Law

Kenyan Activists Push New Sex-Assault Law

Thursday, May 11, 2006

A bill in Kenya's Parliament calls for longer prison terms for rapists, but stops short of chemical castration, a punishment that some advocates sought. The bill follows strong media coverage of a wave of rape cases, but appears to be languishing.

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Njoki Ndun'gu

NAIROBI, Kenya (WOMENSENEWS)--A mob in Nakuru, a small town in the scenic heart of Kenya's Rift Valley, attacked and lynched a local pastor who allegedly raped a 6-year-old girl last May. Security officers who tried to defend the man were pelted with stones and the pastor was tied up and burned in his own home.

Three days later, some 200 kilometers away in Sotik, Zephaniah Kibet Koech was sentenced to seven years in prison after pleading guilty to raping a 13-year-old. Koech waylaid the girl on her way to school, forcibly removed her clothes and gagged her before raping her.

The two child-rape cases were part of a torrent of publicity about a crime that has been rising in Kenya. Despite survivors' reluctance to make public accusations, 1,987 women and children were reported to be raped in 2001; 2,005 in 2002; 2,308 in 2003. In 2005, the number of cases rose to 2,908, according to police statistics released last September. The East Africa nation has a population of about 30 million.

In response to growing concern over rape and incest, one member of Kenya's Parliament, Njoki Ndun'gu, introduced a bill last summer that would have handed down stiff penalties to convicted rapists and revised a legal code for addressing sexual crimes that had not experienced significant alterations since 1930.

"The current law relating to rape and other sexual offenses is archaic and we have to do something," Ndun'gu told Women's eNews. "Would-be offenders must know that if they commit the crime, they will not escape with a fine or a couple months in jail but will be behind bars for the best part of their lives."

But Ndun'gu's Sexual Offenses Bill hasn't won passage yet. Last week the Parliament went on recess without approving it. The bill, which many observers predict will ultimately be passed in an amended form, has been greeted with skepticism by some in the male-dominated Parliament. In late April, 12 of the body's 18 female members stormed out of a debate in protest after member Paddy Ahenda remarked that many Kenyan women were too "shy" to consent to sex by saying yes directly.

"If the bill is adopted the way it is, it will prevent men from courting women and this will be a serious impediment to the young who would want to marry," Ahenda said. "In our culture, when women say no, they mean yes, unless she's loose in morals."

'Endemic' Abuse of Children

Last July, Care International issued a blistering report about the abuse of children in Kenya, calling it endemic. "Alarmingly, the most common form of abuse against children appears to be sexual abuse," the Nairobi-based humanitarian aid group found.

The report drew a link between the prevalence of sexual abuse in Kenya and socio-economic status, noting that about 80 percent of reported cases occurred in low-income areas and slums. Families can be found living in single rooms with limited privacy. High unemployment rates among youths are also a factor, the report said.

But most sexual abuses that occur in wealthier households often go unreported, the report said. A similar report issued by London-based Amnesty International in March of 2002 called on the Kenyan government to reform its rape laws, noting that many victims face "insurmountable obstacles" in reporting their cases and encounter hostility from family, the police and community members.

Spurred by the prevalence of the crime, the severity of physical and psychological injury to victims and heightened media attention, Ndun'gu and anti-rape activists in 2005 proposed tougher punishments for convicted offenders of various types of sexual assault. The original bill was withdrawn after it was criticized for including chemical castration as a possible sentence for rapists, but a revised version eliminating castration was reintroduced.

The current bill presents 36 penalties for convicted rapists, which range from hard labor, prison sentences between one and 20 years and even life terms. Under the bill, anyone convicted of publishing or distributing child pornography will face at least six years in prison or a fine up to 500,000 Kenyan shillings, about $7,000.

The bill also introduces marital rape as a crime for the first time.

Child Marriage Outlawed

Anyone convicted of marrying a minor--under 18--would face a prison term of at least 10 years. Girls as young as 10 years old are commonly married among some of the traditional pastoral communities of Kenya, even though the age of consent was raised to 18 in 1999 as a method to combat the spread of HIV-AIDS.

The law would also punish a man found guilty of forced wife inheritance--a traditional custom that says a widow must be "inherited" by her husband's brother or close relative--with a 10-year prison term.

"The Sexual Offenses Bill will address gaps in our current law," said Kathurima M'Inoti, chair of the Kenya Law Reform Commission, adding that the current penal code was developed from centuries-old customs and ideas.

The bill was spearheaded by 40-year-old Ndun'gu. Before her nomination to Parliament in early 2003, Ndun'gu worked with women's rights activists who informed her that rape occurs in Kenya every 30 minutes. She also worked with the Nairobi Women's Hospital, which since its foundation 10 years ago has treated rape victims.

The Kenya chapter of the Nairobi-based Federation of Women Lawyers Kenya found in a 1999 study that very few survivors of gender-based violence will report the crime and even fewer will pursue legal action.

Stigma Affects Victims

"Unfortunately due to gender discrimination, the low status in society of women and girls, and the terrible stigma that affects the victims and their families, little or no reporting of rape occurs and it goes unpunished," says Ndun'gu.

A rape survivor, say activists, is often shunned by family and former friends as "unclean." In some communities they can only be married as second or third wives.

Authors of Care International's July study found that rape cases, particularly those involving upper and middle-income women, often were only brought to light after a survivor developed medical complications or was in dire need of medical attention.

While resistance to reporting rape may rise with income, Millicent Odhiambo, executive director of Nairobi-based The CRADLE--The Children Foundation, says the vast majority of rapes--80 percent--occurs in low-income, crowded neighborhoods where families share single rooms that offer no privacy for parents and their children.

Odhiambo says that while the topic of rape has been traditionally hushed, the media has substantially increased their reporting of the crime and some survivors are now talking about their experiences and even seeking media attention.

Ochieng' Ogodo is a Nairobi-based journalist who writes extensively on human rights issues.

For more information:

Amnesty International
"Kenya: Rape-the Invisible Crime":
http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGAFR320012002?open&of=ENG-KEN

Coalition of Violence Against Women--Kenya:
http://www.covaw.or.ke/html/publications.html

Care International in Kenya:
http://www.care.or.ke/

 
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