Did you know that the Kenyan constitution gives every child the right to a name?
The Bill of Rights in the Kenyan Constitution (Article 53) clearly outlines the rights of children, including the right of every child to free and compulsory basic education, the right to basic nutrition, and the right to shelter and health care.
But the first item in the list of almost a dozen rights is an odd one — every Kenyan child has a right to a name. Why does the right to a name have to be included in the Constitution? Whoever heard of a child without a name?
The first fundamental right of every Kenyan under general “rights and freedoms” is the right to life, but when it comes to children’s section, their first right is their claim to a name. Which leads to a more important question, what names do Kenyan parents give their children? And what do these names say about those children?
I am not so much here concerned about all the Kenyan children named after Barack Obama or the Air Force One. I am not even talking about the newborn who was branded “Donald Trump Otieno” months before the new US president was elected, or the boy whose birth certificate has read “The Beast” since 2015. My concern is with an entirely different list of children’s names.
I am talking about the names parents give their children as they grow up, the names that will never feature in the children’s birth certificates or school IDs. Yet, these names become the lens through which children see themselves. I am talking about names like “Good for Nothing”, or “Disappointment” or “The Clumsy One”. These are very popular children’s names with many parents.
In fact, such names are more powerful because, unlike birth names, children grow up believing that they have earned these names. They think they deserve them. The truth is that, when parents give their children cheap, hurtful names, those children will grow up to live cheap, hurtful lives.
It doesn’t help that these names tend to be very memorable. The names, or labels, stick to children. They follow follow them around. They define them. They become who they are. They are like the jestful “Kick Me” sticker that naughty kids put on the backs of their peers in school, only more destructive.
A recent report by Childline Kenya revealed some shocking numbers in terms of reported incidents of child abuse in Kenya. Over the last 10 years, more than 33,900 reports of child abuse were made through the helpline. Of these, 13,878 were reports of child neglect and abandonment, 7,832 reports of sexual abuse were made, followed by 7,317 report of physical abuse. Only 1,025 reports of emotional abuse were made.
However, do not be deceived by the dismal number of reported incidents of emotional abuse. Sadly, many people do not think emotional abuse is worth reporting. An even larger number of Kenyans would not recognise emotional abuse if they saw it. The numbers above tell a shocking story, but they also tell an incomplete story.
The numbers tell us nothing about all the destructive names that parents give their children and burden their lives with. The numbers don’t tell us how children tend to internalise the labels that parents and even peers project onto them. The numbers don’t reveal how children begin to become the label and make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Names have a deep and lasting impact on how children feel about themselves. Names are the first labels for what children believe about themselves and the images they carry of themselves. The names we give our children become their ‘brand.’
The Constitution has given every Kenyan child the right to a name. However, it would appear that some children are better off without a name than with the names their parents burden them with.
In the unfortunate event you witness a child being abused, call the helpline 116 or WhatsApp Childline Kenya on +254799873107. You can also email firstname.lastname@example.org (Twitter: @childlinekenya)