Kenya: Women and NGOs express fear about sexual violence ahead of 2022 polls

By Victor Abuso

Posted on Tuesday, 8 February 2022 10:56, updated on Monday, 20 June 2022 11:17
Woman who was affected by the violence following the 2007 elections prays at a camp for internally displaced people in Naivasha
A woman who was affected by the violence following the 2007 elections prays at a camp for internally displaced people in Naivasha October 8, 2014. REUTERS/Noor Khamis

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) have issued warnings that sexual and gender-based violence crimes could be committed in the run-up to and during the general elections scheduled to take place on 9 August.

In a report released on 18 January, the human rights defenders expressed concern that, unless the Kenyan government takes urgent and concrete measures, the sexual and gender-based violence that characterised past elections will likely be repeated in 2022.

According to testimonies collected during their investigations, sexual violence including gang rape and forced male circumcision was used as a political weapon during the 2007 and 2017 elections, particularly in Kisumu, Vihiga and Migori.

“These acts were committed mainly in the opposition strongholds in western Kenya,” says Irene Soila, programme adviser from the KHRC.

During the 2017 presidential elections, police officers clashed with opposition supporters after opposition leader Raila Odinga called for nationwide demonstrations to protest the re-run election, following the announcement of Uhuru Kenyatta as winner.

According to the KHRC study, 201 cases of sexual violence were documented during the last election.

They […] raped me while the others looted whatever they could get.

“[The] main perpetrators in 2017 were the police or other men in uniform who were engaging the protestors,” says Soila. “The government should urgently take measures to prevent, protect, investigate and prosecute those involved.”

Testimonies from victims

The report cites more than 70 women who were raped by security personnel. One survivor name from Kisumu, the third largest city in western Kenya, recounts what she went through on 11 August 2017, the night that police officers were chasing rioters. “I opened the door, and one held me and laid me on the table and covered my mouth.”

Another survivor says a group of six to seven police officers entered a small restaurant in Migori where she was working. They ate and then raped her. “They […] raped me, while the others looted whatever they could get.”

The report also says majority of the women who were raped never reported the perpetrators to the police out of fear and lack of trust that their cases would be taken seriously.

Why should I vote again, while those who engaged in those acts are free? Where is the law in this country? Who will protect us as women?

In December 2020, the high court in Nairobi found the Kenyan government culpable for failure to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the post-election sexual violence in 2007-2008.

Four of the eight survivors who had gone to court were awarded $35,000 each for violation of their constitutional rights.

What security officials are saying

Although the perpetrators of these crimes have been identified as security forces in uniform, many have not been charged in court.

Additionally, those in leadership positions during the time that sexual violence took place in 2017 deny that it happened. “I am not aware of sexual violence during the election period of 2017,” said a local leader from Central Maragoli, western Kenya, who did not want to be named.

“There was no sexual violence reported during the election period,” said a senior sergeant from the Vihiga police station.

It is not the first time that police in Kenya have been criticised for their involvement in human rights violations and for harassing opposition supporters during an election cycle.

Fred Matiang’i, the security minister, has yet to comment on the latest report, only insisting that the authorities are ready for the August polls. “We will do things strictly according to the law to ensure peace[ful] elections,” he said on 20 January during an event at the National Police Service College in Kiganjo.

Female voters wary?

Some survivors say they will not vote in the coming elections for fear of risking their and their families’ lives.

34-year-old Jupiter Mayaka, who sells second hand clothes in Kisii town – an opposition stronghold – says after hearing the stories of women who were raped during the 2017 election, she is no longer interested in politics.

“Why should I vote again, while those who engaged in those acts are free?” she says. “Where is the law in this country? Who will protect us as women?”

When women are raped in a political atmosphere the aim is to deter them from making political choices…

Angelina Cikanda, a programme development manager at the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness, says sexual violence has often been used to intimidate women.

“When women are raped in a political atmosphere, the aim is to deter them from making political choices,” she says. “Ahead of [the] 9 August elections, the government should ensure that women are safe when they decide to run for political office.”

Government’s failure to punish offenders

The Kenyan government stands accused of not taking action against perpetrators of sexual violence during elections.

According to human rights organisations, getting justice will remain a challenge if those responsible are not charged in a court of law. And with the upcoming elections, the cycle may continue, especially if cases go unreported.

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