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POLITICS-KENYA: Broken Bodies, Unbroken Spirit

Najum Mushtaq

NAIROBI, Oct 7 2008 (IPS) - It was a sad occasion, and an occasion to rejoice. Sad, said Dr Ludeki Chweya, introducing Flora Terah's new book, because her heart-wrenching story shows that physical abuse and torture are a weapon of choice to deter women's participation in electoral politics in Kenya.

And it was empowering, said Dr. Chweya, who is Kenya's permanent secretary for Home Affairs, because the book, "They Never Killed My Spirit, But They Killed My Only Child", represents the resilience of a woman who on Sep. 7 last year was attacked, pinned to the ground, kicked and punched by three men. She had to swallow balls of hair shaven from her head and mixed with faeces. Her wrists were scorched with thorns and cigarettes. With a dislodged disc in her upper spine from the kicks, Terah spent weeks in agony in hospital before she could walk.

Six months later Flora's only son, 19-year old John Mark, was murdered in Nairobi. A footballer for a local league club with dreams of becoming a coach, Mark's murder has been consigned to the unsolved cases file.

Flora Terah's crime was to dare to contest the election for Member of Parliament for the North Imenti constituency in Meru district, in Eastern Kenya.

Her ordeal was not a rare occurrence. The help desk at the Education Centre for Women in Democracy, a Nairobi-based non-governmental organisation, handled 153 cases of electoral violence against women candidates in the run up to the December 2007 elections and received via email and phone another 258 complaints of harassment and torture of women

According to a report of the Gender Violence Recovery Centre (GVRC) in Nairobi's Women Hospital, rape and other forms of sexual assault were used as a "weapon of ethnic and political violence" even before the elections. During the eviction campaigns after the election dispute, the threat of rape was usually the first warning. If it did not work, actual rape humiliated rival communities and forced them to leave.

Most of these women and their stories are reduced to mere numbers in media reports of the conflict. Flora Terah, however, wanted to tell her story and mobilise Kenyans to stop gender-based violence.

"There were two ways to react to what had happened to me," she told IPS at the book launch. "I could have given in to the trauma of physical humiliation and loss of my only child and given up on life. Or, I could do something to heal myself and to not let my tormentors kill the spirit of life in me."

She started a campaign group, Terah Against Terror, to mobilize women and young men against domestic and political violence. In May, in an interview with IPS two months after her son's murder, Flora Terah said she wanted to write about her tragic experience of being a woman in Kenyan politics.

Broken arms, unbroken dreams

At the book's launch in Nairobi on Oct. 2, Terah was surrounded by other survivors of electoral violence. Among them was Yvonne Khamati, at 21 the youngest-ever aspirant for Kenyan parliament when she ran in 2002. Now Kenya's ambassador to UN-Habitat, Khamati contested for the Makadara constituency in Nairobi. She was verbally harassed, threatened to be stripped in public if she did not quit and then attacked by unidentified people who broke her arm.

Next to them was Alice Wahome, an activist of the National Rainbow Coalition party, who was beaten up at an election meeting at the headquarters of the Party of National Unity, in front of her male colleagues, who did nothing. It took two vehicles full of police to rescue her, after a woman colleague called for help.

All three stood there as symbols of resilience and resistance—women who braved torture and physical harm in pursuit of their political dreams. And in all three cases the attackers have yet to be brought to justice.

Indeed, most abused women in Kenya are unable to bring a court case in such crimes. The GVRC reported in June that legal proceedings were started in only 20 of the 653 cases of sexual violence the Centre had handled in Nairobi.

Jennifer Shamalla, the book's editor and a lawyer, calls for police and judicial reforms to curb the culture of violence against women. "The onus of proof lies on the victim. Case registration and court procedures, if a case ever reaches that stage, are not women-friendly," Shamala observed.

"And then it costs money to pursue a case through a lawyer, which not all women survivors of violence can afford. The slow judicial system also does not encourage pursuit of justice," Shamalla added.

Ludeki Chweya, the permanent secretary for home affairs, endorsed the call for reform: "National policies are often biased against women."

Flora Terah's book is written from the heart. It shows glimpses of Kenyan society from a woman's viewpoint: growing up in a large family where girls can bring wealth through their dowry; the ordeal of a young woman pregnant out of wedlock facing her conservative family and then raising a child as single mother; a development worker training community women for leadership; and the trauma of her own injury and her son's death.

Her story is compelling and candidly told. Some proofreading errors tell of a lack of resources and haste in publishing, but will not distract readers from the courage and determination of a woman who writes to heal herself and her country.

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