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In Kenya, Women Absorb Country's Shock Waves

Sunday, February 17, 2008

How are women coping in the aftermath of Kenya's election violence? Displaced-person camps, neighborhoods newly divided by ethnic barricades and hospital rape statistics measure the dimensions of widespread and deep distress.

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How are women coping in the aftermath of Kenya's election violence? Displaced-person camps, neighborhoods newly divided by ethnic barricades and hospital rape statistics measure the dimensions of widespread and deep distress.
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Women are hard hit by election violence

NAIROBI, Kenya (WOMENSENEWS)--Even before Kenya's elections in December Elizabeth Wanjiru, a member of Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki's Kikuyu ethnic group, heard grumblings among her Maasai neighbors in the Rift Valley town of Narok.

While many Kikuyus supported the incumbent, her husband and his Maasai community were fervent supporters of opposition candidate Raila Odinga.

"Before the elections, he started beating me," Wanjiru said as she sat on a donated felt blanket in a camp for internally displaced people in Kenya's Central Highlands. "He was telling me I was going to vote for Kibaki and he wanted me to vote for Raila."

Later, he began to say that he felt unsafe with her in his house.

"He threatened to kill me when I was refusing to go."

But when she saw the houses of local Kikuyus in flames and mobs of men setting upon people who'd been their neighbors for years, she knew he was serious. She took her three children and got on a bus bound for Central Province, a place she's never lived and where she knows no one but which is known as the ancestral land of the Kikuyu.

For every violence-filled election year since 1992, there are hundreds of interethnic marriages like Wanjiru's, which had survived similar tensions during the 2002 elections.

In fact, Wanjiru had proven herself a loyal wife.

Even though many Kikuyus of her generation have forsworn polygamy, she stuck around after he took another wife, then another two. When he wasn't able to support all of his wives with his farm and small business, Wanjiru went to work as a tailor and pitched in.

Her Story Opens Window

The demise of her marriage opens a window on the price that women here are paying for the divisive politics of ethnicity that have left more than a thousand dead and 300,000 displaced, and are sending a cosmopolitan population into homogonous ethnic "homelands."

Reports of rape and sexual violence have doubled in areas where the worst post-election violence has occurred.

The vast majority of Kenyans living in temporary camps around the country are women and children. Food prices skyrocketed and schools stayed shut for weeks after the elections.

The muddy alleys and tin shacks of Nairobi's slums, home to roughly 2 million people, have been Balkanized with improvised signs pointing out which ethnic group may go where. Fearing sexual violence, many women don't dare leave their homes, let alone cross into the neighborhoods where they once worked, bought groceries or visited clinics for HIV-AIDS medications.

Kibaki and Odinga representatives have agreed to start an investigation into the disputed poll results by March 15 though they had yet to agree on the structure for a new government. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is slated to arrive Feb. 19 to oversee the announcement of a power-sharing agreement.

More women than ever before ran for Kenya's parliament this year. In spite of physical attacks on some female candidates and the murder of one, there were predictions that 50 women would make it into the 222-seat National Assembly, one of the 10 highest paid in the world, where members earn the equivalent of $150,000 a year, about 275 times the average salary here.

In the end, just 15 women made it. Still, that is better than women have ever fared in the past and there is hope that women will fill half of the 12 seats remaining open for party appointments.

Politics of Little Hope

Yet in Mathare, a Nairobi slum represented by two female members of parliament, women said the only face the government showed for weeks after the election was a police presence at the slum's perimeter.

"When we voted, we did not vote for teargas and shoot," said Mary Angiiswa, a security officer living in Mathare, where people waited in five- and eight-hour lines to cast their votes on Dec. 27. "We voted for these two people."

Human rights groups estimate that police bullets killed a third of the more than 1,000 Kenyans who have died in political violence over the past two months. The aggressive tactics taken by the police, however, have not stopped a surge in sexual violence.

Nairobi Women's Hospital has treated more than 300 rape cases, 95 percent of them women who have been gang-raped. Buses stopped running for days at a time during the worst of the violence and administrators at the hospital estimate that a majority of rape victims didn't make it to health centers to receive treatment that might have saved them from contracting HIV.

"Because of the transport being stopped, the majority of people did not access the post-exposure prophylaxis," said Lucy Kiama, who oversees the Gender Violence Program at the hospital. "The problem is a time bomb. That is my greatest fear because we've worked so hard to fight HIV-AIDS."

Turning to Kenyan Courts

After touring camps for the displaced in early February, John Holmes, head of the United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, was adamant that Kenya's courts would be key to stopping the country's cycle of violence.

"The important thing is that there be no impunity for the perpetrators," Holmes said.

But that gives little hope to people like Agnes Wanjiku, whose oldest daughter was raped after her husband was beaten to death by a gang that broke into her Narok home in the middle of the night. Identifying the assailants could be hard to do.

"They were strangers," she said. "I couldn't see them. They came at midnight. They were many; I couldn't count them."

Seated on a stump by the camp's edge is Jane Wanjiku, not related to Agnes. She is 102, and was also forced to flee her farm in the Rift Valley town of Molo, when young Kalenjin men armed with bows and machetes began attacking her neighbors and burning their houses.

Before independence from Britain in 1963, the British farmer who employed her turned over his land in the Rift Valley to Kenya's new government, leaving Kikuyu workers like Wanjiku homeless and with few ties to draw them back to the already overcrowded Central Province where her ancestors had lived. Like thousands of Kikuyus who'd worked for the British, Wanjiku bought government land in Molo, where Kalenjin pastoralists had long kept their herds. Now her great-great-grandchildren live there.

Election violence has driven her off her land plenty of times before. But it's never kept her off for long. Unlike dozens of other displaced women interviewed in Limuru, she doesn't see why this time should be different.

"It depends on what the government says," she said. "When they say it's alright, then I'll go back again."

Zoe Alsop is a freelance journalist based in Kenya.

For more information:

GROOTS International, Kenya:
http://www.groots.org/members/kenya.htm

Pyramid of Peace, coalition of young Kenyans:
http://www.pyramidofpeace.net/

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