|Children play in a neighborhood of Nairobi primarily home to refugees. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)|
|"Harmful practices that violate rather than protect children's rights pervade communities where Jesuit Refugee Service works in Eastern Africa. Abuse, exploitation and sexual violence, including female genital mutilation, are daily threats for refugee children." ~ Beatrice Gikonyo, JRS Eastern Africa Advocacy Officer|
(Nairobi) May 6, 2015 — Ayaan* is the top student in her class. Born to Somali refugees in Nairobi, she hopes to be a surgeon one day. However, for months last year she had to suspend her studies after being intimidated, threatened and beaten by young men in her community.
Refugee children like Ayaan often lack the necessary protection from government and public institutions in their host countries. As conflict pervades communities across the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, South Sudan, Somalia and other countries, people, and especially children, have no choice but to flee. Many of these children lose their parents on their journey to safety.
Upon reaching refugee camps or sprawling cities, the dangers for children — both accompanied and unaccompanied — are still present.
"Harmful practices that violate rather than protect children's rights pervade communities where Jesuit Refugee Service works in Eastern Africa. Abuse, exploitation and sexual violence, including female genital mutilation, are daily threats for refugee children. Perpetrators receive excessively lenient sentences, if at all prosecuted by authorities. Thus, implementing policies that limit such harmful practices seems daunting," said Beatrice Gikonyo, JRS Eastern Africa Advocacy Officer.
Streamlining child protection. JRS decided to take on this challenge of designing training sessions and implementing a child protection policy to ensure JRS teams are equipped with the skills to protect all children under their care. In Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan and Uganda, workshops were designed to enhance the capacity to respond to cases like Ayaan's.
The revised training focused on providing guidance on how staff should identify and react to child abuse or neglect. It reinforced the obligation to report such incidences and detailed the reporting procedure to ensure all reports were properly investigated. Child protection focal points were assigned to monitor and lead future investigations.
When Ayaan came to the JRS office in Eastleigh, Nairobi, to report the case, the JRS social worker — who had previously undergone the training — listened intently. After hearing her case, he met with school officials who took measures to ensure her safety. He also referred her to other organizations in Nairobi who focus on ensuring physical protection and legal rights of refugees. Ayaan is now back in school.
Protecting children in school. JRS has also taken measures to ensure the policy is adhered to by the schools, day-care and recreational facilities sponsored by the organization as well as those hosting JRS-sponsored students.
"Education can be a tool to protect children in both protracted and emergency situations of displacement, as long as schools are a safe space for children to learn and grow," said Ms Gikonyo.
Where JRS does not have the capacity to properly respond to specific cases, staff liaise with partner organizations which provide legal aid, health care and psychosocial support.
Challenges overcome. In some cases, harmful perceptions pose a problem to the implementation of the policy.
"Some staff saw the child protection policy as a 'foreign idea' for the Africa setting, others suggested that ideas of a child's self-autonomy diminishes parental authority. In one of the countries, JRS teams learned that the authorities had actually banned child protection training.
"We responded to such resistance by emphasizing that child abuse happens all over the world, and every individual has the responsibility to protect our children. There is nothing foreign about that," said Ms Gikonyo.
Despite the challenges, JRS has seen an increase in the ability of staff to respond to child protection incidents.
"In Kampala, JRS staff was alerted of a suspected child abuse case by a guard who undertook JRS child protection training. After further investigation, it was discovered that two young boys were being subjected to abuse both at home by their stepmother and at school.
"After reporting the case to the child protection unit at a Kampala police station, the custody was granted to the children's biological mother, and school officials were reprimanded for their behavior," said Ms Gikonyo.
Throughout the region, participants in the workshops also designed new child protection initiatives which they will implement throughout 2015. These range from workshops to improvement of facilities on JRS premises to ensure child safety.
"When working in a refugee context, the need to protect all children who've already lost so much of their childhoods to disaster is more evident than ever. We hope that moving forward we are able to see more positive outcomes and that our close partners who have not done so will enact similar initiatives," said Ms Gikonyo.
*Name has been changed for reasons of security.