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Address election-related sexual violence

Thursday September 7 2017

Anti-riot police officers attempt to disperse protesters supporting opposition leader Raila Odinga at Obunga slum, in Kisumu County on August 12, 2017. There are reports of election related sexual assaults linked to the police in Kisumu and Nairobi. PHOTO | TONNY OMONDI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Anti-riot police officers attempt to disperse protesters supporting opposition leader Raila Odinga at Obunga slum, in Kisumu County on August 12, 2017. There are reports of election related sexual assaults linked to the police in Kisumu and Nairobi. PHOTO | TONNY OMONDI | NATION MEDIA GROUP  

By AGNES ODHIAMBO
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Is there no justice for rape?” asked Jane, a young woman from Nairobi’s slums. “If police, who should be helping us, can just rape women and nothing is done to them, what will prevent men from continuing to rape us?”

Jane (not her real name) claimed to have been gang-raped by three members of the General Service Unit (GSU), a para-military wing of the Kenyan police.

She is one of the more than 150 women, girls and men I interviewed about sexual violence during the political violence of 2007 and 2008.

The number is unknown but it’s likely that thousands of rapes occurred—including many by state security agents. Many victims were left with illness and serious injuries.

SEXUAL ASSAULTS

But the government has not given them medical care or other support and its claims of prosecutions are not proved by convictions.

The 2017 General Election, therefore, rightly raised grave concerns about likely resurgence of widespread sexual violence and whether the government would act decisively to prevent such assaults, take action against alleged attackers and appropriately assist the victims.

And even with incomplete information, initial reports link sexual assaults to the elections.

Women’s rights groups and activists allege that police raped and sexually harassed women and girls, especially after the electoral commission declared President Uhuru Kenyatta the winner.

STIGMA

Human Rights Watch (HRW) obtained credible reports of election-related sexual violence in Kisumu and Nairobi, especially Dandora.

The question now is whether the authorities will promptly investigate the allegations and seek justice for the victims or, as in the past, ignore these abuses and victims’ suffering.

Unreported rapes don’t mean that they didn’t happen. Survivors are reluctant to come forward due to insecurity and the general climate of fear, women’s rights activists say.

Many women and girls—as well as men and boys—are unwilling to speak out due to the stigma of being a victim of a sexual violence, or fear of retaliation by the attackers. Other barriers to reporting rape include lack of money for transport and lack of awareness about the importance of seeking help such as for post-rape care.

LACK OF TRUST

Most victims do not have confidence in Kenya’s security agents, who have long been accused of human rights abuses. HRW has documented many cases where they raped and sexually harassed women and girls during security operations or political unrest.

The State’s failure to punish abusive officers only helps to perpetuate the lack of trust.

Reporting sexual violence is always difficult; reporting it to the police, colleagues of culprits can be impossible.

Police sometimes make light of sexual crimes and show negligent and dismissive attitudes towards victims, or even collude with offenders, who pay them to drop cases against them.

INVESTIGATIONS

Problems regarding reporting and the unwillingness of authorities to initiate genuine, credible and fair investigations and prosecutions to punish perpetrators were key challenges after the 2007-2008 election-related rapes.

The government’s overall failure to investigate and prosecute the range of crimes committed then remains a key concern.

Kenya is obligated under international law to close the impunity gap for sexual violence.

It will be difficult to end the cycles of election-related sexual abuses—and more generally rape and other gender-based violence—until the government creates an environment in which victims are willing to come forward and it properly investigates and prosecutes complaints.

Bringing to justice culprits—including members of the security forces and the officers who look the other way—would assure women such as Jane that they will get justice for rape.

Dr Odhiambo is a senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW). [email protected]