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Justice for sexual survivors hangs in the balance

Written by Dr Joan Nyanyuki

In January 2008, a group of Kenyan police officers broke into Mary’s home and raped her in front of her daughter. Then two looters raped her again. Yet Mary summoned the extraordinary courage to report the crimes.

Remarkably, Mary has persisted in her demand for justice last Wednesday, on January 22, in a Nairobi courtroom, Mary and other women as well as some men, who were sexually assaulted during the post-election violence sought to be heard.

Even in normal times, sexual violence in Kenya is commonplace, and the Government is derelict in its responsibilities to protect victims, punish perpetrators and provide redress to victims. Well before the post-election violence, sexual violence was the most under-reported category of crime in Kenya.

When widespread violence erupted for two months following disputed December 2007 elections, it was no surprise that women on all sides were targeted. However, the machete-wielding attackers also singled-out some men for forcible circumcision or mutilation. A commission of inquiry found that the 900 reported cases of sexual violence during the period were just the “tip of the iceberg”. Most victims, hearing of the futility, never went to the police.

The Kenyan government repeatedly asserts that its domestic justice system can address these crimes. At the International Criminal Court it insists that Kenya’s president and vice-president, both accused of crimes against humanity, should face trial at home. In Kenya and before the African Union, the Government spouts this line, and has taken steps to establish an International Crimes Division in the High Court of Kenya. However, even if judges are positioned to hear cases, there have still been very few investigations and prosecutions, and none of high-level perpetrators.

Many victims who did report crimes have not been contacted by investigators, and prosecutors are seemingly indifferent to significant evidence held by hospitals and other institutions. Agencies responsible for providing survivors with medical  care and compensation as a result of the attacks have failed to act.


The Government’s acceptance of mass sexual violence during the post-election violence has perpetuated conditions for an appalling incidence of sexual violence in the ensuing six years. Last year, police punished perpetrators in the notorious gang rape of a schoolgirl by making them
mow the lawn at their station.

The political deal that ended the post-election violence also ultimately led to adoption of a new constitution and other promising reforms - including police reform. Despite some progress, there has been little or no attention to sexual and gender-based violence. Even if they wanted to, police still lack many of the skills they need to effectively tackle Kenya’s epidemic of violence against women.

Since the post-election violence, the incidence of rape has continued to rise in Kenya, even as fewer women report violations to the police. Perpetrators and victims alike know the Government does not take these crimes seriously. The rare cases where perpetrators of sexual violence are prosecuted stand as exceptions rather than the norm. Survivors, activists and ordinary Kenyan women have begun to stand up and demand an end to socially accepted impunity fixed in government policy.

Eight survivors of sexual violence during the post-election violence and four Kenyan civil society organisations have brought a constitutional
complaint against the Attorney General and five other senior government officials. Perhaps it is no surprise that these officials, echoing the laughter of police at a rape victim, had initially refused even to respond to the complaint despite two court orders to do so. They later on Wednesday said they were opposed to the case after the petitioners asked the court to compel the Government to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators
and to provide redress for the crimes. The case has been postponed to March 25.

During and after her ordeal, Mary lost all of her personal belongings, her husband left her, and today she struggles to care for herself and her children. Her government has abandoned her and other survivors of sexual violence in every way imaginable. Today they persist in their demands for justice, for themselves and for all Kenyans.


Dr. Joan Nyanyuki is Executive Director of the Nairobi-based Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW)

This article was originally published in the Kenyan Woman Issue 43