Kenya: Drugs, crime and the law

In Kenya, there are children who consume and traffic drugs, are victims of drug-abusing families and live in drug-infested communities. Some of these kids have run-ins with the law.

The Kenya National Association of Probation Officers (KNAPO) reports that children start using drugs due to peer pressure and curiosity. "The first temptations to use drugs may come in the form of pressure to act grown up," says Florence Mueni, KNAPO's National Secretary.

Probation officers tell stories of children as young as 8 years old who started consuming drugs to "fit in" and "feel older." Others try drugs to experience new sensations and are oblivious or indifferent to the risks. "They may not believe anything disastrous will happen to them," Mueni says. But drug use poses a serious health risk. The side effects depend on the type of drug, the quantity and the frequency of use. However, addiction may be only one puff, one high, away.

It is particularly easy for street children to become drug-dependent because they can be forced by older youngsters to buy inhalants and other drugs. If they refuse, they can be beaten up or ostracized.

Although middle-class and wealthier children may also experiment with drugs, they are less likely to get into trouble with the law than children from the slums. Slum-dwellers are more likely to come into contact with seasoned drug-users who convince them that drugs will help them cope with their tough lives.

Kenyan children-aged 6 to 14-orphaned by AIDS. Some of their peers are drawn into drugs and crime.

Rehabilitation programmes

The Kenyan Government has acknowledged that very young children are sometimes responsible for offences such as drug possession, assault, theft and prostitution. All minors who come into conflict with the law are assigned to a probation officer who conducts an in-depth investigation into each offender, taking into consideration age, behaviour, family background and schooling. The probation officer then recommends appropriate actions. 

Several options are available to minors with drug-related problems, including non-custodial sentences and community service.

One variety of non-custodial sentence allows child offenders to stay in their communities under a probation officer's supervision. In this way, children can continue with school and avoid exposure to hardened criminals. The probation officer visits the child's home or school periodically and assesses progress together with his or her guardians, explains Christine Ochieng, Deputy District Probation Officer in the Kibera Law Courts. "If a child is expelled from school, the officer gets him or her admitted to another school. If the child comes from a poor background, the Probation Department will assist in paying school fees and, possibly, other financial needs," she says.

Child offenders who are removed from a hostile home environment are taken to a probation hostel, which serves as a temporary residence and training centre. There, they receive vocational training and drug counselling, participate in recreational activities and learn how to build healthy relationships. Offenders can stay at a hostel for up to one year while the probation officer tries to reunite them with their families.

The courts might order child offenders to perform community service for a limited period. Alternatively, they may be referred to the Children Services' rehabilitation schools or the Prisons Department's penal institutions.

Probation officers also work with UNODC and NGOs on drug abuse and HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and rehabilitation. Their common experience shows that troubled children need good role models who can help them make the right choices. 

Kenyan children playing football.

Children extend a helping hand to their peers

Peer pressure is one of the main factors prompting children to try illegal drugs. Although it is not common, some children start consuming cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana as early as 8 or 9 years of age. Harder drugs may follow.

But as John Mwai's story illustrates, children can also have a positive influence on their peers. 

After his parents separated, John was sent to boarding school, where he was introduced to cigarettes, alcohol and bhang (a cannabis derivative), to which he became addicted. He was 7 years old. As a result of his addiction, John left school and started living on the streets in 2004.

The Government's free primary school initiative brought John back to school in early 2005. At Mashimoni primary school in Kibera, a slum on the outskirts of Nairobi, he learned about the dangers of drug abuse and received advice from the Peers Against Drugs Club. 

John was suffering from drug withdrawal symptoms, including depression. He was first referred to a professional counsellor and then to the Eastern Africa Regional Youth Network, an NGO alliance which UNODC supports. At one of the Network's peer training camps, John was introduced to a support group. Aside from playing together, these children helped each other recover from substance abuse. 

At 10, John is concentrating on his studies and nurturing his football talent. He has enrolled in a peer-to-peer counselling programme to help spread information to youth clubs and to children with backgrounds similar to his own.

"The first temptations to use drugs may come in the form of pressure to act grown up."

Florence Mueni, National Secretary of KNAPO

Reychad Abdool, John Gathecha and Jane-Marie Ongolo from the UNODC Regional Office in East Africa contributed to this report.