IJM Kenya: Despite Hostile Community, Justice and Healing for Vera

Vera (left) has grown close to her IJM social worker Esther as they worked together through trauma-focused therapy.
Vera (left) has grown close to her IJM social worker Esther as they worked together through trauma-focused therapy.

NAIROBI, Kenya – Justice was finally secured for one brave Kenyan girl this week, thanks to her testimony and the relentless determination of local police and IJM staff.

Despite pressure from her community to stay silent, 14-year-old Vera * courageously shared the truth about the man who sexually assaulted her. Now her abuser has been convicted and will face 20 years in prison for his crimes.

A Shocking Assault against a Vulnerable Girl

Vera has grown up with a developmental disability and epilepsy, leaving her often unable to communicate. Both of her parents had to work away from home to earn enough money to support their four children. Often, Vera—who really needs additional care—would be left home alone to care for the family's cow and fetch water.

Two years ago, Vera was working on these chores by a river when a neighbor came by offering her food and sweets. She said no repeatedly, but the man suddenly grew violent. He grabbed Vera and dragged her through the fields to his home. Then he sexually assaulted the young girl and threatened to beat her if she ever told anyone about the abuse.

Vera was too frightened to tell anyone what had happened. But when she heard a neighbor woman planning to go to the river alone, Vera found the courage to warn her about the man who abused her.

Shocked at the horrible story Vera told her, this neighbor and Vera's mother immediately reported the assault to local police and took Vera to a hospital for medical attention. With medical evidence, the police believed they could build a strong case against Vera's abuser.

Police in Danger – A Family in Turmoil

Soon after Vera reported the abuse, the man who assaulted her went into hiding. Police knew they needed help tracking him, and they asked IJM Kenya to help arrest the man and support Vera in the journey ahead.

But as IJM investigators started working with police, it became clear that local leaders and community members supported the abuser, who came from a powerful local family, instead of the young girl living with a disability. Whenever the man was found and police moved in to arrest him, community members would tip him off and he would disappear again.

On one attempt, these neighbors surrounded IJM's car, hurling insults and spitting at the police and IJM team. They chanted that the police would never catch Vera's abuser and laughed at the attempts to arrest him. IJM and the police were discouraged, but pushed on knowing Vera's family was enduring even worse.

Vera's family suffered as pressure mounted from their community to drop the case. They felt utterly alone, but had no money to leave their village. IJM social workers continued to support and counsel them, but the family started to lose hope as arrest attempts failed again and again.

"We were dejected because we knew we were leaving that family in the midst of wolves. There was nothing we could do," says Shawn Kohl, IJM Kenya's field office director. "We resolved then and there to come back as many times as it would take." 

This Time Would Be Different

In April 2013, Vera's mother called once more to alert the IJM team of the abuser's return to their village. Taking no chances, IJM and local police kept in constant contact with her and found the man at a bus stop before he could escape. This time would be different. The crowds that had protected the man before watched as police arrested him at last—nearly two years after he violently abused Vera.

From there, the case moved fairly quickly through the Kenyan courts. An IJM social worker provided Vera with the support she needed to share the truth about the abuse in court, and IJM attorneys worked diligently to keep her case moving. Vera's parents faithfully attended every court hearing, despite pressure from their community. And even though her disability often made it hard to express herself, Vera shared her testimony bravely to the magistrate.

On August 14, her courage paid off. The magistrate found Vera's abuser guilty and sentenced him to 20 years in prison. Vera's parents shouted with joy at the verdict. Their daughter's nightmare was finally over, and justice was secured.

IJM Social Worker Esther Njuguna admires the family's faithfulness in spite of all opposition. She says, "Vera has a very good support system. Her parents are very loving. What struck me about them is how involved and warm they are; they are very gentle people."

Today, Vera has graduated from IJM's trauma-focused therapy program, and Esther is proud of her progress. Vera plans to enroll in a hairdressing course and looks forward to a safer future—knowing the man who hurt her has been brought to justice and cannot hurt other girls ever again. *A pseudonym.