1,133 is not just a number

Nadia 9 years old, was raped last year while schools were closed and restrictions to curb the spread

Government failed victims of Covid-enhanced gender violence, rights group says

7 October 2021 - 21:10

By Janet Sankale

The Kenyan government has failed in its duty to prevent, tackle, and redress violence against women and girls, which has sharply increased since the coronavirus pandemic broke out in 2020, Human Rights Watch has said.

Even worse, in many cases some of the measures the authorities instituted in efforts to slow down or prevent the spread of the virus, including curfews, closure of schools and businesses, and quarantines, have helped to amplify these attacks, the human rights defender said.

In a report titled I Had Nowhere to Go: Violence against Women and Girls during the Covid-19 Pandemic in Kenya, released on September 21, 2021, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the government had failed to ensure that survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) receive comprehensive, quality, and timely medical treatment, mental health care, protection services, and financial assistance, and that cases are properly investigated and culprits prosecuted.

The report acknowledged that Covid-19 has affected families and communities globally, and disrupted employment and livelihoods. It has increased economic hardships, thus aggravating gender-based inequalities and increasing the exposure of women and girls to GBV. Many women have lost their jobs and become dependent on their partners or husbands, while girls were stuck at home due to the closure of schools for most of 2020. They have faced elevated levels of sexual and domestic violence while the restrictions on mobility limited their access to protection, treatment services, and justice.

“The pandemic is not the first time Kenya has witnessed an increase in violence against women and girls during crises,” said Agnes Odhiambo, a senior women’s rights researcher and head of the HRW’s Nairobi office.

The report said the authorities should have anticipated this and acted accordingly because of past experience with emergencies such as elections, civil unrest, periods of political upheaval, and other humanitarian situations, during which violence against women and girls, and to a lesser degree, men and boys, has always increased.

“The Kenyan government should have expected and planned for a similar uptick during the Covid-19 health emergency,” said the report.

The organisation added that research on election-related sexual and GBV has shown that Kenya’s current government structures and policies are inadequate to respond effectively to violence against women and girls during emergencies or other widespread unrest.

The report commended the Kenyan government for enacting laws aimed at protecting potential victims of gender-based violence. These include the 2015 Protection Against Domestic Violence Act, the 2011 Female Genital Mutilation Act, and the 2006 Sexual Offences Act. It has also provided guidelines on how cases of GBV should be managed and survivors supported by police, including POLICARE, which was launched in August 2020. The one-stop shop is meant to provide integrated services to GBV survivors, including children, in one location at the county level.

Kenya is also a state party to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) and several other international treaties that obligate it to protect women and girls from discrimination and GBV.

Despite this, HRW said, the Kenyan government has failed to fulfill its obligations under international law and its national laws to protect women and girls.

“When this commitment to tackling GBV was tested by the Covid-19 pandemic, the government response came up short. It did not act effectively to protect women and girls from sexual violence and GBV during the initial stages of the pandemic; its institutions and agents have been ineffective in implementing safeguards to protect and support survivors; and it has done less than the bare minimum in providing services, including health care and psychosocial support, safe houses and shelters, legal and financial assistance,” said the report.

The report is based on 26 interviews carried out between June 2020 and February 2021. Some 13 survivors of gender-based violence; six representatives of non-governmental organisations, including service providers and community activists; four parents and a relative of girl survivors; a Kenyan expert on gender-based violence; and two government officials from POLICARE and the State Department for Gender Affairs were involved.

The report said increased cases of violence against women and girls were recorded during lockdowns in the early part of the pandemic in 2020. Data from the national gender-based violence hotline 1195 run by Healthcare Assistance Kenya – an NGO that works with survivors of GBV – in partnership with the Ministry of Public Service and Gender, showed a 301 per cent increase in calls reporting violence against women and girls in the first two weeks of the lockdown between March and April 2020.

The National Crime Research Centre reported that the number of GBV cases increased by 87.7 per cent between April and June 2020, when there were stringent restrictions on assembly and mobility. “Significant increases of at least 30 per cent were recorded in forms of GBV such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, child marriage …” it noted.

In April 2020, the National Council on Administration of Justice reported “a significant spike in sexual offences in many parts of the country in the past two weeks”.

The report documented various forms of violence against women and girls, including sexual abuse, beatings, being thrown out of the home, being forced to marry, and being forced to undergo female genital mutilation.

It added that many of the abuses happened in the home and that the attackers were close family members, including husbands, but other abuses happened in the community, perpetuated by neighbours.

Girls interviewed said they experienced ongoing sexual harassment from men in their communities, some of whom lured them with gifts of food or sanitary pads that their parents could not buy for them.

According to HRW, most of the survivors did not report the abuse to the authorities, and those who did received inadequate health and legal services.

The government’s scarce, under-resourced, and understaffed support service amid Covid-19 has contributed to the challenges GBV survivors face in reporting the violence.

According to the report, in some cases, survivors, guardians, and children had to pay for services at government health facilities or were referred to private clinics, where GBV-specialised services are costly.

“This infraction is common in Kenya’s healthcare system, and its effect was made worse by the economic hardship related to the pandemic, and negatively impacted the ability of GBV survivors to get comprehensive health care. All survivors interviewed either received limited mental health support from government institutions, or none at all,” said the report.

The government’s expanded cash transfer programme, which was announced in March 2020 and was meant to support people who had lost their income during the pandemic and were unable to afford basic needs, provided support to less than 5 per cent of vulnerable families in Nairobi, and failed to reach millions in need of support. GBV survivors did not benefit as the programme did have a special category to cater for these vulnerable group of people.

Kenyan police and other state security agents have been key perpetrators of serious human rights violations against Kenyans and have been implicated in many cases of rape and other sexual violence against women and girls, and men and boys, particularly during times of crisis, said the report.

HRW added that the creation of gender desks in police stations has not been of significant help because officers have stigmatised GBV survivors, are negligent when dealing with GBV cases, and lack adequate training to deal with such victims, leaving the impression among survivors that the police cannot be trusted.

Kenyan authorities have themselves been reported to have perpetrated attacks, using violence to enforce curfews and lockdowns. According to HRW research, at least six people died from police violence during the first 10 days of Kenya’s dusk-to-dawn curfew. Police shot and beat people at markets or returning home from work, teargassed others, broke into homes and shops, extorted money from residents, or looted food across the country.

Some of the people interviewed said corruption among police officers, lack of economic resources, interference, and mishandling of cases severely impacted survivors’ ability to seek justice.

The report also said the police failed to effectively coordinate with and support GBV survivors through the process of reporting, recording, investigating, and prosecuting their cases, resulting in survivors often abandoning their effort to hold their alleged abusers accountable in court.

HRW urged the Kenyan government to uphold its commitment to tackle GBV and rectify its failure to protect women and girls from violence.

It further asked the authorities to set up an effective rights-based framework and social protection system to ensure that GBV can be prevented, even during a crisis, and that survivors are protected and can expeditiously access medical and mental health services, alternative accommodation, and justice.

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