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Category: International, Violence against Women

“Imani” for Rape Survivors: A Nurse's Travels to Kenya

| August 13, 2009

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton completes her trip to Africa, the author describes how nurses in one city torn by conflict are combatting violent crimes against women.

While in Nairobi, Kenya last week, on the first stop of her seven-nation trip to Africa, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressured government officials to try those responsible for bloodshed following the disputed presidential election in 2007. “We are waiting; we are disappointed,” Clinton told a news conference. Some weeks earlier, in late June, I was in Kibera, East Africa's largest slum and one of the worst-hit areas during the post-election violence according to nurses in the community clinic I visited.

Hosted by Dr. Nancy Cabelus of the Women's Justice and Empowerment Initiative (WJEI), I was investigating gender violence in my capacity asa public health nurse and broadcast journalist. WJEI, a U.S. government initiative, focuses on areas in Africa where gender violence has reached crisis levels, and Dr. Cabelus is well prepared for the work. She holds a doctorate in forensic nursing and spent 20 years as a Connecticut State Trooper investigating sex crimes.

Sexual violence is widely considered to be the most underreported violent crime in Kenya. Until recently, Kenyan law lacked a clear definition of rape or guidelines for sentencing. Clinicians from the Médecins Sans Frontières Nairobi Project, which runs three health clinics in Kibera, expressed their frustrations over the obstacles women face in reporting rape and seeking justice from law enforcement.

As in most of the world, nurses provide primary care in the Kibera clinics. By law, a nurse documents all medical findings on a post-rape care form. This document must be hand-delivered to the officer in charge at the local police station to formally initiate the charge of rape. The nurses shared a story of a woman they treated for rape who returned to the clinic to tell them that the police officer handed back her paper work telling her there was insufficient evidence this was a rape. A nurse who tried to follow-up at the police station was no more successful.

A rape case can also be thrown out in court because nurses can't legally present testimony; only physicians can. Physician shortages create no-shows in court so cases are just dismissed. Dr. Cabelus is working with others to amend the law so that it will permit nurses to present testimony and increase successful prosecutions.

The barriers to justice in Kenya for victims of sexual violence remain high. I asked one Kenyan woman why she thought women didn't report rape to the police. She responded, “They are the rapists or their friends are so it is not safe to.” The Wakki Commission, an international panel convened to investigate the post-election violence, confirms her testimony. While entire communities suffered the consequences of armed conflict and terrorism, women and girls were particularly affected because of their status in society and their gender. In October 2008 findings delivered to the Kenyan Government, the commission reported, “The police and General Service Unit (GSU) officers were rapists. In some cases collaborating, with marauding violent gangs pursuing the fleeing women. The women victims of the violence were happy to see the police officers as they fled their tormentors to save their lives only for the officers to turn against them and rape them.”

According to the Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya, some 3,000 rapes occurred during the post-election violence. As women slowly came forward to report that they had been raped, the nurses in one of the Kibera clinics created a code word to move a victim quickly into care while maintaining her privacy. The code word is “imani,” the Swahili word for hope.

Secretary of State Clinton traveled to the Congo on Tuesday, where she met in Goma with women who have been victims of rape. The United Nations has recorded at least 200,000 cases of sexual violence against women and girls since 1996 when the conflict erupted in the region. “The entire society needs to be speaking out against this,” she said. “It should be a mark of shame anywhere, in any country. I hope that that will become a real cause here in Kinshasa that will sweep across the country.” To government and law enforcement officials she strongly expressed what they must do in response to these violent crimes: “We believe there should be no impunity for the sexual and gender-based violence committed by so many and that there must be arrests, prosecutions and punishments.”

Last Sunday, Clinton was in South Africa, where she published an op-ed in the newspaper, City Press, “Women Are Drivers of Positive Change.” The occasion was National Women's Day, commemorating a march for justice on August 9, 1956 by 20,000 South African women. They sang an anthem that has become a rallying cry: “Wathint'a bafazi, Wathint' imbokodo” (You Strike a Woman, You Strike a Rock). “Women can be the rock on which a freer, safer and more prosperous Africa is built,” wrote Clinton. “They just need the opportunity.”