Is Kenya finally starting to tackle its sexual violence epidemic?

by Kimberly M. Brown, Equality Now
Wednesday, 16 July 2014 08:55 GMT

In a 2011 photo, a girl plaits her doll's hair outside her house in Kibera slum, one of the largest and poorest slums in Africa and home to about 1 million people, in Kenya's capital Nairobi. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

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Global pressure yields steps toward justice for raped girls

In late June 2013, the world was outraged by the story of Liz, who was brutally gang-raped in western Kenya while walking home from a funeral, left to die in a pit latrine, and suffered an obstetric fistula as a result of the attack.

Last October, the Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW), African Women's Development and Communication Network (FEMNET) and Avaaz obtained more than 1.7 million signatures globally demanding that Police Inspector General David Kimaiyo arrest and prosecute the rape suspects, and such heavy pressure seems to be the only reason that any action has been taken so far.

We at Equality Now joined the global “Justice for Liz” campaign to press for the arrest and prosecution of the six suspects. Yet so far only one suspect has been arrested, while the remaining five are at large despite reports from the community that their whereabouts are known. Initially, three had been apprehended, but the police officer on duty recorded the attack as an “assault” after failing to carry out a proper investigation, and ordered them to cut grass outside the police station before they were released from custody.

Liz’s case drew national and international attention to Busia county in western Kenya and the failure of local authorities to address sexual violence. The evidence from Busia is compelling, and highlights the prevalence of sexual violence plaguing women and girls, and the tremendous obstacles encountered at every stage of the criminal justice process. One police officer from Busia, when asked about the high number of rapes from the region, speculated that it was because girls in Busia “roam around, they go to discos.” As for the police’s role, he remarked “sometimes you cannot investigate all the cases.”

There are dozens if not hundreds of cases that underscore how dire the situation has become in Busia, including that of 12-year-old “A.” who was raped, impregnated twice, and infected with HIV by a prominent teacher who had employed her as domestic help. A. comes from a very poor family and is mentally disabled, but was able to communicate clearly what had happened to her. There are reports that officials from the local children’s office in Busia protected the perpetrator, who is still teaching and is rumored to be transferred soon to another school.

F., 14 years old, was raped by a senior police corporal in Butula sub-county. When the case was reported by a fellow female police officer, her job and life were threatened. A day after a doctor examined F. - thanks to the help of local organizations - officers from the local Criminal Investigation Department took her, alone in the same vehicle with her rapist, for another round of medical investigations that contradicted the original medical report. F. still awaits justice.

M., 12, was gang raped by members of the community in the presence of other children. To date, no legal action has been taken, and reports indicate that one of the perpetrators has since defiled other children in the community.

Late last month, in tandem with a rally in Busia, Equality Now forwarded dozens of cases - including those mentioned here - to Kenya's director of public prosecutions.

We received reports from Busia that the following day, the senior ranking police officer in F.'s case was sacked, and that the local Criminal Investigations Department intends to carry out arrests in the case soon.

In addition, the attorney general, director of public prosecution and the chief justice have launched standard operating procedures to facilitate implementation of the Sexual Offences Act, geared towards combating the high incidence of sexual violence in the country. These are moves in the right direction and show that Kenya may be quietly making progress towards tackling this epidemic.

Equality Now acts as secretariat of the Solidarity for African Women’s Rights (SOAWR), a coalition of 44 organisations across 24 African countries to promote and protect women’s rights on the continent. Kimberly M. Brown is a consultant with Equality Now’s Nairobi office.