By Rose Muthoni
Kirigiti Girls Rehabilitation School’s grounds are well-manicured greens with the trees lining the entire compound dancing to the soft afternoon breeze. The beautiful lawn is a sharp contrast to the run-down sign post at the gate and the old buildings that house the school’s classes and dormitories for its 22 girls who are either committed here for protection and care or for rehabilitation.
The girls chatter away happily as they await three girls from Dagoretti Rehabilitation School who together with some of their schoolmates have gotten scholarships to attend secondary school.
“They are going to be wearing skirts and shirts. We should really work hard this year so that we can also get the same opportunities,” one of the class eight girls, Irene*, whose short tunic is tattered, tells her group of friends.
The crisp, new Secondary School uniform is not their only motivation for wanting to go to high school. The girls know that the scholarship would open doors for them that would have otherwise remained closed.
Clean Start, an organization that works with women, girls and children who have been impacted by the Kenyan justice system, has so far offered 22 scholarships to girls in the two rehabilitation facilities after identifying an education gap in the centres.
This year, eight girls are going to secondary schools in different parts of the country, thanks to Clean Start and UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
One of the beneficiaries of this year’s scholarship, Mary Njoki*, the middle child in a family of three children, was born in a poor background. Her mother, Nduta* earns Sh250 a day working as a farm hand. Since 2019, no jobs have been forthcoming for Njoki’s father, who previously pocketed Sh400 a day at a construction site. He now assists in their shamba (small farm) at home.
In 2018, frustrated by the situation at home, Njoki sought solace in the company of her class 8 classmate and a Form One student who would later land her in trouble. Njoki and her classmate started skipping lessons in the second term of their final year. They would leave school, which was located in Kambiti, right after the morning class to roam neighboring Kayole and Kifingo town.
Their parents were none the wiser, with the school administration and class teacher failing to disclose what was going on. It was during the third term that that Njoki’s younger brother notified her parents.
After Njoki’s parents visited the school to inquire about their daughter’s absence, the two girls run away from home but would be shortly caught after a neighbor tipped off their parents on their whereabouts.
They were taken to a Makuyu police station with the judge committing Njoki to a local children’s home to sit her final exam. After poor performance and taking into consideration that she would comfortably manage 210 marks previously, the judge sent her to Kirigiti Girls Rehabilation School for three years. She spent only three months at Kirigiti and was then sent to Dagoretti Girls Rehabilitation School in February 2019.
Her classmate’s parents did not appear in court, forcing the judge to release her. She would later drop out of school. She is currently a mother of one living at home with her mother who is a single mother of six. The form one girl was unable to complete her secondary school education. She is currently a bar tender in Makuyu town.
“I do not regret taking my daughter to the police station. Her committal at Dagoretti turned her life around,” says Nduta.
Despite the inequalities experienced by children in the juvenile justice system, Njoki acquired 253 marks out of the possible 500 marks. Through Clean Start’s Scholarship program, 18-year-old Njoki is currently enrolled as a form one student at a secondary school in Murang’a county.
A study carried out by the University of Nairobi (UoN) in Kirigiti and Kabete rehabilitation schools in 2013 showed huge inequalities in school provisions and human resource in these centres, often disadvantaging children committed to the institutions.
Of the staff employed at Kirigiti during the study, only one was undertaking a degree programme, two had diplomas and five had certificates. Only one of the staffers had teaching qualifications with three possessing basic counselling certificates. Most of the training was acquired while the staff worked at Kirigiti, with the only qualification required to procure a job at the centre being a Kenya Certificate of Secondary School Education. With these qualifications, most did not have the basic skills to handle juvenile delinquents.
To bridge the inequalities, Clean Start started a sponsorship programme in 2017 that would offer comprehensive counselling and scholarships to the girls committed in Kirigiti and Dagoretti. The girls are taken through a mentorship programme that is geared towards helping them adjust to life outside the facilities.
“On successful completion of the mentorship programme, they are eligible for sponsorship if they attain 250 marks and above in their Kenya Certificate of Primary Education. On special circumstances, we also sponsor girls who did not hit the pass mark,” says Clean Start Chief Executive Officer Teresa Njoroge.
Clean Start was founded by Teresa after she spent eight months behind prison bars with her newborn daughter. Wrongfully accused of bank fraud in 2009, Teresa found herself behind the gates of Langata Maximum Prison in 2011 and would spend eight long months in the penal institution before her eventual release. Five years later, in 2016, the Court of Appeal found her innocent of any wrongdoing.
Having experienced firsthand, the hardship that women and children who have accompanied their mothers to prison go through, Teresa founded Clean Start to not only offer them support whilst in prison, but to also help them reintegrate back into society once they are released.
She would later expand her services to cover girls committed into rehabilitation schools to offer them psychosocial support and scholarships.
“These children need our love more than anything. That’s why at Clean Start, we offer them psychosocial support so that they can overcome trauma caused by neglect and the situations back at home,” says Teresa.
Dubbed the effectiveness of rehabilitation programmes for juvenile deliquents: A case of Kabete and Kirigiti rehabilitation schools’ programme, the UoN study showed that prior to committal to Kirigiti, some girls faced neglect from their families at 16.7 per cent in Kirigiti. Some of the parents whose children had served time at the centres had no contact with their parents until the date of their release.
“Some parents only learn of the whereabouts of their children when the centers call to ask for fare for the rehabilitated children upon their release,” read the study in part.
Family background played a great role in deviant behaviour with some of the children coming from abusive homes while some had parents who had committed crimes previously.
According to the UoN study, 42.9 per cent of children committed to Kirigiti and Kabete had faced direct or indirect violence back at home forcing some to run away to protect their physical and mental wellbeing only to land in the rehabilitation schools. Of the percentage, only two parents had reported the violence to the Children’s office. Some of the children also watched as one of the parent, usually the mother, was subjected to intimate partner abuse.
Twenty-five per cent of girls at Kirigiti stated that one of their parents had committed a crime previously. Stealing curved the highest percentage at 31 per cent followed by child neglect and prostitution and abuse of another family member at 15 per cent for each of the two.
Fifteen year old Jane Mutune* was one whose background was marred by abuse and neglect from the father. She landed into the wrong crowd during her fifth year in primary school. In 2017, together with two girls and a boy from her neighborhood, the second born in a family of four daughters, dropped out of school to frequent local bars in Kariba during the day. The girls ventured into child prostitution to support their alcohol and bhang consumption.
The lone breadwinner, Mutune’s mother Elizabeth Makena* was in the dark. To fend for her family, she spends most of her day at work selling clothes sourced from Eastleigh in Chuka Town for a small profit. The father, who was a drunkard, physically and emotionally abusive of his wife and uninterested in his children’s whereabouts and wellbeing, although aware, was not bothered by Mutune’s behavior.
Their neighbors and area sub chief would later inform Makena of her daughter’s recent illegal ventures, warning her that would have Mutune and her friends arrested despite their young age.
On advice to seek help from the area’s children officer, Mutune was arrested and sent to court in Chuka where she was committed to three years in Kirigiti. She was sent to Dagoretti in 2018 after 3 months in the Kiambu rehabilitation school.
“She has since then been well behaved even though she still visits her friends,” says Makena.
The other girls did not continue with their education and are now mothers. The boy became a bodaboda (motorbike) rider in Chuka town. He sometimes attends school. He is in class 7. After scoring 160 marks and with assistance from Clean Start, Mutune is now enrolled in Form One at a Tharakanithi-based secondary school.
Clean Start, however, faces challenges in its work with the girls. Due to reliance on donor funds, they are not able to offer scholarships to all the girls committed to Kirigiti and Dagoretti with those left behind having to contend with the courses offered at the institutions. Some of those who are released back to their parents, given the poor and abusive backgrounds, often go back to crime and are either readmitted into the facilities or are sentenced to prison if they commit the crimes as adults.
The institutions also mix juvenile delinquents and children in need of protection and care such as orphans or those rescued from abuse and neglect. This increases the risk of those under care picking up illegal behaviors from those sentenced to the centres after committing crime. As at 1st August this year, Kirigiti housed five child offenders and 17 children in need of care and protection.
*names have been changed to protect the identities of the children.