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Q&A Reading Time: 9 minutes

At Risk for Sexual Abuse: How A Disability Rights Activist is Working to Protect People with Disabilities


An interview between Jessica Charles Abrams and Cynthia Bauer, and Kupenda and Disability Rights Advocate, Stephen Kitsao

Cynthia Bauer is the Executive Director and Founder of Kupenda for the Children. She established the organization as United States non-governmental organization in 2003, four years after meeting Leonard Mbonani in Kenya and working with him to respond to the resource needs of young people living with disabilities in Kenya. Leonard Mbonani is a special needs teacher and founder of The Gede Home for the Physically Disabled in Kenya. Cynthia is from the United States, and as a person who is living with a disability (Cynthia was born without her left hand), she is intimately familiar with the myths, misconceptions, and discrimination people living with disabilities face. She learned more about the Kenya context after her initial travel there in 1998.     

Kupenda is a non-profit organization whose mission is to transform harmful beliefs surrounding disability to those that improve children’s lives around the world. Their local non-governmental organization, Kuhenza, was co-founded in 2008 by Cynthia and Leonard in Kenya to improve long term, locally-led solutions. 

Jessica Charles Abrams is Kupenda’s Director of Development and is responsible for increasing Kupenda’s operational efficiency, program monitoring and evaluation, engagement of new donors, development and implementation of strategic fundraising plans, and organizational capacity.

Stephen Kitsao is a Kupenda program graduate who has become a powerful disability advocate. He often speaks at Kupenda disability training workshops for community leaders and helps to counsel families impacted by disability and screen them for Covid-19 during the pandemic.

Jessica Charles Abrams: I want to start by asking how you feel about the issue of sexual and reproductive health access in relation to people with disabilities, either what you’ve observed or what you’ve experienced yourself?

Stephen Kitsao: Thank you so much, Jessica. My name is Stephen Kitsao. I’m  a student at Kenyatta University [in Kenya]. I’m pursuing communication in media studies. In relation to sexual reproductive health towards persons with disabilities, I can see Kenya, we’re still struggling. We’ve not reached the level that there is maximum protection for these categories of people. So many children are still at risk. I’ve had several incidents [of sexual assault] reported to me during the time that I was working with you guys. And it was not good at all. I was feeling as if I was hearing that the people who are involved in such incidents are actual relatives. That’s really painful. So generally, we still, as a country, are still struggling because we have so many beautiful laws in our constitution, they are very well outlined. But when it comes to execution now, that’s where the problem is.

Jessica: Yes. Okay, so you are specifically talking about the issue of sexual and physical violence against people, is that right?

Stephen: Yeah.

Jessica: And so why do you think this happens with such frequency among people with disabilities and specifically children with disabilities? 

Stephen: I believe it’s because they lack someone to advocate for them. We should acknowledge that this is a vulnerable group, and they are marginalized. Consequently, they should receive a higher level of protection, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. When protection is lacking, anyone can exploit these individuals. Perpetrators know they won’t face the full force of the law. You often hear about children or persons with disabilities being assaulted. Just yesterday, I witnessed another distressing case in Nairobi where persons with disabilities were physically harassed while trying to make ends meet. These are mothers with physical disabilities struggling to provide for their children.

It’s really pathetic. While there are some efforts being made, we are still falling short in this particular area. Perpetrators believe they can commit these crimes without facing any legal consequences, as the National Council of Persons with Disabilities may not be able to assist them due to financial constraints. They need someone to stand up for them; otherwise, those who commit these crimes think they can get away with it…In some cases, individuals in marriages take advantage of persons with disabilities, who cannot stand up for themselves. There’s also sexual abuse  [that becomes known], during my follow-ups with families and children with disabilities.

Jessica: Could you talk a little bit more about what you said about married women with disabilities experiencing abuse?

Stephen: Around 2020 I was conducting follow-ups with families of children with disabilities supported by Kuhenza. During this, I met a woman, and she shared a distressing story. She was married to a man, and they had children, including one with a disability. Initially, they accepted and cared for the child. However, as time passed, their relatives began making negative comments. They accused the woman of bringing a curse to the family, something they couldn’t tolerate. At first, the man didn’t pay much attention to these remarks. They even moved to a town where he worked, distancing themselves from the relatives. Nevertheless, the relatives followed, intensifying their threats. They argued that no one in their family had ever had a disability, and the blame was placed on the woman. 

Gradually, the man started to believe these allegations. This led to conflicts between the couple and instances of physical abuse. The woman would return home, primarily because she had nowhere else to go and needed to provide for her child with a disability. She was entirely dependent on the man. The cycle of abuse continued, with violence recurring. At one point, she was forcibly expelled from their home, and she endured scalding water being poured on her. Shockingly, the man even considered setting their house on fire to eliminate the woman and her disabled child. Fortunately, she managed to escape with her children, including the child with cerebral palsy. When neighbors questioned the man’s actions. Why? Why? Why do you want to burn your family? He explained that he wanted to rid his family of a child with a disability. This was my first time though. I’ve been hearing from other people mentioning such incidents, but this one now, it was real. I’m hearing from the host’s mouth and I was like, whoa these things happen in our community. Later on, the woman was hoping to get help for the child. She was at least in a place where she could get therapy.

Jessica: That’s a heart-wrenching story. Was this one of the cases you worked on during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Stephen: Yes, indeed. This was one of the cases I handled while working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jessica: They can’t afford lawyers. What happened in this case? How did Kuhenza respond, and how did this woman access services?

Stephen I’m not entirely sure about the details, as my primary role was to gather feedback from parents and complete forms. Other individuals were responsible for following up on cases. Some aspects involved contacting the person, which I wasn’t directly involved in. The woman was also on the run, frequently changing her contact numbers to protect herself because the man was pursuing her. This made it challenging to locate her.

Jessica: In the United States, we have domestic violence shelters, and I know there are child protection committees in Kenya, and some lawyers, like our Child Protection Officer, Lucky Mahanzo, do pro bono work. But what services are available for women with children with disabilities experiencing violence? What can they do?

Stephen The primary option I know is running to the National Council of Persons with Disabilities, which has offices at the county level. Kenya is divided into 47 counties, and they have extended their services there. It’s the nearest place to seek assistance. Some might consider going to the police station, but the situation with the police officers in Kenya can be challenging, especially for such cases. Human rights activists can vary in their effectiveness, and in some areas, like Nairobi, interactions may not be very favorable. There’s fear of retaliation from the perpetrators, especially when it involves family members, village elders, and other community figures.

Jessica: I know you have been an activist for a while. What have you seen change? You mentioned the fear of retaliation from the perpetrator. Over your lifetime, have you seen any positive changes in sexual abuse cases involving people with disabilities or their caretakers?

Stephen: There have been some attempts to address the issues, but it often requires close follow-up. If someone is persistent and willing to pursue justice, they might make progress. However, it involves a lot of moving from one place to another, and for individuals with disabilities, this can be challenging. You may visit an office, and they tell you to return the next day, and this back-and-forth can be discouraging. Some people get tired and give up. Those who persist and have the resources might eventually receive help. I’ve seen cases where individuals with disabilities, due to physical abuse, presented their issues to the National Council of Persons with Disabilities and received assistance. But it’s not easy, and it can be draining, especially if you lack patience or financial resources. Many come from modest backgrounds, and even those from wealthier families may face financial challenges due to their disability. Visiting offices repeatedly with no resolution can be disheartening, leading some to leave the matter in the hands of God…

There are so many incidents that happen with people with disabilities but only solved within the community. Maybe when you have sexual intercourse with a person with disabilities maybe you can be healed of some certain diseases… 

Jessica: Are there particular diseases that they are said to help with?

Stephen: [People believe] if you have sexual intercourse with a person with  albinism, then you can be healed of HIV and and the other traditional diseases like elephantiasis, something like that. These are the misconceptions.

Cynthia: Can you tell us a little bit about your activism around justice for people with disabilities, what you’ve done in your career and what you hope to do?

Stephen: Growing up with disabilities since I was young, my main focus has been on education because I truly believe that when someone is empowered with education, they can know their rights. This, in turn, makes it easier for them to defend themselves against any kind of abuse. In my area, I advocate for opportunities in primary school. 

Another issue I’ve been working on is bringing together people with disabilities and emphasizing the importance of education and equality. I don’t believe in the idea of having people in special schools. Sometimes, they feel that they need exposure they cannot get in those special schools. This belief is inspired by my dad, who was not willing to send me to a special school. He had faith that I could succeed in an inclusive, regular school. This belief influenced my thinking a lot.

The next step for me is to bring people with disabilities to my village so that others can see that not only I have been able to make it to the university but that even their children can succeed in higher education. Currently, I’m also working on my YouTube channel, “My Wills of Wonders.” It contains information about my experiences and addresses the ignorance within our community. I remember a certain man who asked me if my mind was able to grasp the content at the college. These are some of the things I plan to address on my YouTube channel.

Yes, there are people with disabilities who can live independently, have families, and contribute to the growth of the country’s economy when placed in inclusive environments. That’s what I’m planning, and I’m here to have been a part of your journey thus far to really witness it.

Jessica: I am wondering because you focus so much on access to education, what are your thoughts about people with disabilities accessing information about sexual and reproductive health? Does that happen in schools in Kenya? Where can they learn about protecting themselves from violence, accessing contraception? If they don’t have access to schools, are they without that completely?

Stephen: Also, they don’t speak about these things openly. They are kind of shy about discussing these topics. Even in schools, they might teach these subjects, but they are not as open as they should be. If someone tries  to touch a child’s private parts, the [child] should be taught to say no. The current curriculum in Kenya doesn’t address this issue. I want to write a blog about this, and I might include it in the program I’m planning for my YouTube channel. I’m looking to collaborate with people who can help design materials and provide training for teachers so they can understand that children with disabilities need to be taught about their private parts and that no one has the authority to touch them.

Jessica: I think you’re aware, but a few years ago, in 2019, Kupenda and Kuhenza started running abuse prevention workshops for youth and caregivers. We’ve run a few of them, but there’s definitely a need for more. We’re still in the process of developing and testing it, but we’ve been working with the child protection centers, and you might know Peter Baya; he actually helped lead some of that content because he does the same through the child protection centers. It’s very interesting to hear that this topic isn’t really happening, even when they do sexual and reproductive health education in schools, they’re not talking about abuse prevention. It does seem like an area that needs more attention.

We’re down to the last minute here, Stephen. Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you want to share or any follow-up that you’d like to have after this conversation to speak?

Stephen: I think it’s important to continue to advocate. When you hear an incident someone has reported to authorities, at the back of your mind, you should ask yourself how many incidents of sexual abuse have happened but haven’t been reported. For someone to come forward and report such a case is a significant step.

Interested in learning more about Kupenda’s work to improve SRH justice for people living with disabilities and support abuse prevention and care for people living with disabilities?  

Learn more at kupenda.org. Sign up for updates at kupenda.org/newsletter or contact Kupenda at kupenda@kupenda.org. You can also find Kupenda on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn

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Jessica Abrams

Director of Development, Kupenda for the Children

Jessica Charles Abrams is a global health professional with over 20 years of experience as a technical writer, communications specialist, project manager, and teacher trainer. She lived in China and Botswana for three years managing health and education projects and has supported field teams in more than 20 low- and middle-income countries implementing USAID, UNICEF, CDC, PEPFAR and privately-funded projects. Jessica holds a Master’s degree in Public Health and a Bachelor’s degree in Writing. As Kupenda’s Communications and Development Director, Jessica is responsible for developing and updating all of the organization’s marketing and training materials as well as its website and blog. She also led the organization’s Child Case Management mobile application development and is now supporting its testing and rollout in Kenya. Jessica is also responsible for increasing Kupenda’s operational efficiency, program monitoring and evaluation, engaging new donors, developing and implementing strategic fundraising plans, and expanding the organization’s capacity. Read more about Jessica’s experience in her LinkedIn profile.

Stephen Kitsao

Disability Advocate and Journalist, Kupenda for the Children

Stephen Kitsao, paralyzed from the waist down at age 10, is now a prominent disability ambassador in Kenya. Through speaking engagements, videography, and journalism, he advocates for justice and inclusion for people with disabilities. He has served as the Rotary Club’s World Disability Club Chairperson for Kenya and participated in employment programs benefiting thousands of Kenyan students. Stephen's articles and videos on disability justice have been featured in various media outlets, including KUTV News and Rotary Club newsletters. His weekly show, "I Stand Able," aimed to change perceptions of disability. Stephen holds a diploma in Communications and Media Studies from Kenyatta University and is dedicated to his mantra of "service above self." Additionally, he has developed dozens of written and video articles on disability justice and inclusion and has actively contributed to NGO sensitization workshops.