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Seeking justice for women in Kenya

9 December 2013 | by Saida Ali

For a long time I have asked myself just what is the boiling point for Kenyans? What else needs to happen to make us rise up and say enough is enough as rape and other gender crimes continue to rise?

Just how many more women and girls have to become rape statistics before we can get truly angry about it? Does a healthy culture allow its daughters to be raped? Does our silent complacency send out a message that we are a society that condones such acts?

Saida Ali - Coalition On Violence Against Women

Violence against women in Kenya

Liz's story

This June, in the remote village of Tingolo in Busia County, western Kenya, police officers decided that an appropriate punishment for six young men who had gang raped and left for dead a 16-year-old girl (known as ‘Liz’) was to cut the grass lawn in front of the police station and provide the victim with some money for cheap painkillers.

There have been no formal prosecutions and some Kenyan policemen have been reported as casting doubt on the validity of the testimony ‘Liz’ gave, despite her now being paralysed, and destined to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.

In collaboration with the Open Society Foundation, my organisation, the Coalition on Violence against Women (COVAW), has been providing legal support and counselling to Liz and her family, while at the same time engaging the police and the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to fight for due diligence.

Justice for Liz

Internationally, the case has captured people’s imaginations, and a global campaign called Justice for Liz, calling for the immediate prosecution of her rapists and full disciplinary action for the police officers concerned, has already collected 1.3 million signatures.

So far, as a result of our collective voices, the Chief Justice has directed the DPP to order investigations into Liz’s case and has set up an inquiry to reinvestigate the matter – we should have the results in December. In the meantime we plan to carry on pushing hard for national police reforms, as well as the creation of a gender crimes unit to handle sexual violence cases properly.

Impact is slow, yes, especially on matters related to due diligence and state accountability, but this will not stop us from speaking out - and we hope to inspire women and girls to do the same through the work we are doing.

Rosa's story

Aside from Liz’s quest for justice campaign, we have several other cases - some pending in court, and many others that have been won, or where the victim is still undergoing psychosocial support. For us, just getting a woman or girl to report a violation is in itself is a big step towards demanding for justice.

One memorable example is that of Rosa, who was defiled by her mother's boyfriend when she was just one-and-a-half years old. Bleeding and destitute, he left her on the floor to die, but when Rosa's mother realised it was her boyfriend who was responsible, she decided to side with him and abandon Rosa.

Unfortunately, Rosa’s uterus had been damaged and had to be removed. Of course, we took up the case brought to us by Rosa’s grandmother, and four years later, the accused was sentenced to life imprisonment; the highest possible sentence for this crime in Kenya.

Impunity for violent sexual assaults against women

Regrettably, Liz and Rosa’s cases are symptomatic of a much bigger underlying problem in Kenya – blanket government and perpetrator impunity for violent sexual assaults against women.

Violence against women is the worst manifestation of misogyny and reflects a society that is intolerant of women’s integrity and autonomy. That is why this November-December, we will join millions of people all over the world to mark the 16 Days of Activism, aimed at ending gender-based violence.

Such violence is often as a result of unequal power relations and the abuse of that power, so I am delighted that this years’ campaign will highlight the issue of militarism - the predominance, and indeed glorification, of the armed forces in the administration and policy of the state.

Women’s basic human rights

With support from Christian Aid and the UK Government, we are fighting the entrenched patriarchal systems of structural violence that embody the harmful traditions, common societal beliefs and legal policies - such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and rape in marriage - which normalise abuse and infringe upon women’s basic human rights, dignity, safety and security.

For instance, when it comes to domestic violence, Kenya still has no law that recognises partner violence as a crime. It is still addressed as assault with no special attention to the fact that it is a women’s rights violation.

As we march forwards we shall continue to roar, demanding that the perpetrators are arrested and prosecuted. In a country where the police respond to bank robberies within minutes, it is impossible to imagine that the same police are unable to prosecute Liz’s rapists.

Rape and other forms of sexual violence are reminders of the kind of society we live in; one that celebrates violence, accepts violence, and creates heroes out of violence.

Society places blame on victims

Society places blame and shame on the victims and survivors, thereby making it difficult for those violated to speak out. Women who report rape are often told it is their fault for putting themselves in vulnerable situations. They are stigmatised, treated as outcasts, and sometimes simply sent away by the police when they go to report the crime.

Thanks to the recent behaviour of our police force, we now have the worst case scenario to draw from.  How can it be right that in Kenya a police officer can simply ask the rapist to cut some grass and then send the woman home to nurse the aftermath of the rape herself?

Surely it is our constitutional right to be protected against all forms of violence, not to be made to feel that we need to rely on the charity or goodwill of individual police officers.

We refuse to be silenced

Rape is abnormal – period. It is a scar on modern society that must be stamped out by ending impunity and changing men’s attitudes towards women. Brave survivors of rape are increasingly speaking up and seeking help as awareness of rights increases, but social taboos persist and seeking justice does not always mean that justice is served.

We refuse to be silenced. We shall roar till something is done about rape.



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About the author

Saida Ali

Saida Ali is executive director of Covaw, a Christian Aid partner.

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