Human Rights Watch has called on the government to deliberately protect women and girls from gender-based violence by providing them with free medical and mental health services, alternative housing, as well as timely justice.
This call comes amidst a report censuring government’s alleged slow response to gender-based violence during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The 61-page report entitled, “I Had Nowhere to Go: Violence against Women and Girls during the Covid-19 Pandemic in Kenya,” documents how the Kenyan government’s failure to ensure services to prevent gender-based violence and provide assistance to survivors under its Covid-19 response measures facilitated an increase in sexual and other violence against women and girls.
The report is based on 26 interviews conducted between June 2020 and February 2021.
Survivors faced increased harm due to Kenyan authorities’ failure to ensure that they have access to comprehensive, quality, and timely medical treatment; mental health care and protection services; financial assistance; and to properly investigate and prosecute cases.
“The pandemic is not the first time Kenya has witnessed increases in violence against women and girls during crises,” said Agnes Odhiambo, senior women’s rights researcher, and head of the Nairobi office at Human Rights Watch.
Odhiambo said that the government should have anticipated such an increase, but tragically as in the past, it turned a blind eye and failed to protect women and girls against violence.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 13 survivors of gender-based violence, four parents and a relative of girls who experienced such violence and a community activist who is caring for three girls who are survivors.
Others were a shelter worker, five representatives of nongovernmental organizations working on gender-based violence, a Kenyan expert on gender-based violence, and officials from POLICARE, the police programme to respond to such violence, and the State Department for Gender Affairs.
Survivors and others interviewed described sexual abuse, beatings, being thrown out of the home, forced child marriage, and female genital mutilation. Women and girls living in poverty or precarious economic conditions, conditions often created or worsened by the pandemic, were particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse. Many abusers were close family members, including husbands.
“I was forced to stay in my home when I was facing violence because I had nowhere to go,” Amelia A, a domestic violence survivor in Kisumu County said.
Most survivors interviewed did not report the abuse to the authorities because they did not believe they would receive assistance or believed they would have to pay bribes for assistance and lacked the ability to pay.
Those who reported the abuse received inadequate responses from law enforcement and inadequate access to health and legal services, and faced many problems with getting help, including an almost complete lack of access to financial support needed to escape abuse.
According to the report, government programmes that provided emergency financial support during the Covid-19 crisis, such as an expanded cash transfer programme, lacked a strong focus on gender-based violence and had little impact on survivors.
Survivors also said that access to Kenya’s already severely limited supply of shelters, or safe houses, was made more difficult by the violent enforcement of curfews and lockdowns. The few shelters that exist had staff shortages and could accommodate even fewer people because pandemic rules did not consider staff in the shelter essential workers.
Police corruption, lack of police capacity to conduct investigations, and interference in and mishandling of cases by police severely reduced survivors’ ability to seek justice. In some cases, the police required survivors to investigate and manage evidence related to their abuse, such as by producing witnesses.
The police, according to those interviewed, also failed to effectively coordinate with and support survivors to seek prosecution of abusers, often leading the survivors to abandon the effort.
In three cases that proceeded to prosecution, prosecutors failed to adequately inform and support survivors and their guardians so they could effectively participate in the judicial process, shutting them out of virtual court sessions.
Over the last decade and a half, the Kenyan government has enacted several laws to respond to gender-based violence. It has also established guidelines for police, specialized medical staff, and justice officials to respond to such violence.
In May President Uhuru Kenyatta pledged millions of shillings to tackle the surge in this violence during the pandemic. But the Covid-19 pandemic tested these reform efforts, and the government response came up short.
“The government needs to build a solid rights-based framework to anticipate how future emergencies will affect women and girls,” Odhiambo concluded in the report.