What you need to know:
- By the time I met her, she was at her wits’ end
- At this point my work required me to focus on documenting the stories and I was not allowed to assist her in other ways
There was a time I was contracted to document the progress of sexual assault survivors who live in the slums, and were using a helpline to report violations. I remember this one woman who had a child, a young girl. The assault involved her daughter, a young girl, by her husband. She would try her best to stop him: she tried keeping the child with her at all times. But even then, she couldn’t watch the child every single minute. She had a business to run, and sometimes as she dealt with a customer, the father of the child would come in through the back and take the child away. Obviously a child that young could not say no, especially to her own father, regardless of what she knew he intended.
When the woman tried to move out, he would follow them and drive them out of their new home. In the end, she could not move anymore. She could not afford it. When she reported him to the police, they said it was a domestic issue. And even when they took her seriously, and call her husband to come to the police station, her husband would charm the police, minimise her experiences, and make the police think she was crazy. He wouldn’t spend a single hour in the cells.
By the time I met her, she was at her wits’ end. At this point my work required me to focus on documenting the stories – I was not allowed to assist her in other ways. But you would have to have a heart of solid, stainless steel to not be moved to tears by this situation.
I don’t know where this woman is today, because after the assignment I stopped working with the organisation. I remember telling her to go to FIDA-Kenya. Every time 16 Days of Activism rolls around, I reflect about where women like her can find help. What resources are available to them through their ordeals? Because assaults, violations, harassment and Gender-based violence (GBV) happen so often in this country; it should be considered a national crisis.
In the past few decades, there have been tremendous steps taken to address GBV. But the state remains the weakest link in protecting women. There is no access to justice, and security is a joke. The cycle of violence kills daily, to the point that organisations like the one I was working for have to step in to fill gaps left wide open by the government’s failings. There’s FIDA-Kenya, which offers free legal aid, and Usikimye, for example, which provides secure shelters for people escaping GBV. There’s Urgent Action Fund-Africa, who support information distribution by providing resources for women. Knowledge empowers a woman’s choices.
But we still have a long way to go. FIDA-Kenya is periodically overwhelmed with cases that they can’t handle – not for a lack of desire, but because there are not enough hands on deck. State-run shelters are rare and poorly funded. Private shelters run on goodwill and contributions, and still can’t handle the massive need for support, particularly in a pandemic. They are forced to turn women away, or to shelter them for only short periods of time. And women’s funds such as Urgent Action Fund-Africa can only do so much. Hence, to completely eradicate GBV, our culture, and patchy systems, must have a social and structural reckoning.
How does this reckoning happen? If you are in a position of power, use your power and privilege; as a lawyer who can give service every so often, as a neighbour who knows what number to call, as a friend who can give advice, as a politician who can push a bill, as a witness, the first thing to do is help. If you belong to a women’s rights organisation, support women with what they need, not what you think they need, and not just money. After that, we need to just hold each other, and our leadership, accountable, ask for what we deserve, and do what we can to make GBV a nightmare of the past.
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