It is the third week since I arrived in Kenya. I am sitting in a wooden bench, in a courtroom located somewhere in Nairobi, surrounded by an expectant crowd that patiently listens to the Judge, the clerks, the prosecutor and the involved parties of each one of the cases. I do not understand Kiswahili yet, so I cannot really tell what is going on. However, Julie, my colleague, explains to me the development of each case as we wait for ours.
We are there to accompany and provide support to one of the victims that receive HAART Kenya’s services at our shelter. Her name is Paula (pseudonym). She was informed of the fact that she was going to testify. The victim had also received the corresponding psychological assistance in order to be as mentally prepared as possible to face the challenge of re-telling her story in front of a legal system that still has a lot to do in order to prevent the re-victimization of victims like her. She would also receive assistance after the hearing, to help her overcome whatever she would face.
Finally, her hearing starts. From time to time she turns around and looks at us with her big eyes and her nervous smile, to check if we are there. Since in Kenya, as in many other countries, the victim’s participation during the legal proceedings is quite limited and prosecution in criminal cases remains the responsibility of the state which explains our limited role in the process. Therefore we cannot take a really active role during the hearing, but a supportive one.
It is a human right to be able to cross-examine the evidence whenever one is being accused of a crime. This is a process that in an ideal situation, the defendant should always have legal representation in the form of advocate. However, the situation in Kenya is not ideal and in many cases, the accused rarely has a defence lawyer. In general, if he/she lacks the funds to afford on the government rarely assigns one. This means that if they do not have a lawyer, the responsibility to cross examine the evidence lies with the accused. As fate would have it, this was the case in this courtroom; the accused has to cross-examine the testimony of the victim himself.
There she is, sitting in her wooden chair with her knees together, next to the prosecutor, spitting word by word what happened to her, in front of the exact same person that was responsible for all of it. I feel a knot in my throat as I can only imagine how she must be feeling right now. The bravery she is showing to all of us is a source of inspiration. It is the fuel that makes all of us feel hope and a sense of responsibility towards the well-being of victims and survivors.
Even when, at this hearing, the defender was not being particularly accused of human trafficking, Paula found herself in this situation as a direct consequence of her situation as victim of human trafficking. Sexual abuse was just but one of the abuses that she went through the process of trafficking. She was rescued from that situation by HAART who then placed her in shelter managed by another organization. Unfortunately, while in that shelter which was supposed to be a place of safety, she was, again, sexually abused. The flaws of a system designed to protect victims like her become apparent. After this experience, HAART decided that opening its own shelter would be the better idea to prevent another situation like that. Currently, she receives all the assistance that our staff can provide in order to help her develop into a resilient human being.
Unfortunately, her story is not unique. A victim of human trafficking and a survivor of gender based sexual violence that was seeking for assistance and, instead, found herself re victimized by a system that was not able to protect her and ensure her safety is a common story.
Her story should make us think about how hard all of us – civil society, government agencies, international organizations – need to work in order to implement and develop a system that ensures the protection of victims. We should be encouraging and facilitating their access to justice as it is a human right, while preventing them from being re victimized. By the very system designed to protect them.
By Ignacio Lepro