According to a study that came out earlier this year by the National Crime and Research Centre, Kenya is ranked number 17 out 19 on the list of countries where the rate of kidnapping is the highest.

The increase in prevalence of kidnapping is fueled by many factors, including the high unemployment rate as most perpetrators ask for a ransom before the victim is released. When it comes to children however, the factors that influence kidnapping vary due to the high value that our African society places on the little ones.

Kidnapping is a traumatic experience, for children, the trauma they endure increases tenfold as their minds do not have the capacity to process what is happening to them. It is this desire to protect children that motivated Maryana Munyendo to start Missing Child Kenya, a community that works with relevant organisations to help locate and re-unite missing children with their families.

I interviewed Maryana Munyendo to find out more about what Missing Child Kenya does and how one can keep their children safe.

1. What are some of the reasons that children go missing/ are stolen?

  • The much younger children get innocently lost because they are still not fully aware of physical surroundings. (I always tell people that even Jesus got lost in the temple)
  • Legacy – Africans still battle with childlessness and lack of a male heir in marriage.
  • Custodial Battles between parents (divorce)
  • Children running away from abuse.
  • Truancy, some children are difficult/rude at home, involved in petty offences/drug abuse etc.
  • Child Trafficking especially pre-teen girls for prostitution and most recently house helps being the conduits that steal young children.
  • Sexual predators who attempt to groom a child and abduct them for rape/sodomy.
  • Teenagers – Psycho-social burden of adolescence + relationships +exams.
  • Negligence by caretakers. A house help, teacher, parent, guardian ,school bus driver etc. may not keenly be watching young children in a public place e.g. Nairobi Show and they get lost.
  • Special needs children are at a higher risk of getting lost e.g. Autistic, hearing challenged, downs syndrome.
  • Outdated cultural practices like witchcraft put certain children at risk e.g. children with albinism

2. How can one make sure that their children are safe whenever they aren’t with them?

Children who have been taught safety skills are better equipped to handle emergencies in the absence of adults by being assertive and proactive. It is not possible to be around our children 24 hours a day but we can help them by teaching them about safety. Safety is a shared responsibility between:

  • Teachers – a child’s most important instructor with the power to reinforce the skills formally at school.
  • Caregivers –A child’s trustee between school and home (nanny) who reinforces the skills informally.
  • Parents – aspects of the program create a healthy emotional development and will also build trust between parent and child.

3. What advice would you give parents on how to vet caregivers before they employ them to mind their children?

In the recent past house helps are becoming the conduits that steal young children. This is because your child spends more time with your house help than you do. The younger the child, the closer the bond with the house help.

The process of employing house helps in Kenya is not streamlined with a reliable database for cross checking reference. The only advice I have for hiring parents is to make sure you know and are in active communication with at least 3 contacts of your house help. For those hiring from bureaus, it is advisable to get a trustworthy bureau or one that commits to liability in writing in case of any unforeseen circumstances in future. These networks help mitigate so that in case a house help goes away with your child, she just does not disappear from the face of the earth but is traceable from their existing network. This is important because a lot of times we hire nannies and house help in a hurry or emergency situations and ignore the basics.

4. What does Missing Child Kenya do and what motivated you to start it?

Missing Child Kenya is a community user driven platform that works with organizations and individuals in the child protection sector and the public to help share information on missing children using various media platforms and increase search efforts at no cost to the affected families.

The Missing Child Kenya team provides free resources for the search of missing children between the ages of 0-18 while also offering psycho-social support to the affected family members. We connect the affected families to their larger community networks, law enforcement (Police) and the media (mainstream and online social media). Our goal is to boost search and reunification efforts for missing/ lost and found children by sharing photo posters to as broad an audience as possible and in the fastest time .

I started Missing Child Kenya because I realized most parents do not know what to do when a child goes missing, they also do not know the existing organizations that can help in such times.

5. What are some of the challenges that you have faced since you started Missing Child Kenya?

While mobile phone penetration has increased significantly in Kenya, we still experience some challenges in terms of access to smart phones and internet connectivity for Kenyans in lower-income settlements and the rural inaccessible areas. This means some families may not be able to access information on their missing children using technological communication platforms.

Orphanage Trafficking – Around the world, an estimated 8 million children are living in orphanages, despite the fact that 80% of these children are not orphans. Some unscrupulous owners of children’s homes collect lost and found children and keep them, using them to attract donor funding without informing the authorities. This is illegal and denies children who are being actively searched for by their families a chance of reunification.

Kenya lacks an updated comprehensive database on missing children and we believe this is a step towards documenting all the cases we come across digitally so that the data can be used to solve the problem. We are currently in partnership with Ushahidi, working on an OPEN SOURCE project which will allow users to crowd-source crisis information on missing children.

7 . What have been the best moments that you can recall since you started Missing Child Kenya?

Every time we issue an alert listed “CHILD FOUND” it is a happy moment for us. We have played our part in reuniting a child with their family. Every share of a poster from our platforms is also a positive reinforcement of the community support we receive, this encourages us to keep on.

The children themselves are a joy to behold, one child only knew that their father worked at Weetabix. That piece of information was all we needed from the court prosecutor that we asked to interview them and in 3 hours the child had been reunited with family!

8. If one comes across a missing child, what should do they do?

A lot of the good Samaritans who find children are not aware of the legal steps to take. First and foremost before anything else, ensure that you inform your nearest police station that a missing child is in your custody.

Insist on getting an OB Number for reference as proof that you reported. Depending on the area and the availability of a child friendly facility, the police station may ask you to go with the child but leave your contacts. When you live with a child who is on record at the police station, you are protecting yourself and the child. You can use this as follow-up with the children’s department for due legal procedure in placing the child in a government home later as trace and reunification efforts for their family continues.

9. How can one help a child overcome the trauma of being separated from their loved ones when they went missing?

After being separated from their loved ones, a large proportion of children will develop adjustment reactions often related to trauma, anxiety, or depression. For example, sleep problems are common, and children who have difficulty sleeping may develop problems with concentration, attention, learning, and academic functioning. Parents should provide a consistent, quiet, and comfortable location and time for sleep that is free of noise or other distractions, preceded by a consistent bedtime ritual, it is okay to sleep with them in the same bed or next bed if they want.

Talking about the incidence through methods like consistently assuring your care or affirmation that you are there for them and they can talk to you about anything makes the child be comfortable enough to talk about their specific fear from the incidence with you, allowing you insight into their specific feelings without generalization.

b) How does a parent overcome the trauma of being separated from their child as well?

There is an increasingly growing need to provide specialized and comprehensive psycho-social support for families with missing children. Allow me to respond to this from the point that 90% of these parents do not get the psycho-social support and the need to include it in programs like we have done with the families we work with.

No family should have to deal with the trauma of a missing child alone. A family member’s ability to be strong and to help in the search for the missing child requires that they attend to their own physical and emotional needs. Families commonly experience a desperate need not to forget their loved ones. They actively struggle to keep their memory alive despite the psychological and psychosocial difficulties that may result.

Psychosocial and relational problems may also arise within communities of missing children. When this happens within a community, the families are often left completely isolated. On the night of 14–15 April 2014, 276 female students were kidnapped from the Government Secondary School in the town of Chibok in Borno State, Nigeria. Responsibility for the kidnappings was claimed by Boko Haram, an extremist, Islamic, terrorist organization based in northeastern Nigeria. Over the last 3 years, some of the schoolgirls managed to escape, some were released and the fate of some is still unknown. The mental well-being of their families may have been lost in the shuffle as a lot of focus was on the missing children. It is believed some of these children’s parents may have died as a result of stress related illnesses.

10. How effective would you say social media and WhatsApp groups are in helping to report and locate missing children?

The number of active internet users in Kenya has increased significantly, giving families a faster way and a bigger network when communicating about missing children.

Missing Child Kenya depends a lot on the social good of individuals across Kenya, especially those on the internet space or in online communities. When you share a missing child alert, you are making your much valued individual contribution to reuniting a missing child with their family. The Kenyan online community is of great help as they are our eyes and ears on the ground. The power of the hashtag has really helped make our alerts available all over. You can search for a missing child on our online database by simply using the hashtag #MissingChildKE

11. Do you think the police and courts do a good job in investigating claims of missing children and persecuting the kidnappers?

The main challenge we face is inter agency coordination. The police and other agencies like the media do a fantastic job in issues of missing children but we work in silos. My vision for Missing Child Kenya is to foster inter-agency collaboration so that we can take advantage of each other’s strengths. We have focused a lot on creating awareness on the issue of missing children and we also educate all partners that we have had the opportunity to work with on best practices when it comes to handling missing children cases. One step at a time but I believe all our concerted efforts will get us to a point for strength in collaboration.

12. Take us through the steps one should follow when they find out that their child is missing.

Allow me to share the video below video that shows what to do.

To report a missing child, call 0704-447417 or contact them on Twitter @missingchild_ke and on Facebook