From 2000 to 2019 there has been an increase of 25% in the number of prisoners worldwide, according to a 2021 research from the UNODC.
“Children are full of life no matter what their situation may be. If you speak kindly to them and give them moral support, they are able to come around. But this can only be achieved if a kind heart is accompanied by love and desire to give, and that I call the act of nobleness,” Monica Atieno Juma.
As human beings, we are some of the most defenseless creatures in our early stages. When we are born, we depend entirely on another human being to keep us safe and alive. Furthermore, we need the closeness to others in order to acquire the proper knowledge, abilities and self esteem to thrive in life. Just like Sigmund Freud, the Austiac neurologist and father of psychoanalysis, said: “I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.” Yet, for many children whose parents are being imprisoned in Kenya this essential protection is taken away in the blink of an eye leaving them helpless and alone, a reality that Monica Atieno Juma couldn’t turn her heart away from.
Monica was born in the small village of Kayogo in Siaya County, Kenya. Both of her parents died by the time she was 8 years old, therefore she had to move into Kisumu County to live with her aunt. Unfortunately – only two years later – life had another setback for Monica, her aunt passed away.
“I and my cousin, who was 14, and I – 10 years old – lived from hand to mouth till we became of age. Life was very difficult but I thank God I overcame it all,” remembers Monica. “After my secondary school, I moved to Nairobi City to start my life but things were very difficult and I had to get married. That was the only option I had then, since I had nobody to stay with and I didn’t want to end up on the street.”
Monica wanted to improve her life, so she joined the Technical University of Kenya where she got a diploma in IT. Shortly after, she started a small cyber business which became such a success that she was able to open several branches around the city. But life would later show her a different path where she could heal the wounds from her past and keep children safe in a way no one did for her.
“I have always had a passion for serving people,” says Monica. “Something inside motivated me to do it. I thought that – just like I have changed my life regardless of my situation – I could change more lives as well.”
The opportunity to make a remarkable difference in the lives of children came to Monica the day she went to court accompanying a relative and suddenly saw a mother pleading for mercy because it was impossible for her to afford the bail in order to continue with her process unconfined. She was a single mother and there was no one to take care of her 4 children who were expecting her back home, without knowing she would not return.
Worldwide Increasing Number of Imprisonments
The amount of people who are detained in prisons around the world has dramatically increased by more than 25% from 2000 until 2019, according to a 2021 research from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The research noted that by the end of 2019, 11.7 million people were in jail worldwide and most alarmingly 1 in every 3 prisoners were still unsentenced, meaning they were spending time in jail without being found guilty by a court of justice. This has led to the overcrowding of half of the prisons around the world. Furthermore, women have become the fastest growing inmate population increasing at a 33% rate, 8% faster than men.
In Kenya, the 2021 Annual Report from The National Police Service indicated that from January to December 2021 there were 81,272 crimes reported, a 16.7% increase from 2020. The most reported crime was “other offenses against people” with 22,365 cases – which include: assault, creating disturbances and affray – followed by stealing with 11,762 cases, penal code offenses with 8,514 cases and offenses against morality with 8,128 cases, among others.
According to the study “The Forgotten Victims of our Correction System: The Case of Children of imprisoned parents in Kenya” conducted by Daniel Mutunga, PhD, Daystar University, Kenya, having imprisoned parents deprives children of their primary caregivers and has profound social, economic and psychological effects on the minors. It also notes that in Kenya there isn’t any official information about the number of children whose parents are in jail nor the required protocols for safeguarding children in this situation, unless they are involved by the court.
Moreover, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and Penal Reform International 2014 noted that children whose parents have been arrested or imprisoned are often stigmatized by association.
A New Chance for Children of Imprisoned Parents
Monica thought about her own children when she saw the woman pleading for her kids in court. The reason for the woman’s arrest was a fight with her neighbor, the reason for her to stay in jail was the lack of money for the bail.
“I felt very bad for her. In Kenya, when you are arrested, sometimes you are taken to court immediately, and once you are arraigned if you cannot afford to pay your bail there is no institution who will take care of your children,” recalls Monica. “From that moment, I started doing research so that I could reach out to the children whose parents were arrested. I found out that they suffer a lot from being neglected by society and people see them as children who are not as fit as their peers. These children always end up in the street if they don’t have anyone to look after them.”
After knowing this grim reality, Monica decided to take matters into her own hands. In 2021 she knew about a case involving two teenagers whose father had been imprisoned: Christine Amondi, who was 14, and Samuel Isaack, who was 16.
“I stayed with them at home,” says Monica. “Their father had been arrested and I wanted to help them, they were almost done with their high school. I paid their fees and today one of them is in the university and the other will be entering college next month. Their father has spent more than a year in jail since the case was concluded and he will have to serve for 5 years. The children are doing well and they are awaiting their father’s return from prison. It has never been an easy experience, but to me it felt as if I am their only hope.”
After Christine and Samuel, many more children in need of care came along. Monica realized it was time to make an organization to help them properly. She was able to find 4 passionate women to help in this effort as volunteers. Monica and her team take care of paying for the children’s rent, shopping, paying their school fees, buying them clothes and anything else they may require, as well as seeing that they attend school and are safe, visiting them constantly and living with some of them.
“My organization aims to give these children hope as they await the fate of their parents. I want their parents to come back and find them home,” says Monica. “I’ve seen the smiles on those children’s faces and I do wish to one day enlarge my organization to other countries. I am most worried about our next generation, the children. Many times the situations in which the leadership of the country puts our children through does not help at all. Laws that govern nations are not taking into consideration the impact they have on children. I believe in rule of law and justice but a law that doesn’t have the interest of children at heart is not a law but an oppressor. I want the criminals to be punished but I want their children to be protected. I want this issue to be addressed. It worries me a lot. I have hope in awareness. I have seen human rights organizations advocating for children and human rights but no one has ever touched on this issue, and I am hopeful that if I can get enough support, I will open their eyes on this and that hope for these children may be restored.”
Helping Others, Healing Oneself
Nowadays, Monica and her 4 volunteers take care of 13 children and teenagers whose primary caregiver has been incarcerated. The ages of the children range from one and a half year to up to twenty years old. There are many rules that Monica has to comply with, since she is not adopting the children, only fostering them and giving them moral and financial support.
“I really wish to do more and expand my organization to all of the country,” says Monica. “I suffered as an orphan, I lacked parental love and I promised myself I would never allow any child to go through the same. I remembered how I always begged people to be there for me, to stand up for me but no one was willing. I just put myself in the children’s shoes and that motivates me to continue.”
Most of the time, Monica has her hands full. She is a 26-year-old married woman with children of her own but her husband is very supportive of this project. She and her volunteers are constantly watching over the children and both the school and their teachers are in continuous communication with Monica and her team to maintain the kids’ wellness. All the expenses from the organization are covered by Monica who works part-time at a company and manages her cybers. Last year, she obtained a donation and was able to buy 2 sewing machines that her volunteers use to redesign clothes for sale. They buy second hand clothes and modify them to make them look fashionable for resale. That became the only and first revenue for the organization.
Monica decided to look for funding to pay for the children’s needs as well as to start paying for their medical insurance, so that they are able to get medication without her struggling for the bills.
“I took my computer and started looking for different funds for Kenya. I found Mary Oyier’s page and I learnt that she was always referring to some of The Pollination Project’s heartivists. I was curious so I started reading from the blog and I understood the requirements. For me it was a dream come true since I thought it befitted my project,” says Monica. “When I heard that my grant request had been granted I was so happy. I felt like someone for once was with me on this journey and that I was not alone anymore and that my work had been recognized. Thank you for walking this journey with us. We really needed this help and here you are, you offered it for us. Words alone can’t express our gratitude but our hearts can. This work shall also reflect the TPP journey in saving mankind. We do not take it for granted. Thank you.”
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