Discover the Latest Innovations and Lessons Learned in Rule of Law and Legal Empowerment Projects
Last week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Felicia Mburu, an advocate from Kenya. Prior to working for civil society on women and children’s rights, she worked at a law firm and specialized in family law and land matters. She’s provided some fascinating insight on what it was like working with children to educate them about their rights, how receptive traditional leaders were, the role of religious institutions in promoting children’s rights, and the kind of international training that’s needed now more than ever. Check out the interview below!
Can you talk a little bit about what you did when you worked on children’s rights and how you went to the communities to educate them on these rights?
I was working on a project called child rights governance and we were trying to get children involved in governance issues from the family level, up to the school and all the way up to the national and international level. We would go to different communities, and depending on what the issues were, we would help them figure out how to resolve their problems and how to get the government involved to uphold children’s rights. Our main goal was to get children involved. There’s no way to talk about child protection without getting them involved in the project. So we would liaise with the teachers, students, and their families to help them understand child rights. In the African context, children do not exist. So the whole idea is to change their thinking to show that children do exist. By teaching them rights and responsibilities, it does not mean they will become bad children per se, but rather they will be more responsible children in the future. So we teach them child rights and responsibilities and at the same time we teach them the role of government, family, and the community in protecting child rights, plus the child itself.
What was the age range you looked at when you educated children?
Mostly, the age group was between 7-17 years. In Kenya, they’ve really segregated the children and the youth. So you find some issues are cross cutting and they’re not being addressed adequately. You have the national plan of action for children and there’s the national youth plan of action, which kind of also interferes with the national plan of action for children.
How receptive were the young people that you worked with from age 7-17 when you talked to them about what rights they have?
It was amazing, actually. Talking with children was an eye opener. It was a learning experience. But mostly, I love the way children react to it: Ok, we know those are our rights, but how do we bring them to life? How do we start implementing them? How do we get our parents to listen to us? They were quite engaged. They wanted more information and brochures to get their parents engaged. And one thing we noticed, the children we taught rights and responsibilities to, they would start performing really well in school. They would also go out to the communities and get involved in community projects. We used to teach them through child rights clubs. We’d walk into a school, form a child rights club, and teach them their rights and responsibilities and when the children came up with projects, we’d help support their projects depending on how much funding we had or what the need was. Even their parents would get engaged and say ‘okay, you’re teaching our children something good – we want to know more.’ Some of this in the schools really picked up. You’d notice there was a community change altogether, but not in all cases. We had at least a 70% success rate.
Can you talk a little bit more about the community change you saw?
The key change that I saw was on child protection. You’d find in some cultures, let me use defilement as an example, where a child is defiled, they deal with it internally. They’ll probably say give us a cow and life continues, but there’s no justice for the child. When we started teaching child rights, and we’re talking about 3-5 year projects, slowly we’d started seeing the communities taking more responsibility. They’d start community policing to protect children. If defilement happened, they’d be the first to report it to the police and follow it up until the court case is decided. You’d find they’d also be involved in setting up after school activities for children to participate more, rather than stay at home and become delinquents. They also set up community funds to help the orphans and the children in the community who couldn’t afford to go to school. All this started with the children that we taught child rights to and they went and taught their families and it grew. Some of the communities run their own organizations that protect children’s rights. They liaise with the police and the judiciary to ensure that children’s rights are upheld.
A good success story of this is the Tononoka courts. It was actually built by the community after they realized that the problem with the local court was the judge. They kicked out the judge and they looked for funding and funded the court. And it’s the only child friendly court in the country.
You also mentioned that organizations started liaising with the police and the judiciary. Can you talk about what this experience was like?
Originally when we got involved, there was bad blood between the police and the community. The community did not trust the police, and the police was basically lazy. There was a lot of corruption. The judiciary could not get their work done because there were a few corrupt judges and also because of the bad blood. The witnesses would not give evidence. No one would bother coming forward. But after we started educating and training the community, and working with the children and the schools, we started seeing the community, school teachers especially, would really get involved. They would follow up on cases and started harassing the police until they started taking action. In another community, we saw that the community stood up and demonstrated against the head of the police station and because of such demonstrations he was removed and replaced by another more effective officer.
We’d also see children’s officers getting more involved with the community activities. The children’s officers are a government institution. They’re supposed to monitor child rights, abuses, and any issues to do with children in the community. But they weren’t quite doing their job, so when the community started doing their job, they realized that they might get fired, so they ended up taking more action especially on child maintenance and custody issues, so we’d have less cases going to court. When the court noticed that the community was getting more involved, they’d have exchange programs where the magistrates and the judges would go and talk to communities about the legal process, legal procedure, and how to represent yourself so the court process didn’t seem unachievable but more achievable to the people. This restored their faith in the judicial process.
How receptive are the formal and informal justice systems to the children? Do you feel like there is a bias similar to the bias seen with women?
No, in the formal system there’s no bias because it’s written law and the courts have to respect that. The only problem came with the informal system and customary law. At the end of the day we are Africans and we are bound by our customs. There are customs that are good for protecting for women and children. Let me use land matters. Women are not allowed to inherit land but they’re allowed access to the land. Traditionally all land was owned by the first born male child in trust to the rest of the family. In comes formal law which states that land must be registered in one person’s name, it doesn’t recognize the whole trustee relationship in African customary law. It limits the rights of women and children. You find where an orphan is left alone and the parents had property there has to be an adult to watch over them. The adult goes to court and registers the land in their name and the child loses out. Yet in African customary law, it was very clear that the guardian has the property in trust for the child until they become of age. So there’s a lot of conflict of laws with African customary law. And one of the things I used to enjoy working with the children is they would raise such issues and they would sit down with community leaders and discuss with them how to go about protecting their rights both in the African custom and in the formal system.
What do you feel like the outcomes of those conversations were? How receptive were the traditional leaders and the formal court leaders?
Funny enough I had better reception with the traditional leaders because once the elders speak, no one else can go against their judgment. But when you go to court, the court disregards African customary law and rules according to formal law therefore interfering with children’s rights. Sometimes, you may have a greedy uncle, who has access to bank accounts because banks require an adult. They’re busy withdrawing the money and they won’t pay school fees for the children and no one can monitor that because the child can’t go to court. The child has to go through a guardian for the court to listen to him. Yet in African customary law, the child can go to the leaders that we have agreed, and my uncle still has not paid my school fees and the elders would take immediate action. So for me, I highly advocate for a system that integrates both cultures – formal and informal law.
How do you think both these systems can be integrated?
A review of all our laws. We did pass our constitution in 2010. If people would just implement our constitution as it is, and review the laws accordingly, then it would work. What we did as civil society is we would bring in communities and government together in the same room and have them sit down and discuss. We present, this is what law says, do you agree with it or not, and how can we make it better. If we get judges, the chief, the police, and the community leaders to agree on a way forward, it would be more sustainable. Now we need to do that with all our laws in light of the new constitution. Of course that comes with challenges of financing, time constraints and leadership.
What kinds of international training, funding, or mentorship would help with some of these programs in Kenya to help children?
One of the main trainings that we need as a country is training on a rights-based approach. Unfortunately, donor funding has led us to have donor dependency, especially at the community level. You find people don’t want to think and improve their situation because donors would bring the money. So if we have more training on a rights-based approach where communities, donors, and the government are working together to improve their situation. That would benefit more. Some organizations USAID, PLAN International, are still using the needs-based approach and it’s really harming rather than helping the society.
Rights based approach is all about empowerment and creating support systems. Let me use example in a school setting. What we’re taught growing up is that the teacher is always right, you must do what the teacher says. If we’re using a rights based approach, the teacher is right and I am also right, so how can both of us work together to make sure we both perform well in school. Now bring it up to the national level, we’re talking about teaching governments how to set up their own system and how to work together with communities to empower the community, where you’re teaching people rights and responsibilities. Like you have the right to food, but it’s your responsibility to grow the food. We’ll give you the support of fertilizer but it’s up to the community to grow the food. The same applies to donor aid. How can donors come in to support the system, rather than compete with each other without thinking about the long-term sustainability. So a rights-based approach is about creating empowerment and sustainability. And how all these actors come in to empower the child and create sustainable projects for the future.
What are your suggestions on making programs sustainable?
It starts with something as simple as a baseline study. If you’re doing a project on child protection and the idea is FGM is bad. The first thing you’re supposed to do is a baseline. Come to the community and understand why did FGM start, why is it still being practiced, and how can we address this issue from the community perspective. What most donors do is say FGM is bad, and they don’t understand the mechanisms behind it, so no one will listen to them. They’ll just be like ok those are just some funny international people who don’t understand us. If more NGO’s would do a baseline before you start a project: Find out who are the key actors, what are key issues to be addressed, and what is the main need according to the community. Once you have those answers, then you can implement a more sustainable project.
Religious institutions seem to play a big role in Kenya. What role do you think they have or could play in promoting children’s rights?
Religion plays a key role in Kenyan community. In fact, if you want to influence anything, get the charge of the Mosque involved. It’s one thing that we’ve always overlooked in civil society is using religious institutions to influence change, but of course that comes with its own issue. As civil society, you don’t want to seem as though you’re partisan to one religion over another. And it’s one thing we were pushing the government to do. If all government programs, especially on the youth, if they could be advertised through the charge of the mosque, then it would be more effective.
One of the more successful projects we had on FGM was amongst the northern Somali’s in Kenya. When we tried to talk to them, they wouldn’t listen to us. Even the council of elders wouldn’t listen to us. They were like that’s just nonsense. But when we went to the Imam, and had a conversation with him, he actually had to go through the Koran and he told us nowhere in the Koran does it talk about female genital mutilation. So we asked him, can we have a capacity building with all the Imam’s in the area, and talk about that and come to a conclusion and then the Imam’s can go and talk to everyone else. He said yes, and that’s how we managed to cause change in the community. As much as it’s still going on, it’s not as much as before. And you find even after girls are circumscribed, they’re still told to go back to school and they’re not being married off anymore. So it was a win-lose situation but we kept more girls in school and that’s when you realize the important role of religious institutions.
80% of Kenyans will go to some religious institution, we have very few atheists and they will believe whatever the preacher or Imam tells them. So if we want to influence any change, we have to start a discussion in the religious institution. Even the uncomfortable conversations, like LGBTI , we have to start them in the church or in the mosque for anyone to listen.
What are some of the general lessons you’ve learned that you would like to share based on your experience working on projects for children’s rights?
To the international community, I can insist, work with the community. There’s this Save Africa mentality. The international community needs to change that perception and start working with the systems already in place for them to achieve proper sustainable outcome out of this. The international community needs to understand the African community, the context in which you’re working with, and how to how to support that system, rather than overhaul the whole system.
As a nation, we need support on legal reform. We need to start thinking differently. There’s a lot of good work being done, but because of the thematic nature it’s a bit hard to get good results. So you’ll find there’s more legal reform in the ministry of health rather than ministry of justice. Because of that imbalance it’s a bit hard to get things done. If you look at discrimination on the HIV medicine, where women will be given it, but it’s not enough to cover the woman plus the child. That’s a constitutional issue but because everyone’s focusing on the ministry of health and not focusing on the ministry of justice, the doctors will keep saying it’s the law and nothing can be done. So it’s about time people started switching their view on cross cutting issues, not just thematic areas for any proper legal reform to be done.