A few weeks ago, at a prominent girls’ school in Nairobi, a young lady claimed to have been sexually assaulted at night by unknown men. The matter raised quite a furore that resulted in the resignation of the principal. A police investigation was instituted and several suspects were questioned and samples collected, purportedly for DNA analysis. The police have not released the results of their investigation, or said if they are closing in on any potential perpetrators.
Interestingly, a teachers’ union has come out with a report exonerating any potential suspect in the matter. They have said that the girl who claimed she was raped was not telling the truth, and that she fabricated the claims. The union has gone ahead to explain why they arrived at this conclusion, indicating that young girls in high school are engaged in curious sexual behaviours that might explain the injuries sustained by the girl in the alleged sexual assault.
Firstly, it must be obvious that one cannot be the judge, jury, and executioner in their own case. The teachers’ union is clearly entitled to an opinion on what might have happened on that night when the girl was alleged to have been raped, but as someone clearly pointed out in the past, they are not entitled to their own facts. The statutory institutions mandated with the investigation have not yet given their findings, and it is premature for anyone to purport to have done conclusive investigations and have findings that can solve the many puzzles in this case.
Secondly, any and all allegations of sexual assault must be taken seriously, and trivialisation of the claims must be completely avoided, especially by those with the greatest duty of care. Teachers cannot absolve their colleagues when such serious allegations are made, and purported findings casting aspersions on the integrity of the victim are uncalled for. Such conduct reduces the chances of any future victims reporting sexual assault. In the care of survivors of sexual assault, the practice is to take every allegation seriously, provide support for the survivor, and investigate as far as possible to discover and bring the perpetrator to justice. Teachers are the last persons expected to trivialise a student’s claims of sexual assault, and are ordinarily expected to be supportive of the student as she seeks care to deal with the ordeal.
It has been the practice in this country that our first response to any allegations of sexual assault is to be sceptical or blame the victim. This has resulted in a hostile environment for reporting sexual assault, and majority of cases go unreported. We must change our mindset and make this country safe for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence if we are to make any progress in addressing this problem. Our reaction to this case of sexual assault speaks to our values as a nation, and the fact that we even entertained this purported report from the teachers’ union suggests that as a country we still place a very low value on the lives of others. Instead of starting from the premise that the allegation indicates the existence of a serious problem that requires to be solved, we are operating on the assumption that any allegation of harm to an individual is spurious or false. We therefore are not taking any action to address such allegations, and are instead looking for scapegoats.
A country operating on these principles is setting itself up for failure. Even if the allegations turn out to be false, it is still necessary to investigate their genesis to determine the kind of assistance the person making the allegations will need. It is only a sick society whose first reaction to allegations of harm to its most vulnerable members is to wave them off as being the product of a sociopathic mind.
The author is associate professor of psychiatry and dean, Moi University School of Medicine. [email protected]