least 10 girls.
The extent of sexual abuse in Kenya came to light after the government set up a hotline for the victims. "Initially, we were not able to know what was happening in the country because of the poor communication, but now communication is everywhere. There's mobile [phones] across the country," Ahmed Hussein, the director of children's services at the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Development, told the BBC.
Hussein said that some of the teachers had already been arrested and prosecuted. Many, however, were simply fired and sent home.
Technically, it is against Kenyan law for an adult to have sex with a minor under the age of 18, but the law is hard to enforce, particularly in rural areas. The victim's family has to press charges and become heavily involved in the investigation, so most accused sexual abusers escape prosecution.
In the case of teachers, the accused and school officials often pay off the the girl's family, who is often poor, to keep the family from prosecuting.
Education for girls, particularly in rural areas of Kenya, still remains a struggle. Once they reach their preteen years, girls are kept at home to help their mothers care for younger siblings, carry water and maintain the household. In some communities, tradition still dictates that teenage girls can be married off by their parents. A girl attending school who's from a poor, uneducated family is especially vulnerable to abuse.
"One of the reasons … these girls are susceptible to abuse is … that [parents] are illiterate and don't know what constitutes abuse," said Weke. "They have no proper capacity and means to protect their children."
The fact that the Kenyan government is acknowledging the problem is considered progress. Kenya is one of only 14 countries to have a hotline encouraging victims to report abuse. While more countries in Africa are acknowledging it, sexual abuse isn't widely talked about, let alone reported.
It's often considered secondary to health care and having access to water and food.
"As we are focusing on economic and social rights, we need to make sure we are protecting our children," said Weke. "It is high time that we comprehensively start dealing with cases of sexual violence."
Allocating money for programs to protect children is as important to the future of Africa as any other social or economic project, said Weke. "They should actually go hand in hand."