'Women are silent victims of gender violence'

Two cases of assault or rape are reported on average every day to the Kilimani police station's gender violence desk in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

About 95 incidents of assault and 24 rape or attempted rape cases were reported to the station in 2006, according to Beatrice Sayo, the police inspector in charge of the desk. Survivors receive counselling while investigations are carried out, are referred to hospital for treatment and advised to seek help from non-governmental agencies that target the problem.

Njoki Ndungu, a Kenyan member of parliament, who initiated a newly promulgated law that introduced a harsher penal code for perpetrators of violence against women, said a woman is raped in Kenya every 30 minutes.

Ndungu called for greater involvement of politicians in efforts to combat gender violence. "They are the ones who make the decisions and most of them are men who tend to neglect such [sexual violence] issues," she said at a function to mark International Women’s Day and launch the IRIN book, 'The Shame of War: sexual violence against women and girls in conflict'.

The number of cases recorded at the Kilimani station does not, however, reflect the extent of gender violence in Kenya, where, despite increasing coverage of the scourge in the local media, many survivors prefer not to report their plight due to ignorance or fear of stigmatisation.

"Women are usually silent victims of gender-based violence," said Margaret Rita Semi, the police constable heading the gender risk desk at Gigiri police station, in one of the affluent Nairobi suburbs.

Chief Inspector Joseph Mwalukumbi Kisombe of Gigiri attributed rising cases of assault and battery to widespread unemployment, poverty and alcohol abuse. "When a woman asks for money from her drunken husband to feed her children, most likely she will be battered," he said.



Photo: Richard Etienne/IRIN
A poster directing visitors to the domestic violence help desk, Kilimani police station, Nairobi, Kenya

"It is a vicious cycle. Poverty leads to violence against the mother and consequently the children when they go on to the streets to beg and they are abused or engage in prostitution," Sayo added.

Gender violence becomes worse in times of war, said Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of the United Nations Fund for Women.

"Sexual violence, already horrific in times of peace, intensifies during armed conflict as legal and justice systems break down along with systems of social and community support," she said.

Women's bodies become ‘battle grounds’, said Dennis McNamara, director of the Inter-Agency Internal Displacement Division of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Sexual violence has been used as a tool of war in Sudan's Darfur region, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Bosnia, he said. "The perpetrators are mainly armed men acting with total impunity, often perhaps with the acquiescence of their superiors," he added.

Domestic violence has a clear linkage to sexual violence in times of war, McNamara said.

Ex-soldiers who go back home and cannot find gainful employment are likely to become violent, while men who are violent at home will be even worse in war, said McNamara.

Sexual crimes were marginalised internationally, with reconciliation commissions in transition countries failing to address survivors of sexual violence, added Betty Murungi, director of the Urgent Action Fund – Africa NGO.

Changing perceptions

According to Heyzer, ending violence against women required changing public perceptions and breaking through barriers of culture and tradition to find non-violent ways to resolve conflicts in private and public life.

Some aspects of culture such as incest, practised in some Kenyan communities, should be abandoned and recognised for the crimes they are, Sayo said.

The UN Children's Fund regional goodwill ambassador, the South African musician Zola, pointed out that some negative forms of culture were also encouraged by the women themselves, such as mothers and grandmothers who inflicted female genital mutilation on their daughters and granddaughters.

Internationally, at least 89 states have legislative provisions on domestic violence and 104 countries have made marital rape a crime.

However, marital rape is still not recognised as a sexual offence in Kenya. An attempt to include this in the country's Sexual Offences Bill, which was passed in 2006, was rejected by parliament, with the charge only applicable if the couple is separated.

The effects of gender violence are far-reaching, with HIV/AIDS now seen as a gender as well as a health issue.

Sexual violence has led to increasing numbers of women contracting HIV/AIDS, further destroying women's ability to break through inter-generational cycles of poverty.

"Every means to empower women must be used," Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, said in a speech to mark International Women’s Day.

A motion has been filed in Kenya's parliament seeking the ratification of the Great Lakes protocol on the prevention and suppression of sexual violence against women and children, which, according to Ndungu, is more comprehensive than the sexual offences law.

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