Combating gender-based violence during crises
Whenever man-made crises or natural disasters occur, they usually lead to human suffering across social, and economic domains including escalations of violence against women and girls.
Women, who are among the most marginalised groups in Kenya, face rape, physical abuse and mental anguish on a greater scale during crises.
Although these trends are well documented in the media and other platforms, Kenya has not yet set up mechanisms to specifically address gender-based violence during crises. This failing was evident with the high numbers of sexual and domestic violence cases during the coronavirus pandemic lockdown.
Kenya’s national coronavirus taskforce, which sought to limit the spread of the disease and related effects, did not initially have any gender-specific outlook. Therefore, from the beginning of the lockdown, the government could not adequately assess the extent of sexual violence.
The media reported anecdotal information, as national monitoring mechanisms were nonexistent. Authorities reacted by offering public proclamations, many of which did not lead to meaningful assistance for survivors. Meanwhile, NGOs and activists were overwhelmed by requests for assistance from survivors who needed urgent medical attention, security, or justice. This pattern is not new in Kenya.
During past elections, women and girls in Kenya have experienced sexual violence, and rarely have they found justice. To date, survivors remain scarred by the emotional distress, physical trauma and mental anguish caused by sexual violence. The government has not adequately investigated these abuses, or helped survivors seek justice or other necessary assistance.
Like an armed conflict, Covid-19 it has greatly affected economic and social structures, especially for the most vulnerable groups in society. This crisis has shown us a different dimension of instability. Kenya’s authorities should have learned by now that women are disproportionately affected by violence which is worsened by fractures in key institutional pillars.
The pandemic created a unique situation where women and girls were trapped with their abusers in their homes. As a patriarchal society, it is difficult for survivors to speak out about their loved ones.
Survivors are often shamed into silence or ridiculed by authorities and society (including their families) for speaking out. During lockdowns imposed as Covid prevention interventions, many women and girls could not escape the violence they experienced in their homes or neighborhoods, and there was nowhere to seek help.
Going forward, Kenya should anticipate situations that could exacerbate gender-based violence and establish measures to protect vulnerable groups. Development of a monitoring system for gender-based violence is way overdue.
Evidence-based strategies can ensure that the government offers communities support during crises. Data collection can inform spikes in abuses, and enable health, security and judicial institutions to collaborate in protecting survivors.
Lack of security for survivors was widely identified as a factor contributing to continued gender-based violence. Survivors often face backlash when they report their cases. Safe houses can ensure survivors receive immediate care, and ensure they are protected while investigations into their cases are underway. Shelters can encourage more people to file reports.
This solution was acknowledged by the highest office in the land when President Uhuru Kenyatta announced that the government would set aside resources towards the establishment of survivors’ safe houses.
However, to date, no shelter has been built, to the detriment of people who cannot report gender-based violence for fear of reprisal.
The media is key in pushing the government to honour its commitments to survivors of gender-based violence. Media organisations such as the Association of Media Women in Kenya (Amwik), have committed to training more journalists to report on sexual violence. Media reporting on the problem ensures that society understands the urgency of this matter, and to keep this topic at the forefront of national plans.
Elections have been documented as periods where women face violence. As Kenya gears up for 2022 general elections, women are wondering how the government will protect them this time.
Kenya prides itself internationally as a leader in women’s rights, but it should now walk the talk, and hasten justice for survivors of past crises and set up measures to mitigate violence against women in the upcoming election.
Carol Werunga is the Solidarity and Support Programmes’ Coordinator at Urgent Action Fund - Africa