The male champions helping GBV survivors get justice

Tom Onzere of the Magharibi Social Justice Centre based in Vhiga and Peter Chem of the Community Development and Sustainable Organisation in Mt Elgon, Bungoma County. The two are championing the fight against gender-based violence in the western region.

Photo credit: Kamau Maichuhie I Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The men, working alongside female rights defenders, help connect survivors with people who provide legal aid and medical services and document evidence to help them access justice.
  • They work tirelessly to prevent conflict between stakeholders in the justice system, among them the Judiciary, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the police.

During the chaos that followed the disputed 2007 presidential election, Tom Onzere witnessed horrifying sexual and gender-based violence meted out to girls and women.

He says that, and being a father of girls, inspired him to become a defender of women’s and girls’ rights. Since then, Mr Onzere, who hails from Itandalo village in Vihiga, has been advancing the noble cause of ensuring sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) survivors get justice.

Here, he is fondly referred to as the community paralegal, as he shares basic legal knowledge with survivors and gives them advice on how to go about their cases. He also connects survivors with well-wishers to enable them to get legal aid and medical attention and helps document evidence.

“We have been the eyes and voice of the voiceless. This is why those violated in the community come to us to lodge complaints. The existence of Kangaroo courts is still an impediment to access to justice for many survivors of sexual violence,” he tells Nation.Africa in an interview.

He is also a member of the court users’ committee and has been working tirelessly to prevent conflict between stakeholders in the justice system, among them the Judiciary, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the police.

Members of the Magharibi Social Justice Centre, led by Tom Onzere, in Itandalo village Vihiga County, on November 10, 2023. The human rights defenders, among other things, give paralegal services to GBV survivors.

Photo credit: Kamau Maichuhie I Nation Media Group

Being the convener of the Magharibi Social Justice Centre, Mr Onzere’s advocacy is not confined to Vihiga County. He also covers the other Western counties of Bungoma, Busia and Kakamega. The four counties have 10 social justice centres that champion human rights and push for access to justice, he says.

Mr Onzere’s job has not been without challenges. “I have to deal with a lot of intimidation from some society members who feel I should not be fighting for women’s rights. I have, however, remained steadfast and it is my hope that, eventually, they will understand why we champion girls’ and women’s rights and come to our side.”

The initiatives he is involved in include formulation of the Vihiga GBV policy, which he hopes will be enacted by June 2024 to provide a campaign framework.

Incest and FGM

In Vihiga, incest is alarmingly high. Vihiga Health Centre recorded 94 GBV cases between March and October. “The majority of the cases are incest, the highest ever in my 16 years of practice. On average, the facility records 10 to 20 cases of SGBV per month, with 100 pregnancies every year in the Central Maragoli ward alone,” says Boaz Aliona, a clinical officer at the facility.

Hundreds of kilometres away in Mount Elgon is Peter Chem, another male champion going an extra mile to ensure survivors get justice. As a man living with disability, Mr Chem, currently working with the Community Development and Sustainable Organisation, says discrimination prompted him to become a human rights defender.

He has been at the forefront of organising sensitisation campaigns, community dialogues and girls’ and boys’ support programmes in the war on GBV. He is also engaging Sabaot elders to condemn female genital mutilation (FGM).

“I have also been using community media to fight rampant harmful practices, among them FGM and child marriage. We are also carrying out robust sensitisation to teenage pregnancy as the schools remain closed.”

Mount Elgon is one of the FGM hotspot areas. He says stigma due to his work has been his greatest challenge. “We have a scenario where the male champions are being hated and despised by men. There has been a lot of intimidation and blackmail, but I have always stood up for the truth. The residents have now accepted my work. The males are embracing the change and we now have 15 male champions in Mt Elgon.”

His work has resulted in the opening of nine social justice centres in Bungoma County. He says as a result of their robust awareness campaigns, many GBV cases are being reported and cases are declining. Mr Chem says they used to get about 25 cases per month, but that number has drastically dropped by half to around 12 over the same period.

The Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2022 findings released early this year named Bungoma, Kisumu and Vihiga among the counties with the highest GBV prevalence. Bungoma topped in the number of women who have experienced physical and sexual violence at.

The survey indicated that 62 per cent of women and girls who have experienced physical violence are from Bungoma, as are 30 per cent of those who have suffered sexual violence.

UN Women project

To curb cases, UN Women-Kenya and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights with support from the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation, has been undertaking a project to build the capacity of some duty bearers.

UN Women County Representative Anna Mutavati says while the initial focus was on preventing and responding to violence against women during elections, the scope broadened to strengthening prevention and response, with an emphasis on improving access to justice and empowering women as leaders in peacebuilding initiatives.

“We have built the capacity of stakeholders such as health, police and Judiciary professionals to offer high-quality services that respond to the needs of GBV survivors. Additionally, we have supported survivors to access legal, health, counselling and shelter services. We have improved coordination among stakeholders working in prevention and response,” she says.

Ms Mutavati notes that the project has contributed to ending impunity by encouraging community dialogues that reject harmful practices and social norms that encourage GBV.

The Winam Law Court in Kisumu has been a beneficiary of this project and is one of the courts where GBV cases are taking only three months to be completed, thus fast-tracking justice.

Ms Mutavati observes that poverty and lack of viable livelihoods are greatly driving GBV, worsened by the current economic climate that has brought increased financial stress on families, further exposing women and girls to vulnerabilities. She adds that lack of a uniform GBV data system where all service providers can share and use collected data also hinders the tracking of and follow-up on referred cases.

Mr Giovanni Grandi, head of the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation Regional Office in Nairobi, says without ambitious investments to scale up prevention, effective policies, and provision of support services, countries will fail to end GBV by 2030.

“This year, we launched the third phase of the Let It Not Happen Again project, which brings our total commitment to this successful initiative to a staggering €2.7 million (Sh446 million); and recently we launched an initiative worth €4 million (Sh650 million) specifically targeting women empowerment, improving health and environmental sustainability in arid and semi-arid lands,” Mr Grandi tells Nation.Africa.

The project's focus on community dialogues and capacity building within the justice system has seen progress in reducing impunity. It has trained police officers and established gender desks to enhance coordination, set up court users committees, which bring together police, judicial officers, civil society, and medical officers to fast-track justice.

More KDHS data shows that national vulnerability for the girls stands at 14.9 per cent. The survey shows that western Kenya has alarming rates above the national average of girl’s vulnerability. Bungoma county leads with 18.6 per cent, followed by Busia with 18.3 per cent, Trans Nzoia with 17.8 per cent, Kakamega with 15.1 per cent and Vihiga with 7.7 per cent.