By Zoe Alsop
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Kenya's investigation of rapes committed during post-election violence is foundering. Rights groups question whether an all-women police task force set up to investigate the violence is little more than a ruse, and female lawyers have dropped out.
NAIROBI, Kenya (WOMENSENEWS)--By now Ester, a 51-year-old grandmother of six, has grown tired of the people who come to scribble notes about what happened to her on the evening of Jan. 30.
On that date, men kicked in her door and beat her and her sister down to the ground, tore away their clothes, and raped them. That, she says, is how she became infected with HIV. The assault occurred amid a particularly fierce outbreak of the rioting, looting and arson that ravaged her neighborhood for months in the aftermath of Kenya's flawed elections last December.
In churches, clinics, a hospital and, just this week, sitting out under the hot sun among the charcoal sellers and clothes hawkers along the railway line that runs through the Nairobi slum of Kibera, she has told the story to visiting press, doctors, an international commission of inquiry and students from Kenya's top universities.
"A lot of people come with questions but we are not seeing anything," said Ester, who gave only her first name because she does not want her children to know about the rape. "It was so painful. By now I have just forgiven him. I don't want any more trouble."
Hundreds of Kenyan women have reported being raped during ethnic clashes that left more than 1,300 people dead over the course of two months.
The actual number of rapes committed likely totals over 3,000 according to the Federation of Women Lawyers - Kenya, which is known as FIDA.
A year later, police have brought just four cases to court.
Earlier this fall the odds of justice for victims seemed much better.
At that point, Kenya seemed set to break new ground in a region where sexual violence coupled with vast political violence has long met with official indifference. The combination of a combative civil society, international pressure and the threat of a referral to the International Criminal Court had encouraged hundreds of women to speak up.
Kenya's first lady, Lucy Kibaki, in October demanded a swift investigation of the estimated 3,000 rapes committed during the violence.
The same month, the Kenya police and the Federation of Women Lawyers launched an all-women task force to investigate and prosecute cases of sexual violence. With a victim's consent, the force would be able to access hundreds of DNA samples collected during the violence and analyzed with equipment donated from the United States.
"That evidence would be very conclusive if only the police are able to match it with suspects," said Teresa Omondi, programs manager at the gender violence recovery center at Nairobi Women's Hospital. "If they visited the hospital they would be given samples but no police officer has come as of yet."
Last month, however, the Federation of Women Lawyers left the task force, saying the police had excluded them from the investigation and implying they had concerns over the safety of witnesses.
"It was a very uncomfortable position of telling women we cannot give you any guarantees because the police will not give them to us," Patricia Nyaundi, the federations's executive director, said. "Unfortunately you are dealing with a society where, for such cases, the gravity of the offense is lost on people."
Just three of the 534 DNA samples from the Nairobi Women's Hospital have been used by private investigators. Women interviewed by Women's eNews said police had not begun investigating their cases, reported nearly a year ago.
Some civil society groups say the task force is just a ruse to keep the International Criminal Court at bay.
"It is a definite attempt to sabotage justice," said Ann Njogu, executive director of the Nairobi-based Center for Rights Education and Awareness. "There was complicity on the part of the (police) commissioner. We see that he knew something and is trying to control the reporting of offenses . . . He should be taken to the Hague himself."
The police say they take sexual violence seriously, though they are skeptical of testimony gathered by the Waki Commission, chaired by Justice Phillip Waki. The commission was set up to investigate Kenya's post-elections violence, that implicated officers in 17 rape cases in addition to more than 400 killings. They say any officer caught raping a woman would have been shot on sight.
"Investigation is a tedious, painstaking exercise," said Kenya police spokesperson Eric Kiraithe, who said international attention to the rape charges was overheated. "When you hear some of these stories, they are very, very annoying. It is only that the international community are so gullible."
Three women in Kibera--Ester and two others--told Women's eNews it was the police who had raped them.
As President Mwai Kibaki was sworn in for a second term minutes after being declared winner of the flawed Dec. 30 elections, 46-year-old Sarah Maluu took cover in her house. Riots broke out across her neighborhood. She listened alone in terror. When three security officers banged at her door the following evening, she hoped they would escort her to safety. They raped her instead.
"They were wearing bullet-proof vests and the maroon sweaters with black berets," she said, describing the uniform of the administration police. "They told me not to talk to anybody about what happened. If I talk to anybody they will come back and kill me."
Maluu's face remained blank as she spoke, her voice a dull monotone. Her eyes brimmed with tears, something they have done ever since that December day and which she attributes to persistent exposure to teargas. She insisted her real name be used. "I want to tell them not to do these things because they give shame."
When the Waki Commission took testimony at Kibera's Mchanganyiko Women Self Help Group in Kibera this summer, only half a dozen women came forward.
Many women were afraid to be seen passing through the tidy tin gate, according to Josephine Munyambo, a community health worker there. They feared word would get out that they were cooperating with investigations implicating the opposition members who rioted when the ruling party declared victory. Such fear helps explain why the majority of the estimated 3,000 rape survivors have not testified.
"The opposition people do not want women to talk," said Munyambo. "Even when Waki came to Kibera people feared to talk to him because you turn and people are listening. Even they can come to your house at night."
A woman who identified herself as Jaqueline Imakokha told Women's eNews that she and her mother were raped by a gang of 20 rioters. She said she could not risk speaking to the police. During the violence, her home was razed and she lost the job she'd had since she was 14.
Her mother's injuries from the rape were so extensive, she said, that despite an operation to repair the internal damage, her body could not retain nutrients and she slowly starved to death. She died six months later in June.
"What makes Kenyans afraid is the government," said Imakokha, a 23-year-old mother. "The police may take you where you cannot be seen again."
Zoe Alsop is a freelance journalist based in Kenya.