Last month, BBC Africa published an investigative piece, “Sex for Grades” that examined the rot in two universities in West Africa, where lecturers demand for sexual favours in exchange for grades. Since then, Africa’s social media communities have been awash with testimonies and conversations on similar sexual harassment patterns in a variety of universities across the continent. On Twitter, many more women have come out sharing how similar patterns were rampant even in the 70s and 80s - the only difference was that they did not have the technology to record it. These conversations reaffirm that sexual harassment is one of the most urgent issues of our time.
Globally, the 2017 wave of the #MeToo movement sparked interest in the widespread prevalence of sexual violence, demonstrating a worldwide trend of harassment in silence and fear amongst women. Cutting across professionals in the music, fashion and sports industries, the movement broke the silence and shame often associated with sexual assault. It brought to light heartbreaking confessions, many of them suppressed either from teenage years or debut in their professional careers as actresses, models or gymnasts. As the world began opening up to these realities of long-held painful secrets, the hope that the campaign had created diminished with the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court Justice regardless of the tainted image that he dragged with him. Similarly, sexual harassment investigations within UNAIDS, International Planned Parenthood Federation and the African Union Commission all demonstrated a gross miscarriage of justice.
Each of the above cases had one thing in common - disbelief. Society is primed to disbelieve survivors who then must weigh things heavily before breaking their silence, reporting to law enforcement or going public. In Kenya, the recently released 2018 police crime report demonstrated an increase in the number of rape cases from 817 to 979, and defilement cases from 4056 to 5506. Often, as evidenced by the contradictory numbers reported in hospitals, many women opt for medical treatment only, without reporting the incidents to the police or waiting to access justice. Even for those that have courage to report, barely a handful of these cases secure a conviction. Kenya’s 2018 Report to the United Nations Committee Against Torture acknowledged that only 491 cases of rape and 2,827 cases of defilement were prosecuted by 2016 with merely 657 out of 3,318 cases secured convictions.
There are many barriers that prevent survivors from accessing immediate help. These often include lack of information on where to report, fear of re-traumatisation at police stations and societal shaming, which has over the years discouraged women and girls from reporting. In fact, a 2014 study by the National Crime Research Centre found that only 15 percent of women and girls who had been sexually violated reported. And finally when prosecuted, the justice system does not fast track cases of violence and survivors are forced to attend court sessions years on end, each time facing their perpetrator, re-traumatised, forced to recount their ordeal to the investigating officer, prosecutor and the magistrate. Judicial officers are often transferred necessitating cases to commence afresh. During the life of the case, in an effort to be believable, survivors must strive to prove that they were dressed decently, did not provoke the perpetrator, justify why they were walking alone during day time. They must rely on CCTV footage, a witness or in the case of BBC Africa, even when the testimonies of the girls are already damning, conduct a year-long undercover taping to gather enough evidence to secure justice. Ultimately, litigation fatigue sets in and they withdraw complaints.
The #MeToo movement revived confidence in women that perpetrators would finally be held accountable. It created a platform of courage. Women finally hoped that if the world were to review their testimonies a second time, they would be granted the benefit of doubt and justice would prevail. This is good, but more is needed. We need an overhaul of the justice systems and its approach to sexual assault. The system must be re-designed to effectively address our failure to believe. As it stands, it is impossible to have faith that the university girls from Lagos and Ghana will find meaningful reprieve beyond suspension of the lecturers and this ultimately reflects poorly within world perspectives on sexual violence.
The author is the Deputy Executive Director - KELIN Kenya.