"Why Should We Suffer?" Children Testify before Kenya’s TJRC

12/23/2011

"I am a child of Kenya and proud of my country; from the flag, national anthem and its beautiful languages. Kenya’s children need the government to provide them with security, education, and medicine. We all want to live in peace and happiness."

These are words of a child from Makueni County who testified in a children-focused hearing of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) of Kenya as part of its investigation into gross human rights violations and historical injustices in the country between 1963 and 2008.

In the first day of the thematic hearing held on December 13–14, the TJRC heard testimonies from children on their own experiences and the recommendations they had for government action. A 12-year-old girl from Naivasha spoke of the violence she witnessed during her family’s flight from their home during the 2008 post-election violence in Eldoret, and her life since the violence:

“Now we are squatters, and we want the government to help us,” she said. “Why should we suffer as children, while we were neither voted for, nor voted? The government should build us homes.”

“I lost my father, our cows were stolen, and my sister dropped out of school to become a house help,” another child testified. “I would like the government to help us get a house and cattle, go to school, and end violence.”

This was the first in a series of thematic hearings proposed to provide access to the TJRC for marginalized groups; The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Act of 2008 establishing the TJRC specifies “the Commission may put in place special arrangements and adopt specific mechanisms and procedures to address the experiences of [groups including]…children.”

“The TJRC acknowledges the particular impact that long-standing historical injustices and continuous human rights violations have on children and is giving special attention to their experiences,” said Acting Chair Tecla Wanjala in the opening statement of the hearing. “In doing so, the commission will address their specific needs and support their effective participation in the future.”

Children were disproportionately affected by the post-election violence of 2008, one of the periods under investigation by the TJRC. Children comprised over 50 percent of the population in displacement camps following the violence, and 80 percent of victims of sexual violence were children. Cases of child homelessness and households headed by children became common, according to Peter Kiiru, head of CRADLE, a children’s advocacy group who testified at the hearing.

Loss of opportunities such as education characterize how the same violations may affect children differently than they affect adults, and persist beyond the timeframe of the violations themselves. Children are also the target of specific human rights violations, exposed to serious abuses including torture, sexual violence, and forced labor. For these reasons it is important for truth commissions to regard and investigate child-specific consequences of conflict and address them explicitly in their findings and recommendations.

In collecting children’s testimony and investigating the effects of human rights violations on children, truth commissions must also take the necessary precautions to avoid exposing children to renewed trauma and to protect their identities. At the TJRC children’s hearings in Kenya, counselors met with children before and after they gave testimony, and a majority of statement-takers working directly with children were counselors as well. During the public hearing the identities of child witnesses were obscured and their names have been omitted from public documents.

In addition to children’s statements, the TJRC commissioners also received testimony from child protection agencies and government ministries speaking on behalf of children.

“At a time where we see increased attention being given to the plight of children affected by massive human rights violations within the UN system (SC resolution 1998 passed in July 2011 as the latest example), it is essential that those of us working on post-conflict and post-authoritarian transitions integrate an analysis of children into our work,” said Virginie Ladisch, head of ICTJ’s Children and Transitional Justice Program. "This is why it is important to see TJRC in Kenya conducting children-focused hearings."

Irene Nyamu, Director of Childline Kenya, made numerous child-specific recommendations to the TJRC ate the hearings based on her organization’s work managing a hotline on child-related issues. Nyamu called for child-focused resource planning and disaster management strategies, as well as an increase in the numbers of police officers and social workers available for handling children’s cases.

By explicitly focusing on children in this thematic hearing, Wanjala anticipates “the TJRC will be able to better identify institutional and policy measures that will be taken into account in order to prevent the violations from happening again.”

As of 2010, over 1 billion children worldwide were living in territories affected by armed conflict, over one-quarter of them under the age of five. This means the “average” civilian victim—a person killed, injured, or forced to flee his or her home—is likely to be a child or youth.

ICTJ’s pioneering report “Through a New Lens: A Child-Sensitive Approach to Transitional Justice” identifies some key lessons on children’s participation in transitional justice measures.

(Statements taken from TJRC website and The Standard’s December 18 article Children petition the TJRC.)

Photo: A young girl tends to chores at a makeshift Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp following post-election violence in Kenya in 2008.
Jerry Riley / IRIN / 201003120831560171