Elections not an excuse to ignore the plight of vulnerable groups

 Felistas Chege, Gathoni Wamuchomba, Wanjiku wa Kibe

From left: Politicians Felistas Chege, Gathoni Wamuchomba, Wanjiku wa Kibe and Jackie Nungari at Sahara West Hotel in Kiambu on July 7, 2017. With all eyes and focus on the August 9 General Election, other issues face the risk of being ignored by the government.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

With all eyes and focus on the August 9 General Election, it is safe to argue that it is also a period where other issues, such as matters of social justice, face the risk of being ignored and pushed to the back burner, particularly by the government and its institutions.

Failure to address matters that touch on the rights and welfare of vulnerable members of society at this time is an act of negligence by those with the obligation to do so.  In particular, when the nation’s focus is—at almost 100 percent—elsewhere, violations of the rights, dignity and abuse of vulnerable girls and women gets to its peak. 

It’s at such a time that perpetrators and abusers of all shades strike, aware of the likelihood of getting away with their crimes given that the nation’s attention is elsewhere and life as we know it, is almost at a standstill.

At the height of Covid-19 pandemic, for instance, gender-based violence (GBV), particularly against women and girls, shot up globally as the international community tried to deal with the coronavirus. Reports indicated that all forms of violence against women and girls (VAWG), primarily domestic violence and incest, increased.

Shadow pandemic

So bad was SGBV that it became identified as the shadow pandemic. In Kenya, statistics were horrifying, especially in the case of defilement of girls with the resultant huge numbers of teenage pregnancy and child motherhood.  The Ministry of Health has given startling figures of children—between 12 and 15 years—defiled last year.  The number—9,484 girls—also infected with sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, could be higher.

Granted, the government has done a commendable job of implementing the “Return to School Policy” to help teen mothers get an education. However, the damage GBV caused during the Covid-19 crisis is immeasurable.

The effects of the shadow pandemic and other factors should be a constant reminder of the dangers stalking vulnerable girls and women at a time the country is engrossed in other matters of  “national importance”.

It should be a lesson that at all times, the nation must be on the alert to issues of social justice, principally those that have to do with safeguarding and preserving the rights, dignity and protection of the vulnerable in the country.

Addressing violence against women during this fluid period should be a priority.

Efforts by Chief Justice Martha Koome to ensure that SGBV cases against women and girls are prosecuted with speed comes at an opportune time. The problematic access to justice by survivors of SGBV in our judicial system is under-reported.

Unfortunately, heartbreaking stories of what survivors go through in their efforts to get justice can only put our country to shame. Stories of survivors traumatised by the justice system abound when it should protect and ensure those who violated them are punished, without having to, for instance, blame the victims and make them feel responsible for what befell them.

To deal with this sticky issue of ensuring justice is served effectively for survivors for SGBV, Justice Koome has launched an initiative for formation of courts that would deal exclusively with cases of SGBV in areas where the violations are rampant.

Dispensation of justice

The first such court has been established at the Shanzu Law Courts in Mombasa County, with the second set for the courts at Makadara, Nairobi. This is a welcome initiative, which will no doubt help in ensuring faster dispensation of justice for SGBV survivors.

It will however be more effective if all barriers in the whole system that make access to justice elusive for survivors are addressed.

These barriers and challenges have been well and comprehensively articulated in a new report by the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness and the Wangu Kanja Foundation.

Gaps and challenges within the Criminal Justice System and Access to Justice for Survivors of Sexual Violence has crucial findings that would be helpful in addressing the sticky issue of access to justice in Kenya.

Ms Rugene is consulting Editor and founder, The Woman’s Newsroom Foundation; [email protected]

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