Africa, Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Poverty & SDGs

RIGHTS-AFRICA: Elusive Justice for Victims of Gender-Based Violence

Joshua Kyalimpa

NAIROBI, Kenya, Aug 14 2009 (IPS) - Florence Mukambi will always bear the brunt of the country’s post-election violence.

Florence Mukambi (left) will always bear the brunt of the country's post-election violence after her two young children were burnt alive in their beds while she was disfigured and rendered destitute. Credit: Joshua Kyalimpa

Florence Mukambi (left) will always bear the brunt of the country's post-election violence after her two young children were burnt alive in their beds while she was disfigured and rendered destitute. Credit: Joshua Kyalimpa

Her two young children were burnt alive in their beds while she was disfigured and rendered destitute as the ethnic hatred raged through the slum where she still lives.

Mukambi and her children are just three of the victims of the widespread violence that ensued after the disputed December presidential election where almost 1,000 people were killed and as many as 350,000 displaced.

Mukambi still lives in the Kibera slum where it all happened. Kibera is a sprawling settlement of shacks constructed upon what is largely a refuse site. Just a few kilometres southwest of Nairobi, the slum is estimated to house over a million people. Residents of all ethnicities live tightly packed together alongside open sewerage – mixed with human and animal faeces, dust and ash.

When the violence broke out rowdy youths set her shack ablaze and in that fire her only two children were burnt to death. Her crime was that she was a Kikuyu mother capable of bearing Kikuyu children, living in a predominantly Luo slum. "These are the ones producing our enemies" her attackers had shouted.

The tension between those of Kikuyu and Luo ethnicity was sparked after Mwai Kibaki, a member of the Kikuyu, was declared winner in the presidential elections over Raila Odinga, a member of the Luo.

As was her routine, that day Mukambi had bought sweet bananas to sell at her veranda the next day so she could raise school fees for her children.

Mukambi never imagined her girl – then 11 – and her eight-year-old son would not see daylight again.

With tears rolling down her cheek, Mukambi recounts her ordeal. She can no longer work for her self because her right hand was badly burnt; she has no ears and the cavities that represent her hearing channel are covered with skin which builds up over and over again. "I cannot hear nor can I work to feed myself. And my children who would look after me are dead."

Carol Ogengo, executive director of the Tomorrow’s Child Initiative which has been giving Mukambi some assistance, says she requires skin grafting and corrective surgery. The organisation took interest after Mukambi contacted them, not because of her own situation, but to report the death of her children.

"She is outside our mandate, but we were touched because of the trauma she experienced after the death of her children."

But Mukambi is just the tip of the iceberg. She was probably maimed by strangers. Thousands of women in Kenya – just like in many other countries in Africa – experience violence daily, not from strangers but some times from someone dear to them.

At the Gender Violence Recovery Centre (GVRC), a charity division of the Nairobi Women's Hospital, Teresa Omondi tells harrowing stories of gender-based violence. "We receive all sorts of cases. From sexual violence including rape, to sexual assault such as putting fingers and other objects such as sticks in women’s private parts, and some children being forced to suck the penises of the abusers."

Since its inception in 2001, the centre has handled well over 14,000 cases. Of the cases received 49 percent are women 45 percent are children while 6 percent are men.

The hospital offers treatment, counselling and helps women seek justice using the relevant organs of state.

Omondi, a former lawyer, says she is disappointed with the way cases of domestic violence are handled. Although the sexual offences law in Kenya provides that a report from any licensed doctor could be used as evidence in court, in many cases a government doctor will produce a contradictory report exonerating the accused.

"I am sometimes confronted by even my fellow lawyers saying: ‘You people, how do your doctors conduct medical examinations?’ And I wonder, is this a conspiracy to keep women brutalised?"

Omondi, who has practiced law in Kenya, says there far more women who come to seek treatment that those who seek legal aid. "Some people just want to be treated to feel well and just forget about the whole situation."

Carol Njeri, a doctor at the centre, says on a normal day she handles between to three to four cases of rape in her six hour shift.

There are normally three doctors on a shift, so the cases she sees are roughly a third of the occurrences.

Omondi believes people are afraid to pursue cases of gender-based violence because in most cases the violence is meted by people they know.

"In most cases it’s father, uncle, cousin, neighbour, shop keeper – you name it." Omondi says this, plus the unfriendly judicial system, makes many victims not pursue legal redress.

"There is a case I remember a 5-year-old girl who was left home with her twin brothers aged 14. They dragged her from the house and raped her in turns." She says the mother was overwhelmed and had to go through a lot of counselling.

Patricia Nyaundi, executive director of Kenya Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA) says there is a lot that still needs to be done for the thousands of victims of gender-based violence in Kenya to get justice. During the country’s post-election violence in January and February 2008, over 1,000 women were estimated to have been raped and assaulted.

Nyaundi was speaking to journalists from Eastern and Southern Africa who attended a workshop on reporting gender-based violence in Nairobi organised by Inter Press Service Africa.

Nyaundi says many women would rather stay away than be embarrassed. She says the justice system, from the police to the courts of law, is not gender sensitive.

"At the police (station) you can go to report a rape and the officer at the counter will ask you why you were out that late" says Nyaundi. "In courts, it’s the same story. You feel like you are going through the same violence again.

"How do you deal with the court system when you are mentally challenged, deaf, etc?" Nyaundi called for the creation of a fund to help victims of gender-based violence so they are empowered to follow cases through the legal system.

"This country is rich enough to put up a fund to help 20,2000 victims of gender-based violence every month."

According to Nyaundi, in cases of violence against children, intermediaries should be used instead of putting victims together in the same room with their abusers to testify. This, she says, is another form of torture. And intimidation of the victim often occurs.

With a long journey still ahead in combating gender-based violence in Kenya, hope lies in the expansion of services of the Gender Violence Recovery Centre.

Omondi says the GVRC was able to extend services to the outlying areas of Nakuru, Eldoret, Kisumu and Mombasa during the post-election violence, but lack of funding made them close afterwards.

According to national statistics, Naivasha, a market town in the Rift Valley Province in Kenya and a popular tourist destination, has the highest cases of gender-based violence. Omondi and her team want to partner with Naivasha’s district hospital to take their service closer to those who need it.

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