The long stretch of Kenyan coast is famous for its eye-catching sandy beaches shadowed by swinging palm trees along the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. But the sunny beaches hide the atrocities against children. The socio-cultural practices and tourism sector contribute to rampant child sexual abuse and exploitation in the forms of child marriages and pregnancies, incest and the transactional activities that result in child prostitution and sex tourism.

Called to love and serve

The late Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Malindi, Rev. Emmanuel Barbara, became aware of these acts in the region and was driven into action. He reached out to Catholic Relief Services (CRS) with the idea of creating a safe space for the children affected by these crimes. The partnership between CRS and the Catholic Diocese of Malindi provided an opportunity to offer hope and restoration to child survivors of sexual abuse and exploitation. The answer to the call of serving and loving saw the birth of a transitional safe house christened the Pope Francis Rescue Home (PFRH).

PFRH serves the communities along the northern coast of Kenya and aids in providing a temporary safe space for child survivors, ensuring that these children receive the protective services allowed to them by Kenyan law, along with the appropriate psycho-social support. Under Kenyan law and the Alternative Care Guidelines, a Rescue Home is recognized as temporary in nature and children are to be placed there only in cases of emergency and for a period no longer than six months. Along with providing comfort and healing, a parallel legal process is begun to bring perpetrators to justice.

Since opening its doors in November 2015, PFRH has admitted 175 child survivors of sexual abuse and exploitation from the targeted areas to access emergency services and safe transitional space. Tales of deep suffering and traumatic experiences have emerged, often with family members or those intended to protect the child as the perpetrator. Working in collaboration with the county government’s Department of Children’s Services, PFRH adopted a case management approach with the primary goal of helping the child heal and be ready for reintegration into his or her community. The team — composed of counsellors, social workers, a child protection officer, tutor and house parents — has managed to successfully reintegrate a total of 134 PFRH home residents back into their family of origin or community.

PFRH works with local parishes and other community actors to raise awareness of the issue and to prepare the household for the continued support the child may need upon reintegration, thus reducing the possibility of relapse. Interfaith approaches are also considered when cases touch sensitive religious matter among Christians, Muslims, Hindus and traditionalists.

As Pope Francis said, “Although the life of a person is in a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.”

Written by Nancy Kemo and Fredrick Mutinda