By Nita Bhalla
NAIROBI, May 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hundreds of women and girls in Kenya are using SMS to report cases of rape through a toll-free messaging service set up to help survivors break the silence around sexual violence in the conservative nation, the initiative's founder said on Thursday.
Although there are several hotlines for victims of sex attacks, the SMS platform - operated by the Kenyan charity Wangu Kanja Foundation - is the first to connect survivors with community volunteers who provide them with direct support.
"In Kenya, we are socialised to believe sex, sexuality and sexual violence is a private issue. People don't discuss it - it's a complete no-go zone," said Wangu Kanja, founder of the charity operating the SMS service, and also a rape survivor.
"Those who do speak out about being raped are not taken seriously and can face negative reactions from their family, community and police. Most survivors have no one to turn to for help such as getting medical care or even reporting the crime."
Some 5,490 rapes were reported in Kenya in 2016, up 3 percent on the previous year, the latest police statistics show.
But women's rights campaigners say the data is a gross underestimate as many victims do not report sexual offences, fearing they will face shame and stigma in the largely patriarchal and conservative east African nation.
The platform has helped about 700 victims of sexual and domestic violence, largely in the country's sprawling city slums, since launching almost two years ago.
"The service was designed for people living in informal settlements," Kanja said. "They don't know their rights as well as the rich and elite in Kenya, and don't how to access services or can't afford to pay for things like medical care."
The 24-hour SMS service - launched in July 2016 in partnership with ActionAid Kenya - provides a mechanism for survivors to seek help by speaking to someone safely, confidentially and without fear of judgement, she added.
A 2014 study by the National Crime Research Centre found that only 15 percent of women and girls who had been sexually violated reported it to the police.
Users text HELP to the SMS code 21094 and are immediately called back by an operator who will ask about their situation and connect them with local volunteers - often survivors of sexual violence themselves.
The volunteers then accompany the women and girls to hospitals or clinics where they can get medical care and also take them to the police to report the assault.
Women's rights lawyers welcome such reporting mechanisms, but add that more needs to be done to ensure access to justice.
"We conduct training sessions with the police on gender issues, but they often end up being transferred to other areas such as dealing with cattle rustling or terrorism-related crimes," said Teresa Omondi-Adeitan, executive director at the Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya (FIDA), an advocacy group.
"There needs to more concerted efforts to keep those trained police on gender-related crimes, as well as providing more support to help them properly investigate crimes to the point of prosecution."
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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