Children of Kenya

Realizing Children’s Rights in Kenya

Kenya is among the states that have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and has undertaken to pursue policies aimed at progressive realization of those rights. Despite global and national recognition of children’s rights, Kenya still faces many challenges such as poverty, limited access to drinking water, access to healthcare, violence against children, child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM).

Children’s Rights Index: 6,15 / 10
Red level : Difficult situation

Population: 51.3 million
Pop. ages 0-14: 39.8%

Life expectancy: 66 years
Under-5 mortality rate: 41.1‰

Kenya at Glance

Kenya is a country in East Africa with coastline on the Indian Ocean. The country is bordered to the northwest by South Sudan, to the south by Tanzania, to the east by Somalia, to the west by Uganda and to the north by Ethiopia.

Since Kenya’s independence from British colonial rule in 1963, the country has had four presidents. However, every election since the establishment of a multi-party system in 1991 witnessed widespread violence (Human Rights Watch, 1993). The violence is linked to long-standing grievances and failures of governance that run deeper than electoral politics.

Kenya has a history of widespread corruption and systemic abuse of office by public officials that has resulted in a situation which encourages slow economic growth with depressing figures of crushing poverty. Political contests have become all more charged because of what is at stake. Those who achieve political power benefit from widespread abuses including impunity for political manipulation of violence, criminal theft of land and corrupt misuse of public resources-indulgences which occur at the expense of groups who are out of power (Human Rights Watch, 2008)..

Tensions escalated in the 2007-2008 post-election violence which lasted two months resulting in a death toll of around 1,500 and up to 600,000 internally displaced persons (BBC News, 2008). Kenya’s most recent presidential election in 2017 was marred by serious human rights violations including unlawful killings and beatings by police during protests (Human Rights Watch, 2017).

Kenya has also been the target of terrorist attacks by al-Shabaab a jihadist fundamentalist group. Since 2013, the terrorist group has carried out attacks in Kenya and on the border of Somalia threatening livelihoods of the most vulnerable people.

In Kenya, more than 60 languages are spoken and there are more than 40 ethnic groups. Almost everyone in Kenya speaks more than one ethnic language. Access to primary school is free in Kenya; however, many children are too busy to attend classes as they are supporting their families by working the land, tending cattle, cooking or fetching water.

Status of Children Rights [1]

Kenya has ratified key international treaties aimed at protecting children from abuse and neglect, particularly the UNCRC and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC). Kenya is signatory to both optional protocols. In 2001, Kenya enacted the Children Act to implement its obligations under the UNCRC and ACRWC. In 2002, Kenya established the National Council for Children’s Services under the Children Act ( National Council for Children’s Services, 2020).

According to the Act, the objective and purpose of the Council is “to exercise general supervision and control over the planning, financing and co-ordination of child rights and welfare activities and to advise the Government on all aspects thereof”. ( National Council for Children’s Services, 2020)

This was followed by a constitutional reform in 2010, which was “a major milestone for the children of Kenya as [the new Constitution] recognizes some fundamental human rights in keeping with the UNCRC and ACRWC and other international and regional treaties” (The National Council for Children’s Services, 2015). In addition, various other Kenyan laws include provisions aimed at advancing child rights and protecting children from abuse and neglect. These include the Prohibition against Female Genital Mutilation Act, the Sexual Offences Act, the Trafficking in Persons Act, the Marriage Act, the Domestic Violence Act, the Basic Education and the Employment Act.

Nowadays, the public is more aware of the importance of children’s rights; the government has pledged to ensure that all children can enjoy their rights under national and international law. However, the reality is that Kenya still faces several challenges such as FGM, sexual violence against children, large number of street children, insufficient space to accommodate children in classroooms,lack of access to healthcare services. Taking that into consideration, Kenya must implement and enforce the policies and legislation to achieve the full realization of children’s rights. 

Addressing the Needs of Children

Right to Education

Access to formal education in Kenya has proved to be a challenge as more than 1.2 million primary-school-age children do not attend school (UNICEF, 2020). Part of the challenge is the inclusion of children with disabilities and the lack of data that makes it impossible to quantify the extent of the problem. The factors that keep children with disabilities out of school are found both in the home environment and in the education system.

Children from nomadic communities face challenges including a perceived lack of value of schooling for pastoral societies and the long distance to schools in some areas. Meanwhile, providing state education for children in the informal settlements around large cities such as Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu and Garissa is problematic since the government does not recognize settlements  (UNICEF, 2020). This opens the way to low-cost private schools that may not meet national quality standards.

However, Kenya has made progress towards increasing access to education due to free public primary and  secondary education. Enrolment in pre-school facilities increased from 2.5 million in 2011 to 3.2 million in 2015  (UNICEF, 2020). In 2015, 97 girls were attending school for every 100 boys. Gross enrolment rose from 67% in 2011 and 76.5% in 2015. Nevertheless, the transition rate between primary and secondary school remained low at 86% in 2014.

The low number of secondary schools in the country is a major bottleneck to secondary enrolment. In some communities, girls may fear losing their “marriage ability” by entering secondary school and face risks of sexual abuse (UNICEF, 2020).

In north-eastern Kenya, students and staff have been directly affected by acts of violence including terrorist attacks on schools. This has led to teachers from other regions of the country refusing to work in these areas because of safety fears, meaning that children, adolescents and youths in already marginalized north-eastern countries are further deprived of education. Meanwhile, drought has led to school closures, lower attendance particularly in pastoral communities and reduction in water supply and school feeding. Refugee children in Dadaab and Kakuma struggle with empty classrooms and insufficient teachers as well as a prohibition on entering the workforce that reduces the incentive to study.

Right to Health

Kenya has made significant progress in reducing maternal, new-born and child mortality. The neonatal death reduced from 31 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2008/9 to 22 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2014, and under-five child mortality reduced from 74 per 1000 live births in 2008/9 to 52 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2014 (Kenya Demographic and Health Survey, 2020). Disparities in the quality, accessibility and affordability of healthcare remain a major challenge, hence the most vulnerable and deprived mothers and children are denied their right to survive and thrive (UNICEF, 2020).

In many instances the healthcare system in Kenya is faced with challenges including insufficient and poorly distributed workforce, inadequate skills, practices and experience of healthcare staff, as well as weak planning, management and financial systems within the context of a devolution health system. A significant number of health facilities are not fully functional, with many lacking electricity, water, essential medical equipment and supplies. Poor quality of maternal, new-born and child health services remain a hindrance to Kenya achieving Sustainable Development Goal three (SDG 3) which is set to ensure people live healthy lives, and ending preventable maternal and new-born deaths (UNICEF, 2020).

HIV prevalence was 5.9% in 2015, slightly down from 6.5% in 2013. Also, 46% of all new HIV infections are among young people aged 15-24 years with two thirds among girls and young women. Adolescents in Kenya face challenges accessing health services due to cultural barriers and lack of appropriate services. There is a lack of mental health services for adolescents in the country, while sexual and reproductive health services are not tailored to the needs of young people (UNICEF, 2020).

Right to Water and Sanitation

Clean water, basic toilets and good hygiene practices are essential for the survival of children. Water and sanitation-related diseases are one of the leading causes of death for children under the age of five (UNICEF, 2020). In 2015, access to improved water sources stood at 82% in urban households but only 57% in rural households. In 2014, for 21% of children it took more than 30 minutes for a household member to collect water. When water is not supplied in the premises, responsibility for collecting drinking water usually lies with women and older girls (UNICEF, 2020).

In 2015, only 9,000 of the country’s 22,000 public primary schools were connected to safe water supplies. High proportions of schools had no water source at all in Wajir County (25.9%), Tana River County (14.4%), Taita Teveta County (13.5%) and Mandera County (13.1%). In 2015, there were 35 boys per toilet and 29 girls per toilet in schools which is below the national norms of 30:1 and 25:1 respectively (UNICEF, 2020). Turkana County had 107 boys per toilet and 75 girls per toilet, while Mandera County had ratios 76:1 and 54:1.

The quality of latrines is also an issue since water supply poses a huge challenge both on a county and national level. Apart from that, governments often understate their roles and responsibility in providing adequate sanitation. 

Right to Identity

Under Article 11 of the Children Act 2001 recognizes that “every child shall have a right to a name and nationality and where a child is deprived of his identity the Government shall provide appropriate assistance and protection with a view of establishing their identity” (Better Care Network, 2020). However, since only 64% of the births in Kenya are registered, additional efforts need to be put into promoting birth certification as parents often do not see the value of birth registration (UNICEF, 2020).

Lack of birth registration is a particular issue for children who come in contact with the law, who become engaged in child labour or exploitation or are otherwise in need of protection and access to age-appropriate services. There are some costs associated with birth registration for children. Although these are minimal, they can influence the decision of the parents to register the borth of their children. Low birth registration rates correlate to poor access to healthcare.

Risk Factors → Country-Specific Challenges

Street Children

The number of children living and/or working on the streets in Kenya is not known but estimates are high, varying from 50,000 to 250,000. Urban areas with high numbers of children in street situations and homeless families include Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret, Lodwar and Nanyuki. There has reportedly been a growth in recent years in children from informal settlements being drawn to the streets of Nairobi during the day, while numbers in Lodwar have reportedly increased because of the impact of drought in 2017. 

Child Poverty

Kenya has shifted from a low-income to a lower-middle-income country. Despite this growing wealth, children remain disproportionately represented among the poor and vulnerable with 41.5% of children living below the national poverty line (UNICEF, 2018). In 2014, 43% of children lived in dwellings made of natural material such as earth, sand, cane, mud or grass, which is a rise from 2008-2009. Housing shortages mean there is a critical need to invest more in affordable housing in urban areas.

The country is increasingly exploring how the private sector can be engaged in meeting development goals through investment in social sectors, innovation and sponsorship. However, care should be taken to ensure that the private sector is adequately regulated to prevent violations of children’s rights.

Child Exploitation

According to a 2015 study by the African Network for the Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect, children in Kenya are involved in the commercial sex trade with both tourists and Kenyan nationals who travel from other parts of the country. Sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism is reportedly common in major tourist destinations such as Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Kakamega and Nakuru.

Children are also exploited in sex trafficking by people working in cultivation areas, near Nyanza gold mines along the coast, by lorry drivers transporting stones from quarries and by fishermen on Lake Victoria and in Lokichar in Turkana, where oil exploitation is underway. In most cases, victims of commercial sexual exploitation are not able to access support services because most organizations focus only on awareness raising activities rather than direct service provision.

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Child Marriage

FGM is not only a harmful practice but a violation of human rights. In Kenya, the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act 2011 and the Marriage Act 2014 are the key national laws that directly address FGM and child marriage (UNICEF, 2020). Prevalence of FGM has fallen significantly over the past decade, standing at 21% among 15-49-year olds in the 2014 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS). However, among Somalis (94%), Samburu (86%), Kisii (84%) and Maasai (78%), the practice is still prevalent. The 2014 KDHS also suggests that the practice is now occurring to children at a much younger age than previously (UNICEF, 2020).

Support for the continuation of child marriage in communities is decreasing; however, more boys and men compared to girls and women support the continuation of child marriage in their respective communities. The national average of child marriage has reduced slightly, from 26.4% of 20-24 year-old females married by the age of 18 in 2008/9 to 22.9% in 2014. This prevalence is the highest in northern Kenya (56%) and on the coast (41%).

The causes of child marriage include social economic factors, such as poverty, low education and the treatment of girls as economic assets (UNICEF, 2020). Capacity gaps among police officers and court officials as well as cultural reluctance on the part of some community and religious leaders hamper efforts to delay marriage.

Environmental Challenges

Kenya is already extremely susceptible to climate-related events, which pose a serious threat to the socio-economic development of the country. For decades, drought has been the single most disastrous natural hazard in Kenya, particularly in the arid and semi-arid lands. While drought results in increased food and nutrition insecurity, drought-related displacement and water shortages lead to increased reports of disease outbreaks and conflict, as well as the closure of schools.

Kenya has experienced serious flooding incidents over the years, particularly in the Western lowlands around Lake Victoria, the coastal lowlands around the Indian Ocean and other areas with poor surface water drainage. These have caused major disturbances destroying property and resulting in loss of life.

Written by Igi Nderi

Last updated on 17 June 2020


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[1] This article by no means purports to give a full or representative account of children’s rights in Kenya; indeed one of many challenges is the scant updated information on Kenyan children, much of which is unreliable, not representative, outdated or simply non-existent