By Regan Good
Monday, April 1, 2002
As Kenya gears up for presidential and legislative elections this year, women's rights activists bring rape and violence against women to the forefront of political discussions.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Mary Muragwa was raped by Kenyan special security police officers in 1995 and then detained for four months without being charged with any crime. Given the state and police involvement, Muragwa believes it is pointless to officially report her rape.
Agnes, a Nairobi woman, thinks the same way: Her husband began raping her after he took a second wife last year, but since marital rape is not recognized as a crime in Kenya, she has not reported the repeated assaults. Her husband now demands sex from her once a month, she says. "My husband did not want me to report this to police. He has verbally threatened me," she adds.
In Kenya, cultural indifference towards rape, barriers to recognizing domestic violence and marital rape as illegal, and police involvement in sexual assaults have kept women from reporting these crimes. But many leaders see this election year--which will be the second transfer of power since Kenya's independence in 1963--as a crucial moment for stopping violence against women.
"Members of Parliament, voters and women in Kenya should do everything in their power to make women's rights a top priority of the election agenda," says Adotei Akwei, Africa Advocacy Director for Amnesty International USA, which recently released a report calling for the Kenyan Government to address its moral and legal obligations to its female citizens, many of whom find themselves with no legal recourse after being victims of violent sexual crimes.
Local women's groups believe many women fail to report a rape knowing neither a proper investigation nor prosecution will likely follow. Kenya's Coalition on Violence against Women estimates that only 8 percent of women who are raped report the attack to health officials or police. They estimate the number of rapes per year is approximately 16,500; the Amnesty International report found that 1,675 rapes were reported to the police in 2000, up from 515 reported in 1990.
Women's rights activists say that police often decline to investigate domestic rape incidents believing them to be private matters. Equally disturbing, much of the reported abuse occurred at the hands of local police and jail keepers, the very officials meant to protect these women. Even as Amnesty released their report in early March, six Kenyan government forest officials were accused of gang raping six women for several hours, then forcing them to bathe in a nearby river to wash away evidence. The women reported the crimes to the local area administrator, who did nothing. It was not until local news agencies picked up the story that the local chief was summoned by police and asked to reveal the names of the officials.
If the government is lax in responding to individual rape cases, it is no better at addressing the bigger social and legal issues that make the culture of rape so prevalent in Kenya. The government has stalled debate and voting on such promising-sounding laws such as the Equality Bill and the Domestic Violence (Family Protection) Bill. The latter would acknowledge that sexual and psychological violence are equal to physical violence in severity and unlawfulness, although it stops short of criminalizing marital rape. In addition, women's activists still await the launch of the National Gender and Development Council, which would both amend and develop laws and create policies and programs designed to foster gender equality. The Kenyan attorney general promised to establish the office three years ago; so far no action has been taken.
Fed up with the lack of government action, Kenyan women gathered in Nairobi on March 8, 2002, to protest violence against women and to urge the government to debate the stalled bills. Women's rights activists are also pushing for equal or at least increased representation of women in government. The National Alliance for Change, an organization run by opposition leaders to President Daniel arap Moi, has proposed numerous changes to Kenya's Constitution, including a requirement that a third of all Cabinet positions be reserved for women and that women should comprise 50 percent of the total members of Parliament. Today, of the 224 legislators, only eight are women and the 25-member Cabinet is made up entirely of men.
But there is resistance to such legislation. In 2001, Parliament voted to require that three of the 27 Kenyan nominees to the East African Assembly, a trade organization for Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, be women. "However, at the last minute, it reversed this position, thus demonstrating the government's lack of commitment to ensuring equal participation of women in decision-making at national and international levels," said Nancy Kanyago of the Federation of Women Lawyers. And the controversial Constitution of Kenya Review Commission, charged with drawing up a revised Kenyan constitution that reflects the views of the Kenyan people, has only seven women on the 27-member commission. According to activists, it was a struggle to even achieve this number.
The League of Kenya Women Voters reports that women comprise 62 percent of the approximately 13 million voters in Kenya, a potentially powerful voting bloc. But some Kenyan nongovernmental organizations worry that corruption and voting-related violence will negate the strength of women's numbers.
"The elections will undoubtedly be accompanied by violence and women shall thus be most vulnerable," says Kanyago. "In the last general election, a female officer was assaulted for cautioning against voting irregularity. Women were also victims of domestic violence ranging from intimidation to physical violence when they voted for candidates not supported by their spouses or by supporters of favored local candidates. We fear that there shall be repeat occurrences of these incidents."
Regan Good is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York
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