Physical and sexual violence against children in Kenya within a cultural context

Grace Bridgewater looks into overcoming negative cultural factors through the implementation of educational programmes and anti-oppressive practice.

Web conversation

Grace Bridgewater  
Child protection social worker 


Key points

  • Laws and a constitutional provision exist for child protection in Kenya
  • Evidential statistics show that girls are subject to systemic inequality
  • Normalisation of gender bias and violence against children is also present in Kenya
  • The patriarchal structure of Kenyan society is such that it hinders child protection efforts in Kenya
  • UK practitioners can benefit from multi-agency working to understand the cultural context of child protection issues.

Keywords: Child Sexual Abuse, Child Physical Abuse, Social Values, Patriarchy, Kenya


The issue of physical and sexual abuse of children in Kenya is recognised as a highly prevalent and significant problem, occurring within a framework of social values that contribute to the exploitation of women and children. In order to understand the risk and protective factors for children who experience physical and sexual abuse, the cultural context must be taken into consideration.

This paper will argue that patriarchy and traditional values underlie the norms and behaviours of parents and communities interacting with children. These values can be protective, e.g. the value placed on family structure; however, the traditional value-system justifies harsh physical punishment as a means of disciplining children. While systems exist to prevent abuse, these often disenfranchise the poor, who are then left to seek traditional means of support (e.g. out-of court agreements and settlements). A culture of silence also prevents many children from reporting abuse.

The paper argues that efforts must be made to gain a better understanding of the prevalence of child maltreatment in Kenya so that targeted services can be developed to reduce it, taking into consideration and overcoming negative cultural factors through the implementation of educational programmes and anti-oppressive practice. It is hoped that this paper will enable community practitioners and health visitors in the UK to provide better support to Kenyan children who are at risk of experiencing physical and sexual violence.


Child maltreatment, of one kind or another, is prevalent in Kenyan society (UNICEF, 2010). This paper will deal with several aspects of child maltreatment, particularly violence against children in the form of physical and sexual abuse. It focuses on violence, particularly sexual violence, because these are issues I have encountered during the time I worked in Medicins Sans Frontiers and UNICEF. Both are prevalent in Kenyan society, with 32 per cent of females and 18 per cent of males prior to the age of 18 experiencing sexual violence and 66 per cent of females and 73 per cent of males experiencing physical violence (UNICEF, 2010). These issues will be investigated within the context of societal attitudes that reinforce behaviours that endanger children; more specifically, societal acceptance of physical and sexual violence against women and, by extension, their children.

Albee and Swift (2013) argue violence against children cannot be separated from the wider context of violence against women. This is not to suggest that women are not, themselves, capable of violence against children. This violence, however, exists within a societal framework of values that justify control and exploitation of women and children (Albee and Swift, 2013). Statistics will be presented within this context, as a means of understanding why physical and sexual violence and neglect are perpetuated within Kenyan society. The paper will begin by focusing on the background to the problem, followed by a discussion of gender imbalance and cultural factors, the protective and risk factors, the legal framework for child maltreatment in Kenya and the negative outcomes of physical and sexual violence against children.


The term child maltreatment is used to describe a wide range of behaviours ranging from moderate neglect to sever physical abuse, child sexual abuse, child labour and prostitution (OAK Foundation, 2011). As much as 40 per cent of the Kenyan population is under the age of 18 with 250,000 children living on the street (Mildred and Plummer, 2009). According to Meinck et al (2013), 56 per cent of males and 53 per cent of females in Africa have experienced sexual abuse as children. Statistics from UNICEF (2010) indicate 31.9 per cent of females and 17.5 per cent of males experienced at least one incident of sexual violence before the age of 18. The most common forms of sexual violence were found to be unwanted touching (20.7 per cent for females, 10.8 per cent for males), attempted sex (15.3 per cent and 7.2 per cent), pressured sex (9.6 per cent and 3.6 per cent) and physically forced sex (7.1 per cent and 1.4 per cent) (UNICEF, 2010). While both males and females experience sexual violence, it is clear from the statistics that females experience sexual violence almost twice as often as males. Eight out of ten children, both male and female, who experienced childhood sexual violence also experienced physical and/or emotional abuse while one out of eight females and one out of 11 males experienced sexual, physical and emotional abuse (UNICEF, 2010). The number of children who experienced no violence at all during childhood stands at 23.8 per cent for females and 20.6 per cent for males (UNICEF, 2010).

Reports from Kenyan children indicate that more violence is perpetrated by mothers than fathers, although men are the most common perpetrators of life threatening injuries, fractures and other fatal injuries (WHO, 2002). Likewise, sexual abusers of children are, in the case of both male and female victims, predominantly men (WHO, 2002). Furthermore, in Kenya (among other countries), low education and lack of income to meet the family’s needs increase the potential for child physical abuse (WHO, 2002).

According to UNICEF, violence against children in Kenya has reached high levels, particularly sexual violence (Trochu-Grasso et al, 2009). A large number of Kenyan girls experience coercive sexual encounters, according to Erulkar (2004), whose data was drawn from a large population-based survey conducted in Central Province, Kenya. She found 17 per cent of young women who had experienced coercive sexual encounters had had sex before the age of 15, with 56 per cent of young women who had experienced such encounters having had first partners who were five or more years older (Erulkar, 2004). A survey of 2,400 women found more than 50 per cent of Kenyan girls had lost their virginity by the age of 16, with two-thirds never discussing sexual matters with family members (Plummer and Njuguna, 2009).

In a study on gender-based violence in Nairobi, Kenya, Ongeti et al (2013) found victims of gender violence range from children to adults of both genders. However, just 8.8 per cent of victims of gender-based violence were males while 91.2 per cent were females, with the most affected groups being children from 0-10 years for males and 21-30 years for females (Ongeti et al, 2013). In a study on child maltreatment at a violence recovery centre in Kenya, Saidi et al (2008) found the mean age of maltreated children was 10 years, with 20 per cent of the victims being under five years old. Most cases of child sexual abuse (71.5 per cent) were perpetrated by individuals who were known to the victim, with cases of intra-family sexual abuse highest among the one- to five-year-old victims (Saidi et al, 2008).

Legal Framework

The legal framework for child sex offences in Kenya has its beginnings in the Children and Young Person Act of 1964, which established penalties for anyone who was in custody of a child (i.e. 0-16 years old) who assaulted, ill-treated, neglected, or abandoned the child or exposed the child to any assault, ill-treatment, neglect, etc. (Mildred and Plummer, 2009). In 2002, the Children Act expanded consideration of the protection and care of children, granting numerous rights to children, including the right to healthcare, education, protection from child labour and armed convict, protection from harmful cultural rites, and sexual abuse and exploitation (Mildred and Plummer, 2009).

In 2006, Kenya passed the Sexual Offences Act, which established the legal definition of what constitutes sexual abuse of a child, including sexual contact with unmarried girls under the age of 16 and boys under 12, sex trafficking, defilement, forced marriage, and incest (Plummer and Njuguna, 2009). Punishment for incest with a child under 18 is imprisonment for no less than 30 years (Lalor, 2004). Erulkar (2004) states that laws against coercive sexual encounters and rape are rarely enforced due to a common societal attitude that tends to blame the victim and see the actions of the offenders as normal and forgiveable, especially in the case of males who are seen as unable to control themselves. Trochu-Grasso and Varesano (2009) remark that street children in particular are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse and are frequently ill-treated by police officers. The situation has been exacerbated by the 2007-08 Kenyan crisis, with sexual violence prevalent in camps set up for internally displaced persons, particularly for girls under the age of 18 (Trochu-Grasso and Varesano, 2009).

The Department of Social Services in Kenya is charged with child protection, including investigating reports of child abuse and monitoring out-of-home placements (Mildred and Plummer, 2009). However, few professionals working with children appear to be aware of the agency and few report abuse to the agency as government responses are regarded as inadequate (Mildred and Plummer, 2009). Few judges or juries in Kenya view child sexual abuse as serious enough to warrant mandatory life imprisonment (Mildred and Plummer, 2006). Community responses to child sexual abuse take the form of chiefs and community elders acting as arbitrators for victims of violence, with chiefs having the authority to arrest the perpetrator and bring him to justice (Odero et al, 2014). They customarily convene a community meeting of village elders (Odero et al, 2014).

Due to the constraints of poverty, few women are able to report abuse of themselves or their children to the police, as the process involves filing in a form that must be completed by a police officer, after which it is returned to police who then press charges in a court of law (Odero et al, 2014). As Odero et al (2014) argue most women are simply unable to pay to file the form, undergo the medical exam, and pay for transportation costs. This, combined with social stigma, prevents many women from reporting physical or sexual abuse of themselves or their children.

Gender Inequality, Culture and Sexual Violence 

Gender inequality

Women constitute around 50 per cent of Kenya’s total population, but just 30 per cent of the total formal employment sector and they earn less than men (Maseno and Kilonzo, 2011). Far from being simply housewives and child-rearers, most Kenyan women are petty farmers and petty traders, and work more than eight hours per day in the fields (working 12 to 13 more hours than men per week) (Maseno and Kilonzo, 2011). As Maseno and Kilonzo observe (2011), Kenyan women exist within a cultural setting that is fundamentally patriarchal and inequitable, in which violence against women is tolerated, as well as subtle violence (ie degrading jokes and demeaning glances).

Children constitute 40 per cent of the Kenyan population (Plummer and Njuguna, 2009). In addition, as many as 2.1 million adults and children are living with HIV/AIDS in Kenya, which constitutes the ninth highest prevalence of the disease in the world (Plummer and Njuguna, 2009). According to Amnesty International (2000), there is a reported pattern of abuse by men who target minors for sex in the hope (or belief ) that they are less likely to have HIV/AIDS. The report also notes that young girlsare targeted in the belief that one may be cleansed of the HIV/AIDS through sexual relations with a virgin. Child sex tourism is a particular problem in coastal areas of Kenya, eg Mombasa, where, in some cases, parents or guardians put pressure on children to contribute to the family income (Mildred and Plummer, 2009).

Cultural factors

Albee and Swift (2013) argue that one of the core causes of sexual abuse is the inferior status of women in patriarchal societies, resulting in gender inequities that are embedded within society. This manifests itself in differential sex role socialisation, i.e. girls are raised to believe that they have a role that is defined by their sex, and boys, likewise, have a sexually-defined role that is superior to that of girls. Such power imbalances, by their nature, create a society that is stratified with males dominating females within the family and the wider society.

Another factor, which Albee and Swift (2013) have identified as contributing to the development of sexual abuse, is a tendency to resolve conflict through physical violence, which is prevalent among males. They argue that this leads to systemic violence within society, which is perpetuated by media portrayals of sexual violence against women, thus negatively affecting children, adolescents and adults who are exposed to its influence. According to Yüksel-Kaptanoglu et al (2012), the practice of child marriage and lack of education are both contributing factors to a power imbalance within society. They furthermore state that education and age difference can lead to increased exposure to violence due to a perception that the husband has increased authority. Younger marriage is associated with women having less education, childbirth at a younger age, and occupying a lower position within the household (Yüksel-Kaptanoglu et al, 2012). A protective factor for women, therefore, is completing secondary education and preventing child marriage.

According to Maseno and Kilonzo (2011), male violence is, furthermore, a system of social control, with rape and battery both understood as systemic and systematic. The maintenance of male social power is reinforced through various cultural sites, such as language, religion, the media, popular culture and education (Maseno and Kilonzo, 2010). In discussing Luhya and Luo communities, Maseno and Kilonzo (2010) observed that women are expected to be caretakers of their homes, implying that they should feed and clothe their families. Furthermore, they point out that the majority of these women and their children live in poverty. They give the example of Kisumu, where most of the population is poor, with most of those affected by high poverty levels being women, 66 per cent of whom are subsistence farmers. It is within this context of poverty and power imbalance that we must understand physical and sexual violence.

Attitudes towards violence

Cultural attitudes towards spousal abuse and child maltreatment are important in understanding how child sexual and physical abuse is perpetuated. As Corby et al (2012) state, views (cultural and otherwise) about the status and rights of children have considerable influence on what is considered to be maltreatment. According to a survey undertaken by UNICEF (2010), more than 50 per cent of females aged 18-24 in Kenya condoned the use of violence by a husband against his wife in various circumstances while 60 per cent of males aged 18-24 in Kenya accepted violence by husbands against wives. In the 12 months prior to the UNICEF (2010) survey, two-thirds of both males and females aged 13-17 experienced at least one incident of both sexual and physical violence with just 46.9 per cent of females and 50.8 per cent of males experiencing no violence at all within the time period. The primary perpetrators of physical violence during the same year were both mothers and fathers. However, sexual violence against females was primarily perpetrated by boyfriends/partners (24.8 per cent), neighbours (20.3 per cent), friends/classmates (20.2 per cent) and strangers (20.2 per cent) while the most common perpetrator for males were friends/classmates (35 per cent), followed by a boyfriend/girlfriend/partner (29.6 per cent) or neighbour (23.4 per cent) (UNICEF 2010). That this violence is engendered by cultural norms can be concluded from the fact that 35.1 per cent of female respondents did not seek services for sexual violence they experienced before the age of 19 because they were embarrassed (for themselves or their families), while 15.2 per cent did not think that sexual violence was a problem, 15.4 per cent were afraid of getting into trouble and 15.4 per cent did not want their abuser to get into trouble (UNICEF, 2010).

Meinck et al (2013) state societal and cultural factors, eg acceptance of harsh physical punishment as a means of discipline are a factor in the acceptance of child physical abuse. There is also a general perception among adults that children are not useful sources of information (Jukes et al 2013), which may hinder reporting of child abuse. Cultural attitudes in Kenya are, however, undergoing change, as Meinck et al (2013) observe. They state that corporate kinship and extended families where neighbours take care of children are still dominant. However, there is a shift towards nuclear households. In addition, female single parenthood is also becoming very common across sub-Saharan Africa (Meinck et al 2012).

Protective and risk factors

Meinck et al (2013) have identified four types of factors contributing to child maltreatment: community-level factors (e.g. exposure to bullying, sexual violence, location in a rural or urban setting), household-level factors (e.g. poverty, household violence, being in a non-nuclear family), caregiver-level factors (e.g. caregiver illness, family functionality, parenting, substance abuse), and child-level factors (e.g. age, disability, physical health, behaviour, and gender). Plummer and Njuguna (2009) have also identified a number of risk factors for child sexual abuse in Kenya: child homelessness, being an AIDS orphan, parental divorce, patriarchy, a culture of silence, the perceived unimportance of children, foreign influences (e.g. the internet and pornography), social upheavals, and poverty. They also identified a number of protective factors, such as cultural values of modesty, family structure, guidance and supervision by one’s family, separation of males and females, a high value placed on children, an emphasis on the importance of virginity, and harsh punishment for child sex offenders in informal village courts.

In Kenya, the concept of community is largely determined by tribal culture, with individuals strongly identifying with their tribal roots (Plummer and Njuguna, 2009). Luos constitute the third-largest ethnic group in Kenya (Izugbara et al, 2013). According to Plummer and Njuguna (2009), traditional Luo culture has laws that protect children. For example, those guilty of sexual offences would be fined heavily, stoned, excommunicated, forced to migrate, or undergo a cleansing ceremony. In a study by Izugbara et al (2013) on ethnicity and health among Luo men within the slums of Nairobi, they found that Luo men demonstrated their masculinity through being sexually active. Those who were not seen as sexually active could be referred to as buoch (sterile) or nyithindo (babies). They also found that, due to extreme poverty, women and girls were involved in commercial sex. It should be noted that while a purely tribal society may have protective factors, many tribal groups in Kenya are undergoing a process of acculturation to Western norms and values (Plummer and Njuguna, 2009).

Negative outcomes

A number of negative outcomes of child physical and sexual abuse can be identified, including substance abuse, increased likelihood of risky sexual behaviour, mental health problems, increased risk of victimisation, poor physical health and, ultimately, death (Meinck et al, 2013). In Africa, Meinck et al (2013) observe there are even more severe outcomes for child maltreatment, such as a greatly increased risk of re-victimisation, increased risk of HIV infection and poor physical health, higher child death rates, and exposure to transactional sex. Due to the HIV epidemic, large numbers of children care for a sick family member or are orphaned, resulting in them being under the guardianship of step-parents, relatives or neighbours (Meinck et al, 2013), which may leave them more vulnerable to abuse.

Maltreatment of children, of all kinds, results in consequences that last into adulthood and may cause cycles of abuse, i.e. intimate partner violence and abusive parenting (Davies and Ward, 2012). The need to prevent physical and sexual abuse of children is, therefore, paramount, as is the need to understand what constitutes abuse in order to calculate its prevalence and develop strategies that aim to reduce it (Davies and Ward, 2012).

Relevance to UK practice

The Children Act 1989 stipulates the importance of practitioners working with children and emphasises the duty that every professional practitioner has in the protection of children. However, it is of significant importance to recognise the cultural context (SCIE, 2015). Although no cultural tradition or practice overrides the law, it is worthwhile for practitioners to understand these factors when dealing with specific child protection issues. Understanding different cultural contexts could aid practitioners working with children rather than create a barrier in service delivery. While this paper presents aspects of one patriarchal society, it is hoped that it will prove useful for practitioners who work with Kenyan children in the UK. It is also hoped that this paper will allow practitioners to develop appropriate expectations of parents’ perceptions of what constitutes child abuse. As the UK is a multicultural society, community practitioners and health visitors need to be aware of a variety of cultural backgrounds and contexts that affect the family dynamics of children from different nationalities. This information is fundamental for practitioners who support immigrant families in the UK (NSPCC, 2014).


Children in Africa, and Kenya in particular, are often subjected to physical and sexual abuse. This can take the form of harsh physical punishments (from both parents) and sexual coercion. Victims of the latter are more often female than male, though both male and female children do experience sexual abuse in large numbers. This is especially concerning as children form a large percentage of the Kenyan population (40 per cent) and often live in poverty. Other factors, such as living with guardians other than one’s parents and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, combine to make the consequences of maltreatment of Kenyan children particularly severe. It can have lifelong effects that perpetuate a cycle of abuse and poor outcomes (including physical and mental problems, criminal behaviour, reduced employment and risk-taking). Child physical and sexual abuse and child neglect in Kenya must be understood within the cultural context in which it occurs as patriarchy and traditional values underlie values and norms that determine how children are treated within society. Community practitioners and health visitors in the UK must also be able to understand this context in relation to Kenyan families and children resident in the UK.

Kenya is not a uniform society, having 42 different tribal and ethnic groups that have differing cultural practices and values. However, male domination and strict physical punishments are prevalent, although western influence and culture is beginning to change attitudes within society. Where traditional values are dominant, both risk and protective factors are present. A legal framework does exist to protect children from abuse. However, the systems in place often disenfranchise the poor and are thus unable to prevent child maltreatment. Traditional means of conflict resolution, such as tribal chiefs and elders, with varying results, are often resorted to, and a culture of silence exists that prevents many victims from speaking up. Furthermore, behaviours are normalised, with men seen as being defined by levels of sexual activity and an inability to control themselves. This reinforces the patriarchal nature of Kenyan society and ensures that women and children are prevented from obtaining the rights they are guaranteed by national and international law. Efforts need to be made to understand the prevalence of child maltreatment, thus enabling governments and childcare practitioners to develop targeted services to reduce it. These must take into consideration negative cultural factors that should be overcome through education and anti-oppressive practice.


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