Reports of gender-based violence are on the rise in Kenya’s cities and experts say the police must improve their handling of cases of sexual assault to build public trust in the security and justice systems.
According to police sources, some 3 200 cases of gender-based violence were reported to the police countrywide in 2010, up from 2 800 in 2009.
“Sexual violence is not just a risky issue in terms of one getting infected with HIV or any other sexually transmitted infection, (but) victims normally feel ashamed — we live in a society where the victim is blamed and hence many would rather not report it either to the police or even to their families,” said Olga Masinde, a psychology lecturer at the University of Nairobi.
At Nairobi’s City Park Market — where she sells tea to hawkers — Njoki (not real name) treats the men she meets with caution. In April 2011, she was lured into a quiet area by a man who told her he wanted to buy tea, but instead sexually molested her.
“He was a handcart puller; I knew him. He told me he wanted tea and I took it to him in an adjacent thicket,” Njoki said. “He didn’t buy the tea. He grabbed me and wrestled me to the ground. He then raped me and he said he would kill me if I said anything. I still see him.”
Njoki only told one close friend about the attack; she feared that if she told the police and other traders she would be blamed for following the man into the thicket.
“I didn’t want to go to the police because I couldn’t answer the many questions and I feared if other people knew, they would start saying, ‘Why did you follow the man to the thicket?’ I just kept quiet,” she added.
While there have been calls to sensitise women on the need to report cases of sexual violence, Masinde says the sensitisation should be directed at both the public and the police.
“Sensitising women to report when they are raped is the easier part, but when you look at the reasons people give for not reporting, you realise more effort should be directed at sensitising the wider community and the police on the need to accept that women are victims and not contributors to sexual violence,” she added.
The Kenya police has faced criticism from gender activists for its alleged failure to act on reported sexual violence; a 2009 study by Kenya’s Institute of Economic Affairs reported that 72,6% of 51 respondents who survived gender violence and reported their cases to the police were not satisfied with the services they received.
Emily Mueni (24) works in a bar in downtown Nairobi and often finishes work after midnight.
With no staff transportation available, she has to walk to the nearest bus stop and wait, often alone, for a matatu — a public transportation minibus.
“If you are not attacked in the city, you can be attacked even in the residential areas,” she said. “It has never happened to me — even if it happened, I can’t report it because the police will say I am a prostitute . . . all they ask is what you were doing out at that time.”
A 2010 study of women’s experiences in Nairobi’s slums by Amnesty International found that authorities had not addressed women’s calls for a greater police presence in the slums. The report found that many women were too afraid to visit toilets and bathrooms after dark.
“When police have come into the slums, rather than protect women, they have presented yet another threat to their security,” the authors reported. “Police officers themselves have been accused of raping women in slums, in particular during the post-election violence.”
But police officials say their services for gender-based violence are improving.
“I don’t think it is true that the police do not act when it comes to sexual and gender violence; we act when people report (cases). But even those who report interfere with evidence by, for example, taking a shower before reporting, making it extremely hard to sustain such a case in a court of law,” said Charles Owino, deputy police spokesman.
Fewer than 15% of gender violence cases reported to the police in 2010 made it to court. He added that the police had mapped out and increased patrols in sexual violence “hotspots” and set up gender desks at police stations across the country.
“Maybe what people need to know is that they must report immediately such a thing happens,” Owino said.
Many women are also unaware of the health services they should seek – including HIV prevention, treatment for sexually transmitted infections and counselling – after a sexual attack.
When Harriet (not real name) and two friends went to the popular annual Agricultural Society of Kenya Show in Kisumu in July, they were attacked and raped by a gang of six men, who also battered them, leaving them with serious physical injuries. They have since discovered that the show is notorious for sexual attacks.
“They followed us and attacked us in a poorly lit area. We couldn’t scream because they had knives and we just gave in. They used our bodies,” she said.
Harriet first heard about post-exposure prophylaxis – a course of anti-retroviral drugs administered within 72 hours of HIV exposure to prevent infection – a month after the attack.
“I heard you have to take it within 72 hours . . . it couldn’t help me,” she said. “I dread going for an HIV test even today, because I don’t know whether I can deal with a negative outcome.”
Kisumu health authorities say PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) is available, but people are poorly informed about it.
“Many health facilities now have the drugs to administer for post-exposure prophylaxis, but not many people who are exposed know it is available,” said Charles Okal, provincial Aids and Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) control co-ordinator for western Kenya’s Nyanza Province.
“I believe we can do a better job by sensitising people on how to get these services and increase uptake too.”
According to Mohamed Ibrahim, head of the National Aids and STI Control Programme, the government has begun sensitisation to improve the use of PEP services, but is still grappling with how to roll out the messages safely and effectively.
“I believe the awareness level is now higher than before, but we have to be careful to guard against abuse because that can lead us into more problems. We have cases where people take the drugs, but upon completion do not return for HIV tests,” he said.