Advertisement

Meet university student ‘Counting Dead Women’ around Kenya

Friday November 29 2019
Audrey Mugeni

Master's student Audrey Mugeni with Dr Kathomi Gatwiri (right) who run the ‘Counting Dead Women’ project. PHOTO | COURTESY

By LOUISE DONOVAN

When she is not at university, Audrey Mugeni is updating her spreadsheet. Every month, she adds more names. In one column, a grim question needs answering: ‘What killed this woman?’

“You have to write ‘she was raped’ or ‘she was bashed in the head’,” explains the Master of Arts (Gender) student. “It’s constant, and it takes a toll. You get very tired.”

STATISTICS

In between lectures, Audrey, 34, runs ‘Counting Dead Women’ – a project highlighting the number of Kenyan women who are victims of femicide. That is, the killing of women and girls because of their gender.

Alongside her co-partner, Dr Kathomi Gatwiri, she scours the Internet and social media for reports of women and girls who have been killed – typically by men. The pair then update the project’s Twitter and Facebook accounts with the details.

Since the launch of the programme in January, they have recorded 82 lives lost.

Advertisement

This year, the country has witnessed numerous cases of murdered women as reported in the media. Yet national statistics do not report the gender of people killed in Kenya, and there is no specific data compiled on femicide.

EVERY WEEK

“We have a huge gap in data,” says Anna Mutavati, Director of UN Women Kenya. “And the progress is really slow.”

Yet Ms Audrey and Ms Kathomi’s project is helping to plug that gap. After studying social work at university in Kenya together, the two remained friends. Last year, both women noticed the news was “flooded” with stories of women dying.

What’s more, after spending time in the rural areas of Kenya, particularly Migori and Kwale County, Audrey often heard of women dying “every week” but did not see it being reported in the news.

“We realised this was more serious than we first thought,” says Audrey.

Ms Kathomi, who currently lives in Australia, was familiar with ‘Counting Dead Women Australia’ a similar campaign that has been running since 2014. What if they could do the same in Kenya? They already knew the answer and besides, says Audrey, numbers can be a powerful tool.

ALARMING

“Especially if you want to influence change,” she adds.

The data they have collected is alarming – eight Kenyan women are currently being killed every month by their boyfriends or husbands. Despite the reported spike in violence this year, Ms Audrey is not convinced that femicide is on the rise.

“This is something that has always happened. Women have always died, except now we have social media, people are talking and we’re able to get more reports out into the world.”

The work can be draining. To help, they take turns.

 Ms Kathomi will report one week, while Audrey picks up the slack the next. Dedicating your free time to recording male violence might be unfathomable to some, but the women do it in part because they have both experienced it.

VIOLENCE

“It’s very personal for us,” explains Ms Audrey. “We come from a history of abuse. I saw the women around me literally broken down. Their self-esteem was taken away from them. And to me, that is death.”

According to the 2014 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey, although the percentage of male and female victims of violence is roughly the same, the perpetrators vary greatly. Among married women, the most commonly reported perpetrator of physical violence is the current husband or partner (57 per cent), followed by the former husband/partner (24 per cent). By contrast, roughly 1 in 10 men who have experienced physical violence “since age 15, mention their current spouse as a perpetrator of physical violence.

NORMALISED 

This is half the problem, says Ms Audrey; the killing of women has become normalised.

“Once, when I was in Migori County, I was speaking to one gentleman and he said to me: ‘If my wife brings me any trouble, I may be sparked to do something drastic that may be fatal.’ When did this happen? It begs the question, is there something deeper going on? What is really going on with people? Why do we hate each other so much? This has got to stop.”

While still small, the Kenyan project is one of a growing number of accounts collecting data on femicide worldwide.

In the UK, CEO Karen Ingala Smith’s ‘Counting Dead Women’ has more than 20,000 Twitter followers.

Launched in 2012, the details she gathered – including the dates, names, police force area, recorded motive and the weapon used – led to the first Femicide Census Report four years later.

TRACKING

This is a ground-breaking database of women killed by men, which allows for tracking and analysis.

Between 2015 and 2017, some 55 women were killed despite having previously reported their murderers to the police for threatening behaviour, according to freedom of information reports. There is a clear connection between different forms of men’s violence against women.

Activist Dawn Wilcox is documenting the lost lives of American women via ‘Women Count USA’, while the Australian version’s Facebook page stands at over 101,000 likes and has connected individual women with information on services available to victims of violence.

HEARTBREAKING

Now that they have started, Ms Audrey and Ms Kathomi have not discussed if they will ever stop.

“It’s heartbreaking, and difficult, but we are in it for the long haul. Until men stop murdering women, we’ve got a job to do,” says Ms Audrey.

Advertisement