Advocating in Kisumu County
When I was asked to travel with KELIN to Kisumu County after helping to develop training for lawyers, I was beyond thrilled, but also a little intimidated. We would be flying from Nairobi to Kisumu to educate lawyers on the prevalence of sexual violence and increase in new HIV infections. I am neither an advocate, nor a lawyer and thought to myself, “How am I supposed to train lawyers? Wouldn’t they know more than me about prosecution rates and sexual violence?” The answer to that question made the work KELIN does perfectly clear.
A few weeks before the training, I had been poring through international and national human rights and HIV guidelines, pulling stats and highlighting national program gaps. I soon realized that I was spending 10 hours or longer per day writing comparative analyses between what the government was writing on paper and what was actually being implemented. Let’s be real: this was not surprising, as what country perfectly writes guidelines and actually applies what they say they are going to do? Kenya national policies reflect the support of human rights for ALL of its citizens, but cultural and societal norms would suggest little application was being done to help citizens recognize those rights.
Kenyan females (all ages) are viewed (in my eyes) as second-rate citizens, plagued with child marriages, cultural rape practices, female genital mutilation (FGM) and burdened with stigma and discrimination associated with being a victim. As an empowered woman, I was confused as to how so much is written to protect the rights of victims, yet so little is being done.
Invisible Victims in a Blind Society
The challenges and barriers associated with sexual violence of adolescent girls and young women (AGYW) include stigma, discrimination and poverty. I used police reports and judicial cases to examine the prevalence of Kisumu County, which was stated as having the highest rates in all of Kenya. I found that in 2016 nearly 2,200 cases of sexual violence were reported, but only 200 were represented in court. How did nearly 2,000 cases never seek prosecution? Well, the answer was simple, yet frustrating. In Kenya, police salaries are very low and their police training is very brief. It is a cultural norm to be bribed by the police and denial of payment usually equates to denial of services. There is also an epidemic of police as perpetrators of sexual violence and the use of threats to silence their victims.
Families of both the victims and the accused sometimes pressure the victim into settling out of court through their own means of justice, which equate to more violence or a mere apology. A high amount of victims are targeted by family members, boda bike riders offering rides to school or work, and the police themselves. Once a victim comes forward she is known among her community as no longer being “clean;” she has been defiled and will likely have a hard time finding a husband. If the victim makes it to the hospital, they may find it difficult to have medical forms filled out without having to pay a medical officer’s bribe. Rural areas, poverty and lack of education concerning their rights increases the likelihood that AGYW will one day be a victim.
Optimistic for Prosecution
While KELIN already conducts sexual reproductive and health rights training for AGYW, it was time to include civil society. For the training, I had researched the cases and developed a concept memo and news release. KELIN was going to educate and encourage lawyers to actively seek cases in order to secure justice for victims. We incorporated personal testimonies of sexual violence victims, victims living with HIV, high court judges and our KELIN team. The training began with an HIV overview and I was floored to see how many lawyers were intimidated by the information. Many spoke about how they themselves did not fully understand HIV transmission and its connection to sexual violence.
One lawyer spoke up and said that he did not really believe that HIV rates were increasing, because the government had so many programs in place. One quick glance from my colleague, and I found myself standing up and spatting statistics and hidden challenges not addressed in current programs. I began discussing current gaps in legislation and policy and how current societal views of women created invisible victims. After speaking for 10 minutes I realized that the room was quiet, with every lawyer staring at me. Then, about five hands immediately shot up. I welcomed their questions and was pretty proud that I was able to deliver with satisfaction in my responses.
It was clear by the end of the training that the lawyers were very knowledgeable in court proceedings, but their knowledge concerning sexual violence and low prosecution rates was lacking. We had developed a baseline survey that had been disseminated at the beginning of the two-day conference to gauge current knowledge concerning sexual violence and prosecution. Once the data was analyzed, it was clear that the lawyers responded well to sessions concerning court, but nearly half were uncomfortable with discussing sexual violence and HIV. Eighty percent of the lawyers said they felt confident in recognizing and discussing sexual violence with their clients in order to secure justice, but felt the topic was taboo and made them uncomfortable. Some comments stated that they didn’t realize they could discuss some of the information with their clients, while some lawyers admitted they do not believe the police are perpetrators. The positive note is that nearly 90 percent of those in attendance felt confident that they now understood the challenges sexual violence victims face and could likely seek prosecution with success.
KELIN’S first training for lawyers was the first step in a long journey to help sexual violence victims secure justice. It was the first training of its kind by an NGO in Kenya and KELIN has already scheduled follow-up training for lawyers, as well as police units next month. Decreasing sexual violence in Kenya is problematic if lawyers are uncomfortable with the topic and confidence in the police is low. How do you encourage females to come forward when sexual violence is a topic too taboo for society?
My answer to that question is simple: create programs for young boys. Kenyan society places more value on male children, masculinity and views them as protectors of the family. However, nearly 90 percent of reports of sexual violence indicate that a male was the perpetrator. While sexual violence programs target AGYW, they are not the only victims. The cases I reviewed also included young boys and teens, but none of the cases were seen in court. Why? Because it is not masculine to be a victim. Males are raised to be tough and authoritative. To admit that you were a victim means that you are weak in the eyes of a Kenyan. Kenya does not collect any data nor are there any sexual health and rights programs targeted for male victims. Imagine if you could educate and empower young males to report sexual violence and validate how wrong it is. Programs could redefine how young boys see masculinity and the treatment of females. This could impact gender-based and sexual violence rates throughout the country. Instead of focusing just on the victims, we should create programs that prevent individuals from becoming perpetrators. Shift the scales of justice by preventing violence and invisible victims.
I plan to further investigate the rates of sexual violence and defilement of young boys and teens in Kenya with a KELIN colleague. We will be exploring current efforts by Kenya to reduce male sexual violence and will develop a paper that highlights the need for programs to target and recognize young males as victims.