Survivors unite, fearing a repeat of rape in upcoming Kenyan election
Nairobi—In the violence that rocked Kenya following the disputed elections of 2007, the media reported hundreds of cases of sexualized violence. Jane’s was one of them.
Jane, who asked me to hide her real name, was gang-raped in 2008. Today, she grapples with HIV, trauma, and empty promises of reparation. Her husband was killed in the violence, she says, but his body has never been found. “I need to speak out but I am so afraid of stigma,” she said. “I am tired of hiding in the cocoon of confidentiality. It’s killing me.”
Kenya descended into chaos following the disputed election results of December 2007 in which the incumbent, President Mwai Kibaki, was declared the winner. The verdict was bitterly contested by supporters of his main challenger, opposition leader Raila Odinga. What followed was violence and chaos that led to the deaths of more than 1,000 people and the displacement of around 500,000. The Commission of Inquiry on Post-Election Violence, or the Waki Commission, documented at least 900 cases of sexualized violence against women, girls, men and boys during that time, including “heart-wrenching tales of rape, gang rape, sexual mutilation, loss of body parts, and hideous deaths.” Other reports from advocacy organizations estimated the number to be much, much higher.
The reason for rape during the violence, according to a women’s group in Kenya, was that women, who are largely excluded from the political process, paid a high price for men’s wrath. And now, with the 2017 general election only weeks away, some fear this could happen again. But this time, survivors of rape and sexualized violence in the country have unified, intent on becoming a voice that can no longer be silenced or ignored.
A woman walks past anti-riot police near Uhuru Park in Nairobi, where in 2008 protesters demonstrated against the elections. (Demosh)
The movement, called “Survivors of Sexual Violence in Kenya,” includes individuals from all over the country who have undergone different forms of sexualized violence, including rape, gang rape, genital mutilation, sexual slavery, and sexual assault. In late June, the group published a powerful statement calling on the state to protect its citizens from sexualized violence and other atrocities. They urged the government to publish and disseminate a code of conduct that will guide measures to address cases of sexualized violence during the election. After all, the statement reads, “One rape is one rape too many.”
By speaking out, these survivors will work toward breaking the silence of sexualized violence. Who better to tell their stories than themselves?
As a rape survivor herself, Wangu Kanja knows too well what silence and stigma can do to a victim. She set up the Wangu Kanja Foundation to support victims of sexualized violence. Kanja knew it was time for Kenyan survivors to create a movement that could help turn the tide of sexualized violence. “If 10 survivors can break their silence in a day, that is too strong a voice to ignore,” she said.
“The human face of rape is not always seen,” Kanja told me. Survivors are often denoted in statistics, which helps to suppress their voice. “The movement brings out that face to show that behind the statistics are real people—women, children, and men who are Kenyans—and they need their voices to be amplified.”
Kanja also said she was concerned about the possibility of sexualized violence during the upcoming election. The government’s failure to set up gender crimes units in police stations to exclusively handle such cases could end up paving the way for sexualized violence to be perpetuated, she said.
Jane, who is also part of the movement, fears the August 8 election could be another recipe for chaos. She could be raped again.
“No one knows what happened to me,” she told me.
A policy of neglect Sexual offense cases in the Kenyan courts climbed from 7,727 to 13,828 between 2012 and 2014, according to a 2015 report by the Kenyan State of the Judiciary and Administration of Justice. Despite the formidable laws put in place to combat sexualized violence in Kenya, the perpetrators remain free. There is a deeply entrenched culture that tolerates this crime.
In fact, security agents were widely implicated as having committed rape in the 2008 violence. Women said that officers from the General Service Unit, a paramilitary wing of the National Police Service of Kenya, raped them and infected them with sexually transmitted diseases. “We have a culture that does not condemn their officers perpetrating sexual violence,” said Chris Gitari, head of the Kenya office of the International Centre for Transitional Justice.
Police officers on patrol in Nairobi. Kenyans fear violence could become an issue again following the 2017 elections. (Xiaojun Deng)
Now, survivors are tired of the lack acknowledgment, redress, and support and of an unsympathetic society that stigmatizes them by judging them, shaming them, and shunning them. They can no longer tolerate the impunity that surrounds sexualized violence in their country. And they are tired of their own silence, which enables them to be depicted as victims.
One woman who has long defied this silence is Jacqueline Mutere, who became pregnant from rape in the violence following the 2007 election. Mutere runs the community-based organization Grace Agenda, which provides support to survivors of sexualized and gender-based violence. Today, she empowers other survivors to speak out and call for reparations, reform of the security systems, and acknowledgment. She is part of the “Survivors” movement.
The purpose of the movement, Mutere says, is to “remove the stigma and show other survivors that sexual violence is something that can be talked about publicly and to encourage them to come out.”
On a day in late June, I attended a meeting of the movement. About 20 survivors of sexualized violence from across the country met and shared their fears of possible rape during the upcoming elections.
One woman, who was raped in the infamous Mt. Elgon armed conflict of 2008 admitted that it was the first time she was telling her story. In that room, she said, it was clear people wanted to listen. She said she felt comfortable because “most of us have gone through a similar violation.”
Still, Mutere fears that rape could be a part of this upcoming election. She believes that communities need to be aware of the fact that violence could happen again, and is calling on the government to identify potential hot spots, provide additional safeguards including ample security, lighting, and hotline numbers as well as access to emergency medical care and treatment.
Because the pain does not go away.
Many of the survivors are still reeling from the emotional and physical harm wrought by the violence inflicted upon them in 2008. “I can tell you they are carrying a lot of trauma, a lot of raw pain that hasn’t yet been processed,” Margaret Muyanga, a rape trauma psychologist who offers counseling, told me.
But this is what the movement offers—an empathetic ear, a place of healing, and restoration of dignity. It will be a source of empowerment to other survivors, to work together to prevent and end the pain of sexual violence, to create a platform where survivors can share their stories, to hold duty bearers to account, to advocate for justice and reparations, reach out to perpetrators of sexual violence, and tackle stigma.
By joining together, these survivors will make sure that theirs is the loudest voice in the fight. Together, they will put a face to sexualized violence and say “Enough is enough.”
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