Kenya: A Silent Epidemic – Sexual Abuse of Boys

Sexual violence and harassment continuous to permeate all sectors of society worldwide, a vice that threatens to disenfranchise our social fabric. As the world evolves, so does abuse take new forms, though it largely encompasses physical violence, uninvited physical contact, defilement and rape.

In Kenya, according to the Wangu Kanja Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that works with survivors of sexual violence, at least 60% of these heinous acts are mostly perpetrated by trusted individuals who are known to the survivors:  parents, teachers, peers, church leaders, community bright spots, caregivers among others.

Women and girls continue to be the biggest casualties of reported sexual harassment globally, with latest majority of cases in a UN-Habitat report indicating that one in every seven women in Nairobi experience sexual abuse. Out of every five cases of sexual abuse, three involve rape.

Even so, men are not to be forgotten. Due to the minimal reports of sexual abuse of males, it is assumed that this crime is a female centered problem. Yet, many males experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Men and boys who have been sexually assaulted or abused have many of the same feelings, reactions and consequences as female survivors of sexual assault, but they also face some additional challenges because of social attitudes, stigma and stereotypes about men and masculinity.

Researchers have found that at least 1 in 6 men have experienced sexual abuse or assault, whether in childhood or as adults. And this is probably a modest estimate, considering most crimes go unreported by survivors. The low rate of reporting is not unexpected. It is mainly attributed to the patriarchal nature of most societies globally, where the concept of masculinity is promoted above vulnerability. This has led to the iceberg phenomenon of male sexual abuse, where only the tip is seen or in majority of cases not seen at all. In addition, it does not help that evidence indicates law enforcement and service providers are less likely to identify boys as victims of sexual exploitation.

In the Kenyan context, recent coverage and amplification of sexual violence cases against boys through mainstream and social media, has somewhat increased advocacy and awareness about males being at risk of sexual violence and harassment.

A case in point is the arrest and prosecution of a former children’s home director from Nairobi who was sentenced to serve 100 years in jail after he was found guilty of defiling male minors in his care from the year 2010 to 2016. This case, which was first exposed by human rights defenders, seven years ago, created public outcry in August 2022 after the sentence was delivered. Though justice was seen to be done, the case also pointed to the major weaknesses that cripple our justice system. In an ideal situation, it should not take seven years to find a child abuser guilty of his crimes.

Local media clippings on court cases touching on sexual harassment against boys have linked priests, teachers and close male relatives to abuse, but there has also been an increase in reported cases of abuse of male children in learning institutions after they report to join their first year of high school. In the past, these incidents would hardly be brought to the attention of the public but recent years have seen survivors speak out and human rights defenders deliberately take on this injustice as a cause worth fighting for. The numbers of male survivors, especially minors in high school seem to have increased significantly but this can be attributed to the increase in reported cases and activism.

Though many boys are molested by adults, there is strong evidence that male children are even more likely to be sexually abused or sexually as­saulted by other children. In a study by WHO of 13,000 children aged 17 and younger, three-quarters of the boys who reported being sexually victimized said the person who violated them was another child. This research is consistent with unofficial findings in Kenya where many abusers are minors preying on fellow minors, especially in the Kenyan boarding school institutions. Concrete and deliberate research on this needs to be conducted to identify the magnitude of the problem.

One consistent characteristic identified by the writer of this article, on the tens of cases she has handled as a human rights defender is that all the survivors gave a similar story. They reported to high school for their first year and within one to two weeks of settling in, they were subjected to targeted sexual violence by older boys who were not easily identifiable because at the point of reporting to school, with everyone wearing identical uniforms, the new boys were unable to tell one student from the other. In some of the cases, it took amplification via mainstream and social media to have schools where these incidents happen agree to take responsibility but in most cases, the schools take part in an elaborate cover-up in an attempt to protect the school’s reputation, putting their image and business interests above the welfare of students and survivors.

That the abuse of boys in Kenya can be easily classified as a silent epidemic is an understatement. Our patriarchal culture contributes greatly to the continued silence around this very serious crime that has placed our boys and even adult males in a position that exposes them to being the perfect victims for pedophiles and sexual abusers. Sexual violence against males is not given the magnitude of seriousness seen when handling the same crimes affecting females. This unfortunately also creates a vicious cycle of abuse where the abused male minors end up becoming abusers themselves later in life and survivors suffer lifelong consequences of their experience.

The unfortunate downside to the amplification of male survivor stories or even access to justice is the lack of resources to deal with it. Most organizations that work with survivors of sexual abuse tend to focus on females over males. It does not help the cause also that the male survivors hardly speak out for fear of stigma and labeling associated with the sexual abuse of males.  There is indeed need to be deliberate about the protection and care of boys in Kenya to avoid what is likely to become an explosion of more abuse cases by fighting back against the normalization of this crime. Deliberate resource mobilization for this specific cause is way overdue.

The writer is Wanjeri Nderu, an award winning Human Rights Defender based in Nairobi Kenya