Who is a Child?

Article 260 of the Kenyan Constitution provides that an “adult” means an individual who has attained the age of eighteen years and “child” means an individual who has not attained the age of eighteen years.
The legal definition is clear and succinct. The logic of the ‘age of majority’ (i.e. the state of ceasing to be a minor) in most jurisdictions seem to control the duration of parental guidance and care. Therefore, in Kenya, when a person turns eighteen, he/she is considered ‘mature’ enough and according to the Age of Majority Act, will ‘cease to be under any disability by reason of age’.
It has been argued that ‘age of majority’ is legal guesswork; an assumption that children attain maturity at eighteen and not before or after. The utter impossibility of testing each child to ascertain maturity makes the legal age of majority acceptable and even fair. A Kenyan child will typically finish his secondary education at eighteen. Tertiary schooling (university, college etc.) is considered a privilege, yet often, to ascertain future success, a necessity.
Be that as it may, this is the law; that a child is a human person below the age of eighteen. When suspects arraigned in court over charges of early marriage or defilement, a common defense raised is that the victim or complainant ‘looked mature enough’ or ‘is a grown woman’. This seems ludicrous to me. Physical size and human perception are not fair or reasonable measures of age and the law thinks that as well.
A news story was doing the rounds this past week about secondary school children who were arrested for indecent behaviour, drunk and disorderliness and possession of drugs. There were headed to Nairobi aboard a colourful matatu that was thumping loud music. While this news was upsetting and need our attention, what followed was the release of a video showing a girl, almost nude, undergoing a search at the police station. The video itself was an indecent, depraved, violation of that girl’s rights and privacy. You wonder what the person filming this was thinking; he/she deserves to be brought before court and immediately fired from his post.
Choruses that the secondary school students are ‘grown adults’ is no excuse. The entire incident was handled poorly. If anything, the charges preferred against these students showed just how immature and in need of parental guidance they were. And that is exactly what they are, Children!
I would agree that comparing a five year old and a fifteen year old is improbable. The latter understands right from wrong, can legally be criminally liable while the former can barely read or write. But I maintain that both of them are children. And they are children deserving of our protection (parents, schools, society, police officers, and courts), attention, forgiveness and care.
Bad behaviour in children cannot be excused, rather punished and reprimanded. Yet they remain children; in need of second chances and should not have to carry childhood mistakes into adulthood.
Shunning street children because they seem ‘worldly’ and ‘know a lot’ and running away from them because they look dangerous is another sign that we have forgotten that they are children. Which is why, when social workers talk to them about AfCiC and our Interim Care Centre, they agree to leave the streets. Because inherently, they are still children who crave care and comfort. Taking a house girl or shamba boy and putting them to work instead of school, simply because they are ‘big’ and ‘asked for it’ does not make them any less children and any less like your children.
Let children be children.