Makueni voices that won’t shut up in SGBV fight
What you need to know:
- The champions and the authorities concur that clamping down on sexual offences against children is hard.
- A defilement suspect took his own life a day before judgment was delivered.
Jackline Mwikali, donning a hoodie, steals long glances across the main street at Machinery township in Makueni County before entering a busy shop.
She has been the talk of the town after an old man charged with defilement took his own life a day before judgment was delivered.
Although the 80-year-old man did not include Ms Mwikali among those he blamed for his woes, the mother of one knows she cannot take chances as she had been pursuing the case.
“The murmuring has intensified ahead of his burial. Honestly, we live in fear,” she tells Nation.Africa after emerging from the shop.
The 32-year-old is among a lean community of unsung heroes on the frontline of the sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) war. Ms Mwikali’s relative, who had formed a habit of battering his wife “for nothing”, pushed her into the deep end of championing the rights of children and women. She was in Form Three.
One day she stood up to the man. The confrontation worked.
Ms Mwikali became a full-time champion after a short stint running errands at a local chief’s office. This task opened her eyes to the magnitude and severity of SGBV in the region.
She was not prepared for the risks associated with the work. Armed with determination, Ms Mwikali joined veteran anti-SGBV campaigners whose skin had thickened following years of intimidation and threats. SGBV gives the county a bad name, she says.
“Wife battering is the most common form of gender-based violence in this region, followed by rape. Unfortunately, many households don’t see wife battering as a big deal,” says Ms Mwikali, echoing the outcome of a survey on gender attitudes and norms conducted by Twaweza Communication in the county.
Of the 739 respondents sampled between June 29 and July 4 last year, the study found, half said they had a male friend who had physically assaulted his female partner or spouse.
“The biggest hindrance in the fight against SGBV is lack of cooperation by the security enforcement agencies. Some prefer kangaroo courts to the criminal justice system to subvert justice,” said Agnes Musembi, another champion, hinting at their big fight with authorities.
The coordinator of Kibwezi Persons living with Disability Organisation became a gender rights champion after her organisation conducted a survey that revealed widespread rot in the region.
Antony Ndolo, a human rights champion working with Civic Enlightenment Network, says volunteer champions are crucial to the SGBV fight.
“They act as the bridge between communities and various organisations working on alleviating the problem.”
The champions and the authorities concur that clamping down on sexual offences against children is hard.
“Whenever a relative defiles a child, the families involved often tend to sit on the cases for fear of embarrassing themselves. These are criminal cases,” said Joseph Masila, the superintendent at Makueni County Referral Hospital and chairman of a committee that coordinates the activities of a safe shelter operated by the county government for SGBV survivors.
The revelation came when the Judiciary intensified efforts to end sexual offences against children. Chief Justice Martha Koome posted four additional magistrates to help clear a backlog of cases.
Kakuma principal magistrate Charles Mayamba, Rumuruti principal magistrate Evans Ngigi, Kabiyet senior resident magistrate Brenda Bartoo and Tinderet senior resident magistrate Boniface Wachira worked from Makindu last month.
“We have more than 200 pending cases involving children,” said Makindu senior principal magistrate Benson Ireri.
This is the second time in three years the Judiciary had intervened to ease backlog on sexual offences in the county. Although the courts blame shortage of magistrates for a surge in cases, authorities and local leaders point to a bigger problem.
According to County Commissioner Beverly Opwora, Makueni reported 122 defilement cases between January and October.
Makueni Woman Representative Rose Museo believes the defilement cases reported are a small fraction, but the champions take pride in their efforts so far.
“The increased cases reported at the law courts show that the community is shunning kangaroo courts,” said Winnie Keli, a veteran champion.
Among the latest cases she is handling is that of a woman who alleges rape and battering for the last 17 years at the hands of her husband. The woman seeks medication and involves her parents to reconcile them every time the man descends on her with insults, slaps, kicks and blows.
Things worsened last month after the man, who works in Nairobi, took her teenage daughter with him for the long holiday without the knowledge of his wife, who lives in the countryside. Her heart sank into her boots after he blocked her phone when she questioned the move.
“Many housewives tend to stay in abusive marriages because they do not want to be stigmatised,” said Ms Keli, a retired teacher who has been advocating the rights of children and women for 44 years.
“A woman who abandons her marriage is known as mwinzyoka, a derogatory term that is highly dreaded.”
Ms Museo feels a woman should not pack and go to her parents’ home after falling out with the husband. Such a move, she says, “entrenches poverty as it grants the man the free will to squander family wealth”.
According to the champions, the setbacks are pale in comparison to the interest the government has shown towards fighting SGBV. The National Government Affirmative Action Fund has been sponsoring forums to create awareness.
Besides the safe shelter, the county has teamed up with the Nairobi Women Hospital to set up an SGBV recovery centre at the Makueni County Referral Hospital.
Last year, it recruited 1,000 anti-SGBV champions, but many of the recruits have since fallen by the wayside, underscoring the need for sustainability.