The agony of SGBV survivors in Kisumu

Sexual violence victim. In Kisumu County, lack of psychosocial support and safe houses to aid in recovery only worsen their mental health.

Photo credit: Photo | Pool

What you need to know:

  • Having been defiled by her cousin, Akinyi* admits that one of her greatest challenges is getting over the events of that day.
  • Nancy* is constantly insecure of the fact that many people could have heard her story and worries about how they now view her.

We meet young Akinyi* at a resource centre away from the prying eyes at her home.

The centre is usually abuzz with activities and intermittent whirring of the sewing machines used to train widows in tailoring. But today it is oddly quiet, offering a safe space to listen to the 12-year-old's harrowing tales of sexual assault.

Despite the tranquility that the room offers, Akinyi is visibly unsettled; she fidgets in her seat. And when she gathers the courage to speak, it is clear that 10 months since she was defiled, the memories are still fresh in her mind.

The biggest dilemma, perhaps, of telling the story of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) survivors is the untiring pressure of never allowing them to relive the torturous moment they would rather forget.

Having been defiled by her cousin, Akinyi admits that one of her greatest challenges is getting over the events of that day. Her healing from the traumatic experience has been derailed by lack of psychosocial support.

“Our paths have crossed on a number of occasions, although I have tried to act like everything is normal. His presence is a constant reminder of the pain he put me through,” she says.

Akinyi narrates how her cousin instructed her to pick up foodstuffs from his house but ended up defiling her. “I was preparing lunch when he passed by our house and asked me to visit his hut to collect food items,” she says, tears rolling down her cheeks.

She had instead sent her younger brother to pick up the provisions, but he sent the young boy back claiming he could not carry all the items. Akinyi then decided to go but upon entering the house, the cousin closed the door behind her. “He started telling me that he would cut me into pieces using a machete if I dared to make any noise.”

He then undressed and defiled her before allowing her to leave the house with a threat to end her life if she told anyone about the assault. Luckily, a neighbour heard Akinyi scream and immediately informed her mother, who reported the matter to the area chief.

She was later rushed to a health centre and the matter reported at a police station in Nyakach. According to Akinyi, this was the second time her cousin had defiled her, but she had chosen to remain silent because of his threats. Since then, Akinyi has continued to live with the memories without hope of ever getting counselling help she direly needs.

“Whenever our paths cross, he often gives me an ugly stare, leaving me even more scared,” she says.

Akinyi is one of the SGBV survivors living with trauma due to lack of psychosocial support. Her healing process has further been delayed by the lack of safe houses, which, besides temporarily holding survivors, would offer a space for healing. A safe house in Tiengre, Kisumu County, lies idle for lack of equipment.

Road to justice

While the SGBV survivors may be lucky to get justice in court, quite a number live in anguish. “Many times whenever she is alone, Akinyi is often lost in thoughts and uncontrollably cries when asked to narrate what happened,” says her mother.

“My daughter keeps telling me that she is tired of going to court every time she comes across the accused.”

Nancy*, another survivor, says she was defiled by a neighbour in 2021 while running an errand. She had been instructed to drop off some firewood at the perpetrator’s shop, where he defiled and warned her not to speak up.

He molested her on two more occasions before he was arrested after another neighbour saw Nancy leaving his shop in tears. The matter was reported at a police station in Kisumu. Nancy sought medical attention at one of the sub-county hospitals and was later discharged.

According to her guardian, she has not attended any counselling and that has affected her life. “She is constantly insecure of the fact that many people could have heard her story and how they view her,” the guardian says.

Ms Cindy Achieng, a psychologist, emphasises the need for SGBV survivors to undergo counselling to recover. She says the pain of the scars is easily triggered whenever they see their perpetrators or experience a feeling similar to what they went through.

Ms Achieng says survivors take long or fail to recover when they live in the same environment or see perpetrators. “With these girls, the services we are offering may not be enough for them to heal. We have left these girls hanging, yet they still have their problems to nurse.”

Survivors should go through counselling until a psychologist declares them stable enough to return home, she says, adding that such sessions should only be done by non-relatives and outside the community where the violence was committed.

Ms Achieng says most survivors lead unhealthy lives and end up being harsh to certain groups of people or gender, and recovery has been made almost impossible by lack of shelters.

For his part, Mr John Wainaina, the Nyakach sub-county children’s officer, says besides psychosocial support, shelters guarantee the safety of survivors.

He, however, expresses concern that in most cases, survivors are housed by good Samaritans; private safe houses, which are few; or moved to neighbouring counties with well-equipped safe spaces.

*Names changed to protect SGBV victims' identities.